Eritrea: The Mustache that Fell Off the President’s Face
By Yosief Ghebrehiwet
So you really want to know the story of how that famous mustache fell off President Isaias Afwerki’s face? It is all true, kubur ambabi; but we will have to start right at the beginning, with the event that triggered it all: the Demhit saga.
When Eritrean opposition websites (asmarino.com, assenna.com, meskerem.com, awate.com, etc) went berserk ringing alarm bells from their virtual towers, warning Eritreans of all stripes of Demhit occupation of Asmara, I am sure that they have done that out of pure – as in tsuruy – Eritrean concern. But the credit goes to the Awate Team that came up with this most important distinction upon which the fate of Eritrea hangs to underscore that very tsuruy concern [A Mercenary Army: Isaias Afwerki’s Last Stand]:
“... In previous dispatches only TPDF members with passable Eritrean Tigrinya accent were recruited to conduct the roundup. In this particular mission, there appears to have been a breakdown and TPDM members with noticeable Tigrayan accents were roaming the Merkato neighborhood of Asmara and asking for “metawekia” and “mewesawesi” – Ethiopian words for moving permit – whose Eritrean version are “tessera” and “menkesakesi” respectively.”
Some unscrupulous fellows might have read dubious intention into this quotation, given that it deals with a sensitive divide across the Mereb River. If so, I would be the first one to tell them that they are dead wrong. To the contrary, the Awate Team ought to be applauded for giving all of us genuine Eritreans (tsuruyat Eritrawyan) the proper warning at the right time – a triple-decked warning, for that!
The threat spectrum: from elevated yellow to severe red!
Boy, did they do an excellent job! Condensed in just two sentences (in the above quotation), a number of identity markers are thrown in to alert us of the blurring, at best, and disappearance, at worst, of the distinction that is at stake – a distinction that has to be kept alive no matter what!
First, our attention is drawn to a distinction within Demhit followers: those with accent versus those without accent. This is motivated by genuine fear that those Demhit followers still with accent (the majority) could one day lose it all while stationed in Eritrea, as they keep mingling with Asmarinos (especially with the women!). The Team warns us that some of them have, in fact, already lost their accent – enough to pass for Asmarino! If so, when all lose their accent in the near feature, how are we going to know who is Demhit and who is not Demhit, who is Eritrawi and who is Tigraway, in the streets of Asmara? When that dreaded day arrives, no doubt we will have future Hagos Kishas, Yemane Monkeys and Isaias Afwerkis in their thousands in the making! With the real possibility of this accent distinction disappearing within Demhit followers in Eritrea, the awate duo has appropriately put the warning level at “Elevated”: YELLOW! [By the way, dear reader, in case you haven’t already noticed, the Awate Team has been strictly following the Home Land Security alert system to underscore the direness of the situation.]
The warning is not all about accentuating difference in accents, for that works only on the same vocabulary. The distinction emphasized in the second case is in the vocabulary itself: while we, tsuruyat Eritreawyan, say menkesakesi, they, the Tigrawot, say mewesawesi. And, further, the duo provided us with other strong identifiers associated with each of the two words: while the Italian tessera is meant to buttress menkesakesi as being totally Eritrean, the Amharic metawekia is meant to remind us where mewesawesi actually belongs. What they are telling us is that these terms should be taken only in pairs (as in cocktail medicine); and messing up this pairing system would only come at a great expense to the nation’s health. Or if you want it assessed in terms of linguistic proximity, tessera is nearer to menekeskesi than mewesaewsi is – a little bit muddled, I grant, but you have to use the nationalists’ map for guidance. If you do, you will see the two pairs pulling towards opposite directions, one towards Eritrea, the other towards Ethiopia. Put this way, the fear is that this vital distinction may disappear not only inside Asmara, but at a regional level if we get the pairings wrong – that is why, with this additional warning, the threat goes up one level higher to “High”: ORANGE!
And this distinction is not about any vocabulary, even though that would have been bad enough. In case the reader is not fully aware, all the words in dispute (tessera in Italian, metawekia in Amharic, menkesakesi in Eritrean Tigrigna and mewesawesi in Ethiopian Tigrigna; I am surprised the astute duo forgot the Arabic version) are about identity itself – so one has to go at the meaning-level of these words to understand the nature of this anxiety. When Demhit followers dispatched in the streets of Asmara were asking for metawekia or mewesawesi from Warsai youth, they were not only revealing their identity, but they were also demanding to know the identity of Eritrean youth. By virtue of invoking a single word, the issue of two identities colliding against each other in the streets of Asmara was brought to the surface again (as it was in the times of Derghi). The symbolism is powerful: while Demhit followers are allowed to “roam” in the streets of Asmara, the Warsai are forced out to mieda Ertra – as it was in the Derghi era. So the issue is not simply about the identity of individuals, but about the identity of a nation still demarcating everywhere possible (on the land, in the language, etc.) to make itself a self-standing entity. No wonder, with the issue boiling down to the identity of the nation, the warning goes up to the highest level to “Severe”: RED!
