Bethlehem Attfield, Mulugeta Alebachew

Excerpt from Heaven without Prickly Pears


ISSUE 99 | WHERE YOU STAY | JAN 2022


You Shall Have No Other Saviour Before Me, 2017, by Lawrence Lemaoana

Before the charm of it all wore off…before the glamour was taken from our lives…my neighborhood was so beautiful.… Although the stones did not turn into manna and the rivers gave no fountains of milk and honey…my hometown, Geneté, whose name literally means “my heaven,” was still heavenly before the depravity of our modern community wore away its charm.

Our childhood songs still echo in my ears…as if it were just yesterday.… I can conjure up the memory of the nursery rhymes that my childhood friends and I sang.

Let’s go to the woods / let’s go to the woods / before the hyena arrives / Mr. Hyena, are you there?

Abuhay abuhay, / have you seen my maid? / My maid prayed to Mary / carrying a stool, / a stool to Abolité / given by a neighbor…

Oh moon, provider of bread, / give us some bread. / Miss Star, go collect it for us…

When playing football, I often managed to trick the baffled defensive players and score the winning goal because I was able to tell the difference between the almost indistinguishable twins Ephraim and Manasseh. The victory songs we sang as we raised a trophy made of flattened bottle caps—“irgiboye irgibo lemada / gerefnew berasu meda”—are sealed in my memory, to be evoked at will.…

* * *

Although my temperate village had a special scent, each home also had its own aroma.…

Once, I spent the night at my neighbor Hohite’s place, enchanted with the beauty of the guineafowl her dad brought from Meqet. “Oh, Bayush…your son slept with a bird,” they said to my mom. The blanket they gave me that night was black with white polka dots like the guineafowl.… It smelled of Ethiopian cardamom and cumin…the very same spices that they used to cook guineafowl stew and niter kibe.

Lavender-smelling girls covered with hijabs to hide their beauty from the likes of us stinking kids would be on their way to mosque. It felt as though they were not born of mere mortals but delicately made of honey and spices…Masqal daisies wrapped in black silk abayas…Arab-like virgins brought up drinking haudh al-kawthar,1 the Qur’anic lake of abundance.

We used to be mesmerized by the magical smell of the girls who would come every Tuesday from the countryside for the weekly market; we did not drop just our jaws, our nostrils were wide open too.…

The strong Woyna Dega2 wind picks up an assortment of scents and delicately spreads them around Geneté. The smell of burned banana leaves used to bake bread, wafts from the armpits of damsels, frankincense, ripe yellow plum, herbs tucked behind maidens’ ears, and the honey extracted from their lips: we breathe in this combined aroma…and if you stick out your tongue, you sure can get a taste of Geneté.

I will never forget this scent. A scent I have inhaled my entire life…a scent that has been carried along my lungs, heart, and veins.… The day I forget is the day I die.

* * *

The season Hohite, our next-door neighbor’s daughter, turned ripe and beautiful, I slept with her on a short rickety bed, in a cheap hotel behind Mudda Butchery. The smell of sex that clung to the smooth sheets and her incredible beauty are forever etched in my memory. Bahiru Kegené’s song slowly entered the room through the crack under the door, blended with the glimmer of outdoor light.

Tripe and liver sure are delicacies,

what is unsavory is the tongue

When we were kids she used to get her nipples bitten by insects in the hope of making them bigger, so she knew I used to be freaked out by the sight of them. Taking off her clothes, she buried me between them.… Uneasiness forgotten, I sucked on her nipples as though I was a child.… Not only did I get rid of my fear, I became addicted.

Are all girls who grew up eating partridge and guineafowl this delicious?

That same day, I broke open my piggy bank and bought her a red bra.

Later, I told Ephraim about it.…

“Keep nibbling your barley bread, how would you even get close to her lips?”

“I swear to you, Efi, I’m serious.”

“Just shut up, she would never do it with an Amhara—just with us.”

Bahiru Qegne said it all: “A sharp tongue sure is unsavory.”3 My dearest friend affronted my heart with his tongue.

I would like to forget what he said. I pretended like I had. I dug a hole in a certain corner of my mind and buried this moment with other bitter memories that I would like to consign to oblivion.

* * *

I have an aunt called Hareg (my uncle’s wife) who lives near the myrrh tree that has survived the old green Geneté. I visited her often because I took a liking to her neighbor, a girl called Zebiba.

My aunt, on the pretext of warding off atin,4 fed me every time I visited. I still remember the tons of pasta Arabica, herb-sprinkled yogurt drinks, the hundreds of different lentil salads, scrambled eggs, and chickpeas dumplings…and the last plateful of sarcasm! Failing to plump me up, my sarcastic aunt would comment, “The song that goes, ‘Unrequited love emaciates even when the person keeps eating’ is no joke, eh?”

I was so embarrassed that I avoided going to her house for some time. When I went back to visit after a week, Zebiba, like my aunt, must have wanted to ward off atin of the heart, for she offered me what I had been after all along.

She teased me with her eyes. I stood up and followed her like a disciple chosen by Jesus.

She opened the door for me. I entered and saw that her hair was no longer covered. A Queen of Sheba look-alike. I was flabbergasted. I found myself growing weak. There were many mattresses in the living room. A carpet with an image of a peacock was in the middle of the floor. My mouth was dry.

