(I) Fathers and sons

Claiming their sons

There are no men in the villages;
only the old, women and children.
And when fathers show up now and then
their children run away
until giffa is over.

Portraits of the unsettling past

As the father hangs his framed picture
opposite to his martyred son’s
he realizes this eye-ball to eye-ball stare 
cannot be sustained for long,
and turns the picture to the wall.

Tattered link

The mother couldn’t have foreseen
that as her son rushed home
from years in the Eritrean field
all he wanted was dig up his umbilical cord
and scatter it to the winds.

A face to borrow

When parents get punished
for “crimes” of their deserting sons,
the remaining sons do the arresting;
covering the shame of it all
by arresting each others’ fathers.

(II) The fallen …

Waiting for the fallen
How many knocks must pass
before one knock counts?
Now that it is all over,
what the mother dreads most is a world
devoid of knocks yet to come.

Serial killing

A mother gave all her children
the ugliest names of all
to ward off the Angel of Death.
But the Angel had nothing to go by:
only numbers tagged to their uniforms.

Ghosts in the city

As the old woman walked the streets
she met a young silly boy
that reminded her of someone
from her distant, crowded past.
It will come to me, she said, but never did.

Reconciled in death

When a victim and his killer
appear in the same Book of Martyrs,
nationalism becomes the only logic
that reconciles impossible contradictions
by reducing them to ashes.

Three generations

A mother lit three candles
for her three fallen sons.
Her toddler granddaughter tries hard
to blow them out,
as she wonders where the cake is.

Mothers and daughters

The old woman looked silly
with her ghame braids.
But what with her slipping memory
that would only come to her
in front of a mirror.

(III) … and the dead

To bury our memories in

As the Kunama were made to dig
their own graves in Mai-Dima,
the only question
the tyrant asked was:
how deep?

Wailing walls of Adi-Abeyto

A teenager who had witnessed it all;
all he could say was: “A wall collapsed!”
He was too young to remember
that the Wall had collapsed
long before there were prison walls.

Death by hanging in Tel Aviv (Z)

The Warsai are adept
at improvising with little
– in death as in life.
All he needed was a trash can 
to elevate himself and touch the sky.

(IV) Archeology and history

Shaebia’s past

Despite doing everything wrong
if a family remains healthy and plumb
at a time of great famine,
count and recount its children:
it could have been eating its young!

History in whispers

When history is treated
like a nosy neighbor best kept outside,
children grow up on tall tales
they can never live up to,
whispered again in their son’s ears.

Blind men’s pyramid

They stood on each other’s shoulders
to see all the way back
past the uncomfortable past.
But all they could feel
was the desert wind on their faces.

Archeological find in Asmara

They dug and dug furiously.
Yet, they were ordered to dig more
because the historians felt
it wasn’t deep enough
to bury all the past.

(V) Identity in black and white

Jeopardy game in Eritrea

Eritreans love to play the contest:
“Who is more Eritrean?”
Why are they then surprised
when only one person
comes out the final winner?


The Kebessa are an amazing race.
They outdo one another in shouting:
Agame! Agame! Agame!
But always … always …
with their backs to the mirror.

Masked identity

Demonstrating in the streets of Israel,
the refugees felt very proud
at displaying their Eritrean identity:
with white masks on their faces,
they looked identical to one another!

The unbearable heaviness of being

Just a light scarf on her head
and she feels different.
So says the mirror on the wall!
But she has to carry that wall everywhere
to remind her how different she is.

Lost and found – at a barber’s shop

A studious Eritrean scholar
consulted one hundred and one books
to prove how different we are from Ethiopians,
while all he needed was a hair cut
and one look at the mirror to let it go.

A call from the past

When the girls of Meraguz
jump in joy to ashenda songs,
there is a strange pause in their beats,
as if waiting for the response beat
to arrive all the way from across Mereb.

(VI) Netsant and ‘harnet

Coronation day

As Eritreans rushed to the streets
to crown their long-awaited king
who had just returned from years in exile,
nobody paid attention to the date:
it was April Fool’s!

Dancing along a vicious circle

Looking down at this mekete dance floor
no one can tell by their braids
whether they are married or not,
bereaving or celebrating,
but they sure go round and round.

Purpose-driven ghedli

Passers bye that had no idea
what this long line was all about
dropped whatever they were doing
and rushed to line up:
“In case it gets longer.”

Insight of the blind

Those Christians instantly blinded
by the piercing light of the desert sun
after years in Shaebia’s dungeons,
are spared from seeing the distinction
between netsanet and ‘harnet.

Blinded by independence

Those whose eyes were taken out
by the hands of their liberators wondered:
had it NOT been for independence,
could we have kept our eyes?
Just a trifling thought.

(VII) Pride and foolishness

What Isaias could have said about himself:

When you don’t know
that you don’t know,
you can survive
the persistence of your mistakes
only through arrogance.

A foolish undertaking

When a nation is at loss
with whom to replace a fool,
it is not because there are no others to lead
but that the nature of the mission
demands it be done only by a fool.

Temokro mieda (Z)

A one-fits-all experience
that cannot be made to fit
with anything of this world.
Hence the urge to mold the world
to fit with that experience.

(VIII) Nationalism for lepers

Bonded in hate

Nationalists confuse their hate
of outsiders
for love of one another
simply because it is the only thing
they happen to do well together.

In the name of a nation (Z)

When metaphors are all we have
for reasons to live and die,
reality becomes our enemy
and blood flows in color only,
as “red badge of courage.”

Leprosy in the land

“How many of you believe in us?”
“I can count them on my fingers.”
The officials were even madder
when they later discovered
leprosy had deprived him of all his fingers.

(IX) The dubious middle

In the middle of nowhere

Among the opposition,
every time they strike the middle
they confuse it for moderation.
Whether the opposing coordinates allow
any middle to hold, they never ask.

Exiting through exit strategy

Once upon a time 15 wise men
approached El Presidente to talk about
all kinds of exit strategy.
All he did was point his finger:
at the exit door.

Accomplice to a crime

How can you attempt to reconcile
a victim with his victimizer
while the victim is in no position to negotiate
in a crime that is still going on?
Only if you are reconciled to the crime!

(X) Famine and death

Gestures of the famished

As the shepherds take turn
to sip from guagud,
they make no sipping sounds.
And as it falls to a hollow sound,
frail hands go through a cleaning motion.

Triaging a nation

As she struggles with her children
to escape the famine in the summer heat,
it suddenly goes icy cold on her back.
Dropping the burden at one go,
she runs to save the rest.

Whose land?

As the peasants get famished
with the expropriation of their farmland,
Eritreans get louder than ever
to identify independence
with the liberation of the land.

(XI) Das Hawya lessons

EriTv sideshows

It took a blind man to see
that those that went into Das Hawya
were not coming out,
immune to the distracting sideshows
that eyes couldn’t resist.

Second coming

The tragedy of Das Hawya
is not in the fact that those who enter it
never come out,
but that its modern-day version
can only be built from the inside.

Yosief Ghebrehiwet

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