With the warning reaching its highest level, the awate duo was telling the Eritrean Tigrignas in no unclear terms:
“Haven’t you fought for decades to keep all those who say menkesakesi on this side of Mereb, and all those who say mewesawesi on the other side of Mereb? Nothing less than your Eritrean identity is at stake. The menkesakesi-mewesawesi distinction, upon which the Tigrigna Eritrean identity is entirely based, is in great danger of being blurred as mewasawesi is being heard in the center of your citadel, Asmara; and for that, at Merkato!”
It worked like a charm. The Kebessa patriots rose up in arms. They felt that nothing less than their identity was at stake. So, no matter what it takes, they were determined to keep that distinction alive. Nobody is going to take away from them the only precious thing that independence brought to them – identity!
The problem is, dear reader, the two Tigrigna-speaking peoples across the Mereb River are the mirror image of one another. The only distinction between them is that whereas the Tigrawot beyond the Mereb River say “mewesawesi”, the Tigrignas on the Eritrean side of the Mereb River say “menkasakesi”, both words referring to the identity of the person as documented officially on paper. What is more, given that the very foundation of the Eritrean nation itself was based on this vital distinction between menkesakesi and mewesawesi, they felt that if this distinction evaporates into thin air, so would the nation. [Please refer to the book written jointly by Isaias Afwerki and Abdella Idris, Hager Bizey Mewesawesi on the origin and importance of this distinction to Eritrean nationalism. This was at the time Isaias was still part of Qiyadel Ama, long before he went solo to author another impressive book Nihnan Ilamanan.]
If the above makes sense, then the Awate Team’s fear is not unfounded; in fact, it is based on impeccable logic: if these two identities keep blurring, their merging would eventually follow; and if the identities merge into one, so would the nations. Ever since this anxiety set in, the great existential question the nationalists have been asking is: if so much is at stake, how do we keep this most important distinction between menkesakesi and mewesawesi intact?
Paradoxically, it was not the opposition but the regime that fully grasped the gravity of the Awate Team’s warning. Sensing that the rise of anxiety level triggered by the Demhit saga among Eritreans has reached RED level, it quickly came up with a neat plan not only to redress its Demhit blunder but also to capitalize on it.
Fighting the threat from within
It was Yemane Monkey who came up with a brilliant idea to save the day. Realizing that the threat to the Eritrean identity came from Demhit followers recklessly using “mewesawesi” in the streets of Asmara [As the Awate Team has astutely noted, indeed there was a “breakdown” to the rule that the government used to follow till then, “Only use Demhit followers with Asmarino accent”], he proposed that the word mewesawesi should be totally banned in Eritrea [Please refer to 11-03-2013 edition of Hadas Eritrea, first page, third column, under the title Awaj Lisane Tigrigna Ertra to see how the decree goes in details]. By making this bold patriotic move, he outsmarted all the opposition groups who were unable to come up with a single sensible proposal to deal with the Demhit calamity. Once that alien word was taken out of the vocabulary of the Eritrean Tigrigna, everyone was relieved and happy – even the opposition, though they wouldn’t admit it in public.
But as it is usual with brilliant ideas of this magnitude, there were some unintended consequences …
The first problem that cropped up as soon as the decree came out was obvious to anyone and everyone. In fact, it is amazing that a brilliant mind like Monkey had overlooked it. You see, the word “mewesawesi” (in its adjective or noun form) or “mewuswas” (in its noun or verb form) also happens to be in the vocabulary of Eritrean Tigrigna, only it had a different meaning: “physical exercise”. The moment the decree was issued, people became uncomfortable using the term even as in “exercise”, lest they be accused of temeberkakinet or defeatism, or even – God forbid – of being Agame! Eritreans are known as a resilient people who adopt even to the toughest of circumstances; anyone who has seen Asmarinos persevering electric and water blackouts on daily basis should have known that vocabulary blackouts would be a piece of cake to them. So they became determined, whatever its meaning turns out to be, not to utter the word at all!
Overnight, Asmarinos came up with different innovative ways of saying “muwuswas” (as in physical exercise) without ever uttering the dreaded word itself. I don’t need to go over describing all kinds of muwuswas that people tended to do in the middle of amiable conversation in order to replace that dirty word for them to realize that this strategy wouldn’t take them far. Besides being cumbersome (imagine an Asmarino dressed to kill doing pushups in Bar Royal in search of a replacement for that dreaded word), the people of Asmara, many of whom were living at malnutrition level, were getting out of breath in search of a single word. Soon, the smarter ones came up with a solution that requires no muwuswas, no pushups or pullups, at all. For instance, when someone who had been jogging was asked what he had been doing in the morning, he would say, with a sly wink for a hint, “I have been doing what the Tigrawot would say for menkesakesi.” An ingenious solution indeed! Granted it was a torturous way for saying a simple word; but if that is what it takes to keep our proud Eritrean identity intact, so be it! After all, haven’t we gone through a similar torturous journey, paying a great price along the way, to get our independence?
But eventually, the purist cadres of the regime found a problem with this ingenious solution: with all these word replacements, be it cumbersome physical exercises or circuitous sentences, people couldn’t avoid hearing the word mewesawesi in their minds. With all these attempts to circumvent it, the word mewesawesi became loudest in its absence! The Shaebia cadres began to complain menacingly, “So far as the masses are thinking it, it is no good … no good at all.” As it is usual with the purists’ type, they wanted nothing less than a Final Solution that would purge mewesawesi, the very word that was threatening to uproot Eritrean identity, from the Eritrean landscape once and for all – not only from the vocabulary, but also from the minds of the masses!
The Final Solution, as it has always been in Eritrea, came from El Presidente Isaias Afwerki. After reprimanding Yemane Monkey for having come up with a half-baked solution in a closed door meeting, El Presidente came up with a neat solution that would not only purge this un-Eritrean word once and for all from the language but also from the mind of his subjects: he declared the very act of muwuswas to be banned from the land. Granted this is a draconian measure, but no one could blame El President for having ever come up with a half-baked solution. Our Dear and Beloved Leader had the utmost contempt for “precision surgery”; he knew no amount of tweaking with scalpels and forceps would remove mewesawesi from the brains of Eritreans. The logic behind his decree was impeccable: if the action of physical exercise itself was eliminated, sooner or later, the word that described that action would be erased from the memory of his subjects.
But as it is often with strong prescriptions, side effects couldn’t be avoided. As soon as physical exercise was banned in Eritrea, as if there was no more gravity, everything went UP (and that had nothing to do with the inflation of Nakfa going UP): The blood pressure of the nation went UP! The number of diabetic people went UP overnight! The number of obese people promenading at Godena Harnet went UP! Heart attacks went like crazy UP and UP!
At first, Eritreans took all of this with the usual perseverance and steadfastness that they are famously known for: “This is the least we can do to keep our identity pure. After all, haven’t we paid dearly …” And sure enough EriTv, sensing the welling of patriotism among the masses, kept incessantly reminding the people of hidri suwuatna. The authorities were not only words either; they backed their propaganda with tangible deeds that the masses could easily identify with: it was declared that all those who died of blood pressure, diabetes or heart attack because they patriotically fulfilled their duties of not exercising were all to be buried in the Martyrs’ Cemetery. And soon, Certificates of Martyrs were issued to their families, acknowledging the death of their beloved ones in line of duty
One teghadlay, unhappy with this new development, was heard quipping, “How is it that all the new martyrs look obese? It used to be the photographs of those ab mieda ztienkesakesu … now it is the photographs of zeytenkesakesu … that go up on the wall!”.
Unable to accommodate the huge number of new martyrs, the old martyrs’ cemeteries were enlarged and new ones were popping up everywhere, gobbling up the surrounding area that was reserved for housing development of diaspora Eritreans. Even as the government realized that this crisis was hitting its pocket hard, that was not what was troubling it the most …
Of all things that went UP after physical exercise was banned, what truly troubled our government was one that neither the Martyrs’ Cemetery nor Martyr’s Certificate would cure: the number of visits inside Asmara inexplicably, but nevertheless dramatically, went UP and UP! All of a sudden, Asmarinos developed this strange urge to visit forgotten old friends, distant relatives they had been avoiding for long, old neighbors that moved out ages ago, old school mates whose names they could no more remember, even acquaintances they had met only once in their lifetime. In those days of hectic visiting, it was not uncommon for Asmarinos to hear a knock at their door at odd hours, and meet a strange face that they could hardly recognize standing at their doorstep, grinning from ear to ear. Asmara turned into this bizarre scene with mass of people criss-crossing from one end to another end of the city: from Maytemenai to Qehawta, from Akria to Godayif, from Tsetserat to Deposito, from Sembel to Maytchuhot, from Abashawl to Gejert, etc. Even old women with canes were seen walking from Maytemenai to Abashawl or Gezaberhanu or Hadishadi to visit someone for no apparent reason – for instance, to visit an old woman whose husband died ten years ago, only to find out that the wife too has been dead five years ago.
You can easily imagine that, under these strange circumstances, it was the center of Asmara that was having the short end of the stick. It became araghits as all those walking from one end of the city to another end of the city had to pass through it. The Merkato and Shuq merchants were complaining bitterly that they could not conduct their business, as they compared this wave after wave of human invasion with the good old days of Demhit occupation [when Demhit followers “with noticeable Tigrayan accents were roaming the Merkato neighborhood of Asmara”]. At least, the Demhit guys had money to spend. The Asmarinos who were passing through would not even buy kile shukor or kilo bun, as in the old days, to take for the people they were visiting. Instead, all of them had tirmuz areki tacked in their zembil, which they made sure to drink it with their gracious hosts before they left. Given the effects of areki, the merchants dreaded the returns more than the visits. [By the way, between you and me, one muhur economist confided in me that the way the nahri of Nakfa is going, it is more likely that people will soon resort to barter trading, with tirmuz areki as the most likely item to replace Nakfa as currency – as amolie used to be in feudal Ethiopia.]
What the hell was going on? Could anyone explain what this madness was all about?
Even though the government was caught off surprise with this strange development, it didn’t take long for teghadelti to figure out the shitara of “ghebar dembar”. They soon recognized this wudit hafash for what it was: a black market version of mewesawesi. The ungrateful ghebar were using visiting as excuse to physically exercise. Even those who had never exercised before developed this strange itch in their feet kiwesawesu, after it had been made clear to them that it was verbotten. The purists immediately grasped the far reaching consequences of this: people are still thinking the dirty word! That is when they joined Lenin in asking that most existential of all questions: what is to be done?
Predictably, what followed up was what our beleaguered government does when everything else fails it: the prison population went dramatically UP! Everyone who was found exercising, pretending to be going on a visit, was immediately apprehended and detained. Given the ambiguity that such an act carries, the concerned government authorities went so far as to admit that there could be a few cases were it was impossible to verify if the apprehended person was really visiting or exercising. [If I may interject here, this proves beyond doubt that after gele gele gegatat, our government does admit its mistakes – opposition protestations aside.] All those who were found in this ambiguous status were mercifully assigned to atsnehaly prisons, to differentiate them from the clear cut ones who were sent to underground prisons, where they belong. When criticized by nosy humanitarian groups, the Lion of Nakfa put it in simple but clear revolutionary words, “Abiot lijochuan tiwitalech!” (In Amharic! After all, what the opposition nationalists suspect about his identity might be true.)
With the banning of physical exercise strictly enforced, Asmarinos had no choice but to use public menkesekasi. As a result, the city buses became unbearably overcrowded ... The old carossas and cuccinetis came back with vengeance …
Even though Shaebia was finding itself embattled to stem the fallout of its “solution” to the mewesawesi menace instigated by Demhit, things were to get totally out of its hands, coming as they would soon be from outside its domain of control. And, as usual, it was Yemane Monkey among the leadership that came to know about it first …
Fighting the threat from outside
It is well known among Asmarinos that Yemane Monkey, after making sure that all the doors and windows of his house are securely shut, switches to Ethiopian TV, especially the Tigrigna section, before he sleeps. I know that the nationalists would want to make an issue of his identity out of this, but there is an innocent reason behind this [Please, let’s not politicize everything]: he has to hear the beautiful serenading voice of the Tigrean singer Mahlet Gebregiorgis singing “sekay zikeal iyu” before he is lulled to sleep; please try to understand – and I am imploring you here, dear reader – that there was no other medicine to his insomnia. [I am surprised that Bawza from Asmara hasn’t reported on this important piece of news yet.]
One day, bundled up in the amazingly soft pajamas he had bought in New York’s Fifth Avenue the last time he had that unfortunate incident with the youth, as he was expectantly waiting for his usual sleeping pill, Monkey heard the Tigrigna anchorwoman in Ethiopian TV uttering a frightening word. Was it his ears or did she say, “menkesakesi”? After he heard her repeat the same word many times, the poor guy began to shake in his boots, for he immediately realized the dire consequences of this calamitous moment.
Now, dear reader, please try to understand that, even as difficult as the task of keeping this most vital distinction between menkesakesi and mewesawesi had been, till then the problem was entirely confined within the country; and, to control it, mengistina zikialo geyru. Now, there was no way on earth that this new development, given that the threat came from outside the nation, could be tackled with riese-murkosa only; it would be hard to fight it even with all kinds of imported murkus. If the Tigrawot suddenly began to use menkesakesi instead of mewesawesi, how the hell is our government supposed to keep the distinction intact? Again, nothing less than the identity of the nation was at stake. To again remind the dear reader, in case he/she is remiss, of what is at stake: if this distinction goes, the identities across the Mereb River would instantly merge; and if the identities merge, so would the nations. For the second time, the Woyanies outwitted Shaebia. The brilliant mind that he was, Monkey immediately grasped the tectonic ramifications of this event.
The next day, all Asmara was abuzz talking about the event, “izom telamat Woyanie, zigeberuna’do semieka?” After all, it was not Yemane Monkey only that switched stations from our glorious EriTv to our nemesis EthioTv – of course, after making sure doors and windows were securely shut. Even when the unexpected visits went up like crazy in Asmara, they were unable to take a toll on this habit; let alone now, when everyone was confined to his/her house.
At first, the government tried to dismiss this event as anomaly; after all, haven’t we all heard about Eritrean refugees in Ethiopian camps demanding for menkesakesi. It could only be that this word somehow found its way randomly from the camps to the TV station; that is all. But this half-hearted self-reassurance didn’t last long as the psychological war from beyond the Mereb River went on relentlessly. There was never a day that passed without that dreaded Tigrean anchorwoman saying menkesakesi (and she said it exactly like Asmarina, causing the rumors that she could be half Eritrea – Ach, bezon deke’rbA tekech belna!). And it was not her only. Sometimes, as some experts were interviewed in EthioTv on various issues – say, Al Shabaab, the World Cup, or even the Renaissance Dam – out of nowhere the word menkesakesi would be dropped like a bomb … no, no, like a cluster bomb. And to add insult to injury, Mahlet came up with a new song that says “aynkesakesin do’moye anynkesakesin’ye N’Dedebit”, which instantly popularized the word menkesakesi throughout Tigray. The first time Yemane Monkey heard it, he was fuming like mad, but soon he couldn’t resist moving his ass to its catchy tune (of course, behind closed doors – not as in closed door meetings, but as in doors-and-windows securely shut). The song had an infectious beat, and soon all Asmara was whistling it. Shaebia spent millions of its gold-money (now turned into copper-money) to jam it, but with little success. Anyways, it wouldn’t have made sense, for by then Asmarinos have recorded it in all kinds of gadgets (thanks to diaspora uncles and aunties).
Mekete N’Kaleay Werar Weyanie Symposium
The crisis was going out of hand. It was a personal blow to Isaias. Again, following Lenin’s example, Isaias asked himself (this time solo): what is to be done? [I was about to add, “scratching his beard in revolutionary zeal” when I realized …never mind … By the way, have you ever wondered why Isaias doesn’t have a goatee like Lenin, but a mustache like Stalin? Could it be some kind of philosophical difference? If the muhuran – it doesn’t matter whether they are 22 or 44, we won’t quibble about the numbers – could enlighten us on this other most important distinction …]
… Talk about muhuran … Reluctantly, Isaias called a symposium to muhuran in diaspora to discuss this recalcitrant issue that refused to go away no matter what he did. For starters, the symposium was given the most appropriate name Mekete N’Kaleay Werar Weyanie, reminding people of the various Derghi werars that Shaebia withstood in one mekete after another. After having called this psychological war Kaleay Werar, diaspora muhuran flooded Asmara as in no time before. Some of the teghadelti didn’t like it; not at all. They suspected that the muhuran were using this opportunity to visit family members, the beaches at Gergusum and the bars (where the teenage girls frequent) because the air tickets and hotel were free – courtesy of Eritrean Airlines (or whatever is left of it) and International Hotel. But, whatever we say of their intentions, the muhuran didn’t fail in coming up with one proposal after another. As usual, none made sense, except for one …
One muhur, a known Professor Emeritus of Linguistics from a prestigious university in the USA, who never failed to address “Kubur President” after every other sentence, came up with this brilliant idea: After saying, “What they have done to us, let’s do it unto them” – almost in a biblical mood, I may add – he boldly proposed that we Eritreans should adopt “mewesawesi” (as in identity card!) and drop “menkesakesi” altogether; this way keeping the one and only distinction upon which Eritrea was founded intact. He ended his proposal with a dramatic flourish, pointing his hands up to the ceiling, down to the floor and sideways to the audience for unparalleled emphasis, “If the Tigrawot want to keep the word menkesakesi, let them have it for themselves; but only for themselves only!” The audience was dumbfounded: they didn’t even grasp the audacity of the proposal; all they heard was this guy daring to utter “mewesawesi” in front of El Presidente! But as soon as Isaias grinned broadly, amicably twisting his beard … no, no, his mustache …, everyone was relieved. It seemed that El Presidente was in one of his rare hidghetat-tegeyru-iyu moods.
In fact, it went well over hidgetat. Even though he didn’t want to say it in the symposium, Isaias liked the proposal very much – no, very very much! Besides bringing back the distinction, he saw an additional advantage in it. Since Demhit followers were having a difficult time switching from mewesawesi to menkesakesi (leaving aside those with Asmarino accent that the Awate Team discovered long ago before this incident, as pointed out in its Investigative Report), up to then the government had refrained from using them again in giffa (after the first scandal that triggered the menkesakesi-mewesawesi crisis). Now, if mewesawesi is adopted, Isaias immediately grasped that he could use all the Demhit followers maximally in all the giffas he wanted, and more. The next day – and I mean the next day – a decree was issued that all Eritreans should use mewesawesi instead of menkesakesi; it was poor menkesakesi’s turn to be banned from the Eritrean Tigrigna vocabulary, exiled forever beyond the Mereb River.
Overnight, Helen Melles came out with a new song, “Ereye Erena, anywesawesin’do ilkinana, hailed by many listeners as a devastating ghibre-melsi to Mahlet’s song (although, between you and me, Yemane Monkey was not impressed at all). The song got 200,000 hits in YouTube in just one day! But the opposition were not amused …
The opposition’s reaction
In fact, the opposition were furious, “Aybelnan’do! Isaias Eritrawi aykonen!” Old Jebha followers (let’s call them awatistas, for short) warned that this word will not only destroy our future but, more importantly, our past. And this was not without justification: think of all the hagerawi minkisikas that Jebha did in mieda Ertra for 20 years suddenly written in history books as hagerawi muwuswas teghadelti harnet Ertra! And the former women fighters, especially the feminist types, were also justifiably infuriated by all this mewesawesi revisionist nonsense: think of the venerable minkisikas deki anstyo that defined Sewra Ertra’s exceptionalism suddenly translated into the new Eritrean Tigrigna as muwuswas deki anstyo. Even the Warsai in diaspora, who had left the country for good kubo mis derbeyula, didn’t like it. When reminiscing about their experience in national service, the most frequent term they have been using is menkiskas: “Do you remember, Teklit, when our kifle-serawit was ordered n’Denkel kitnkesakes?” I can only understand the pain they undergo struggling to say kifle-serawitna n’Denkel kitwesawes kela – if there is a conversation killer, this would be it!
Arbi Harnet, throwing all precaution to the wind in anger and fury, immediately shipped a ton of leaflets (disguised as human cargo in Eritrean Airlines) to Asmara saying, “No to mewesawesi!” accompanied with a picture of Isaias kinkesakes kelo on a treadmill. EYSC immediately followed up, calling an emergency meeting in Bologna with the slogan, NinkesaKes Tirah, thereby cleverly appropriating Shaebia foot soldiers’ slogan Nikid Tirah that had previously caused havoc among the opposition. Awate’s iconic motto, “Inform, Inspire Embolden, Reconcile” that adorned the website for years was dropped overnight and replaced by, Minkisikas to Pride and Dignity. And Smerrr Paltalk was inviting all kinds of Eritreans muhuran that claimed to be experts on minkisiskas. One former Jebha cadre especially touched many hearts when he said that, if this irreplaceable word is gone, menkesikas-albo hibreteseb (as in debri-albo) will be created to the detriment of the society. Everyone was throwing a bouquet of flowers up in the air in agreement …
And, boy, the ton of literature that came out in Eritrean opposition websites within just few days … Asmarino.com and assenna.com inundated their respective websites with reports from Asmara on how the Eritrean people were challenging the mewasawesi menace (even though they refrained from using the word mekete; it seems that they have purged it from their vocabulary – this thing is getting infectious), even as now and then asmarino’s “unreserved apologies” to unconfirmed news were leaving assenna in limbo. Selam Kidane wrote a sobering, nevertheless hilarious, satire titled, Are We Moving Up at All, reminding us that neither menkesakesi nor mewesawesi has to do with moving up but with moving sideways only (across the Mereb River, that is). The Awate Team came up with a brilliant article titled Asmara and Eritrea’s Minkisikas to Dignity, a sequel to their equally brilliant article Lampedusa and Eritrea’s Journey to Dignity. Saleh Younis came with a seminal article, “The High Priest of Neo-Andnet and the Menace of Mewesawesi” – thanks God, this time around not with me, but with Isaias, in mind – that connects all the dots from the 40s to the present on how that menace came to be. Berhan Hagos came out with a detailed article with impressive charts and columns full of ahazat, but strange enough came with the conclusion that it is only under the leadership of Mesfin Hagos that the nation can come out of its mewesawesi quagmire.
Saleh Gadi, after commenting (on Saleh Younis’ blog) that this has a lot to do with pride and dignity (consistent with the motto of the website), he emphasized that the gravity of the subject matter requires no less than a book to address it. What surprised his fans though is the title he chose for his upcoming book – no other than the very title of the book that Isaias Afwerki and Abdella Idris penned jointly in their Qiyadel Ama years. The only difference is whereas the old book was titled in Tigrigna as Hager Bizey Mewesawesi, this one is to be titled in English as Nation without Mewesawesi. Critics have been speculating what this unexpected convergence of unlikely bedfellows could mean to bolitika Ertra: could it be that a strategic alliance with Shaebia foot soldiers is in the offing? What further fueled this “reconciliation” speculation is what Saleh Gadi added on the subject matter: that in his upcoming book, unlike his previous ones, he will use a penname in memory of Woldeab Woldemariam and Idris Awate. But he was not willing to say whether it will be in their first names (as Woldeab-Idris) or last names (as Woldemariam-Awate). Not to be outdone, Semere Habtemariam is coming out with another book on the same subject matter, only in his case it is transparently titled as Free Eritrea from Mewesawesi, under his own name. Say what? Dear reader, you can believe whatever you want; as for me, no, I don’t believe he is “Free Eri”.
Even human rights groups had something to say about this scandal. Elsa Chyrum, on her damning report on child rights violations in Eritrea handed to the UN, stated that she couldn’t understand this controversy between menkesakesi and mewesawesi (echoing Selam’s neutrality on this matter), since most of the rounded up by Demhit happened to be children, and therefore not old enough to have either menkesakesi or mewesawesi. [Please refer to her posting in Asmarino: Report on Child Rights Violations in EritreaThat particular statement was supposed to be at the end of the article which asmarino deliberately cut off for reasons unknown, even though in the original edition handed to the UN it is still there in black and white. But you could still see the blank space where it had been cut off in the asmarino version].
The Awate Team retorted back in anger, “Even though it is we who have been at the forefront of this struggle against Demhit occupation, this focus on child-soldiering – Demhit or no Demhit – is uncalled for. After all, isn’t child-soldiering a great ghedli tradition? Besides, isn’t it bahlina for children to help in the field, be it with the plough or abu-ashera? And, most of all, Elsa, you seem to forget that it is the child who challenged the Emperor!”
EYSC, the first one in line to be caught in the crossfire between awate.com and HRCE (having hosted them both in Bologna), came up with an enigmatic statement that nevertheless mollified both: “Isn’t it the child in all of us Eritreans that both of you are appealing? If so, what is this quarrel about? Please, let’s not infantilize things.”
When the mustache fell off
In all of this shebedbed, what the opposition seemed to have missed is that, with menkesaksi deported to Tigray and mewesawesi adopted by Eritrea, the distinction upon which Eritrean nationalism has been based was finally saved. And let me add that all of this opposition chatter from across the ocean didn’t even ruffle Isaias’ mustache, let alone his hair. In fact, since this menace went regional, Isaias had set his ears at a default position to listen to EthioTv only; he cared less for what the people of Eritrea were saying, be it from inside or outside. By now, he had acquired Yemane’s habit; only in his case, doors and windows remained open, and the house was left airy. But that didn’t mean El Presidente was not about to gasp for more air …
Everything was about to end with happily ever after for Higdef… until the night El Presidente Isaias Afwerki himself, with his own ears, heard that same dreaded anchorwoman from Tigray saying, “mewesawesi”. Was it his ears? The poor guy’s liver almost went mushy as he collapsed on the floor [that was the time he was rushed to the Air Force Hospital]. It is official: Tigray has switched back to mewesawesi!
El Presidente’ liver problem stayed UP for a long time! He disappeared again for more than a month, causing various speculations among the population and analysts, the most important one being: Is he dead? Is he stone-dead? [Please refer to asmarino’s “Eyewitness News” posted on 11-18-2013 for the whole story, except that the true cause that triggered the President’s liver attack was left out; again, for reasons unknown. Eritrea: Situation on the Ground Report Part 1 - Missing Presidentl]
My dear Deki Erey, let me tell you that it was not meant to be: Nsu was alive and kicking! As soon as he came back from his mysterious hiding place (rumored to be in one of the Gulf States, where he had been having liver transplant for the third time; or was it for the seventh time), he informed EriTv that he was ready to have an interview with Asmelash on this most important subject matter. By the way, the rumors that the interviewers at EriTv are provided with the kind of questions Isaias wants to be asked ahead of time are entirely unfounded [I blame meskerem.com for these unfounded rumors]. Asmelash could ask whatever questions he wanted – and he did! He started with a tough question, “Kubur President, do you see any foreign involvement in this latest Woyanie invasion?”
But the President was at his magnanimous best, as he responded, “Let’s not exaggerate; the Ethiopians have little to do with this Kaleay Werar Weyanie. It is all the work of CIA who sent a linguist agent to study the linguistic habits of the Tigrignas in Eritrea and Tigray. It was they who are trying to destroy Eritrea by eliminating the only linguistic distinction upon which this great nation is built. It was they who provided Woyanie with all the surveillance intelligence they needed to attack us … The Ethiopians, by themselves, would have never arrived at this knowledge … It is Langley that is conducting a psychological warfare against us … and, by the way, that muhur linguist has been apprehended as he was trying to escape …”
On that very day of the interview, the poor linguist muhur who came up with that wonderful proposal in the historic Mekete N’Kaleay Werar Weyanie was taken away from his mother’s home and disappeared, never to be seen again …
When Asmelash, uncharacteristic of himself, timidly followed up his tough question with, “So what do you think the solution to this dire problem is?” El Presidente was livid in anger, his mustache quivering up and down and sideways left and right. He shouted, “There is no problem at all! Don’t you get it … it is not the water that should come to the people, but the people that should go to where the water is …” And with that enigmatic statement, the interview was about to end when Asmelash did something unbelievably terrible …
With his eyes and mouth wide upon, wide wide open, he kept pointing at his finger at El Presidente’s mustache. He seemed to be fascinated by the strange ways the mustache was moving, as if it had a life all its own. The President didn’t understand what Asmelash was pointing at, as he got furious over his insolence to dare point a finger at the Head of the State. As the pointing finger stayed up in the air for eternity, the President rose up in anger and began pounding the table ferociously. But Asmelash wouldn’t let go; he, in fact rose up from his chair, still with his eyes and mouth wide wide open, with his finger pointed at the mustache – as it kept sliding down the President’s face, down his lips and his chin! In his fury, Isaias didn’t notice what was happening until the moment the mustache dropped to the floor with a loud thud that the whole nation heard. Now, it was the turn of the whole nation – and I mean from Ras Kasar to Ras Dumera – to open its eyes and mouth wide, real wide, in horror. Finally, the truth that would save the nation came out to the open: Isaias’ mustache was a DISGUISE! Minus his mustache, the whole nation can now clearly see that he is tsuruy Ethiopiawi – in fact, the spit image of Mengistu Hailemariam!
I admit that all those who were claiming that Isaias, and only Isaias, is to be blamed for all the ills of the nation are vindicated. From now on, blaming ghedli has to stop: how on earth were the poor teghadelti supposed to know when all the crimes of the ghedli era had actually been committed by Isaias disguised in his mustache? It has been a confirmed fact in the History of Criminology that all the serial killers with mustache-disguises have never been caught. As for the women, had they known that Isaias minus his mustache equals Menghistu Hailemariam, they would not have fallen for him so easily; they were taken in because they saw that handsome tall fellow … it is amazing how he immediately shrank to Menghistu’s size as soon as the mustache fell off his face … Even the diehard foot soldiers in diaspora where finally convinced: how else would they explain how a man who wrote a book damning mewesawesi 50 years ago doing his damn best to reintroduce it now …
On the positive side, the fall of the mustache triggered a revolution unlike any other in the streets of Asmara – again, vindicating all those pundits who were saying that we will never know what the “spark” that triggers the Eritrean revolution would be, but were always confident that the Eritrean masses would one day rise up. It was unlike any other revolutions of recent memory in that no young faces were to be seen among the angry crowds “roaming” in Merkato and other streets of Asmara. But all the old and the children (indeed, bahlina) of the city came out in force; even old women and men in canes, and there were many of them, were seen raising their canes menacingly against the authorities. Nevertheless, it was undisputable that Eritrea’s day has arrived. Ukraine had its Orange revolution; Georgia its Rose Revolution; Kyrgyzstan its Tulip Revolution; Lebanon its Cedar Revolution; Tunisia its Jasmine Revolution and Egypt its Lotus Revolution. At last, Eritrea had its Mustache Revolution! A mischievous BBC correspondent, after watching too many old people with canes on the streets of Asmara protesting, tried hard to call it the Cane Revolution, but without success. The youth in diaspora, knowing what it would say about them, quickly rallied around the name, “Mustache Revolution” and made it stick for generations to come.
When asked by that same BBC correspondent what motivated her to come out in the streets in protest despite her old age, a woman in cane (ghiega yichlialey imber, I think she is the same woman who once walked from Maytemenai to Abashawl … or was it Gezaberhanu … on those hectic visiting days …) said, “Deqina!” Further asked to elaborate on her cryptic reply, she said, “Without dekina saying ‘ajokum, ajokum’ from across the ocean, we would not have the guts to come out in the streets.” And then she added proudly, “By the way, this was sent to me by wedey from America,” pointing to her walking stick with tripod base, a rarity in Eritrea. And I am happy to let Eritrean nationalists know that the two most visible placards in these protests were, “Demhit out!” and “No more mewesawesi!” With courage and determination of adetat in display in Asmara streets, everybody near and far was smelling victory.
The gossip in me doesn’t want to end this story where it should: in victory! Even on those days of euphoria, the mustache affair did cause many a pain to those Eritreans with real mustache, as people began to stare at them suspiciously. Many are who parted with their life-time well-tended mustaches to escape the public glare. And countless others persevered it all, hoping that in due time all will be forgotten. But I would not have dwelled on this trivial gossip had it also not affected a famous personality with mustache of the exact size and width of Isaias prominent in bolotika Ertrea: none other than the former Minister of Information Ali Abdu. I am assuming that the dear reader will be interested to know the fate of that equally famous mustache, even as he/she might not like my penchant for gossip.
No, believe me, Ali Abdu’s mustache was natural, except for the fact that it was manicured and pedicured in the right way to look exactly like his boss’. But the good news is that the mustache scandal forced Ali Abdu to come out of his hiding. He was even seen mingling with crowds of protesters that swept diaspora community in solidarity with the Mustache Revolution. As he kept marching side by side – I am not sure whether it was in Oslo or Melbourne – rubbing shoulders with veteran opposition protestors, he would suddenly turn his face to one of them, and say “It is real. Pull it … come on, pull it ... I am telling you it is real. It is not fake like Isaias’ … no, go ahead, pull it …” The poor fellow was trying too hard to prove that his mustache was real. When the addressee, a bit frightened by this strange behavior, politely refuses to do so, Ali Abdu would pull it himself in all directions possible to prove to him/her that no matter how you pull it, it remains stuck to his face … Now, really frightened by the strange grimaces Ali’s face was making as his mustache is pulled this way and that way, the bystander would walk away from him in haste. Undaunted, Ali would move to the next person, and try it all over again … never doubting that he will regain his former stature if he could only prove … Occasionally he was met with success when a toddler on his father’s shoulder would be interested enough to give the mustache a tug or two before the father reprimands him/her …
With that happy note, dear reader, nezia zires’e mot tres’ayo.