She had so many layers of clothing on, like an onion… She took them off layer after layer, which took forever.… When only her white underwear remained, I got up with excitement and carried her to one of the mattresses.… She was laughing and punching my back with soft fists, saying. “Walahi, that’s enough.” I laid her on the mattress delicately like she was a fragile object. I watched with half-closed eyes as my shallow breath made the tiny hairs on the back of her neck move.… When she straddled me and started to grind, she didn’t look like she had 206 bones in her body… No wonder this onion-girl seemed to lack bones…pretty symbolic… I learned from the whisper of her fervent mouth that her usual drink was salsabil.…5… If I had come inside of her and gotten her pregnant, she would have given birth to a cross-ethnic baby.

Because the people in this town come from all over the country, we only gave birth to cross-ethnic babies.

There were people from Gojam.

There were people from Gondar.

There were people from Agew.

.

.

.

All from the same human race.

No one ever asked where Keja Gundé, a carpenter from Konso, was originally from. He is now living here, married with kids. No one ever asked him why he was a Protestant. The skillfully built ceilings and all the wooden furniture he made were inimitable. And his wife was unrivaled in knitting and basket making.

The beauty of my home was the Konso people.

* * *

Tiringo Bana came from the west. She is dark and beautiful. No one knows when exactly she came. And no one ever asks. She has an ebony-dark brother named Alemneh living with her. While he cleaned shoes, she washed clothes by the sides of the waterway that runs down from Mt. Gabriel. Rumor has it that she has a tailless civet that carries all the garments she washes. All the village blankets she washed were fluffy and smelled of frankincense. And Alemneh is a listro6 who never brushed shoes carelessly; he never stopped till the shoe reflected his image as if it were a mirror.

My hygiene was the Nu’ers.

* * *

Fresh bars of salt harvested from Afdera and Assale lakes in the east were brought to me by trains of camels. A man who comes each Tuesday following the caravan paths, leaving behind “the smoking mountain,” bargains over his commodity, letting his camel, which has traveled for weeks with bricks of salt on its back, rest. And he slings his knife on his side.

The secret to my delicious meals was the Afars.

* * *

When I would go to the nearest pharmacy to buy eye drops for my mother, Gabissa the cashier rose to take the money from me, and when he counted the bills I followed him and did the same.

Tokkolammasaddiafur shan…”

My remedies were the Oromos.

* * *

Each morning when I go out to Madam Kokebé’s place to buy my breakfast, I encounter a scene that never changes. Peppermint plants flourishing beneath the tap near the door. An old woman named Ziansh, is always there, separating tares from wheat. Beside her, a kettle on the top of the fernelo7 exhales steam through its spout. The house is filled with the scent of mint.

Had we opened and beheld the inside of my innocent belly, there would be Madam Kokebé’s manna-like bread soaked in peppermint tea.

It was at her place that I first tasted and fell in love with tihilo sauce—a dish that testifies to her culinary skills. Even the memory of it is as sweet as nectar.

My nourishment was the Tigrés.

Those who labeled my dearest friend Bezabih an outsider, do they not know we’ve passed balls of tihilo to each other and scored goals in one another’s mouths? My fingerprints went into his gut, imprinted in the soft morsel I fed him…and his fingerprints were laid on the floor of my tummy like a feathery carpet.… Have they deliberately forgotten that?

When a relative of my friend Merete, a woman whom everyone referred to as Mrs. Mezenge’e, was deported, she gave away her house and her belongings for free…inconsolable as she bid farewell to her beloved neighbors, whom she considered better than her own relatives…a bitter memory rises like bile into my throat before I swallow it back…then it seeps into the cracks of my broken heart.

* * *

Before our worries multiplied, before everything went bad…and before I just sat on the roadside and indifferently watched everything in this neighborhood…

When marriages were arranged for young people in our town everybody was involved. When Hawlet and Merete got married, even Gash Ayele’s goat, which we all called “the mayor,” took part.… The container they used to collect money was sealed with its skin…

Two months before the wedding, Haji Indris wanted to buy the goat and asked Gash Ayele to sell it to him. “Oh Haji,” said Gash Ayele. “To everyone else, I would say the Mayor is not mere livestock to be sold. He is like a human. But if your heart is set on having him, what can I do? Take him.”

But when the day of the wedding arrived and he saw his goat’s skin turned into some container, he wept. And when people asked him if anything was the matter, he pointed at the creepers decoratively framing the entrance and said: “Oh, the leaves blew into my eye, the leaves.” I witnessed that day the sacrifice one makes for friends.

* * *

But today…I sit underneath the shades of the ulaga tree…my unfortunate nostrils inhale the stench the crazy wind gathers from here and there. These days, the ungracious wind carries wafts of the betrayals we have callously inflicted on our neighbors, forcing us to inhale it.… The other scent coming from each home is that of the excessive desire for money…

I cover my nose with my hands to get away from this stench…and continue to reflect on my memories, great and small, significant and insignificant…

A pregnant Hohite, now married to a bigot her father picked for her, passes by. Her father’s rationale was, “The man is a fellow Oromo”.… May peace be unto you, beautiful… May peace be unto those gorgeous melons, my fine-looking lady.

Zebiba is getting ready to be married before the Christian fasting season ends.… Does she remember the promise she made under the full moon, the promise she made with lips like braided red silk: “Walahi, I’m gonna marry you”? When I asked her the meaning of the prayer written in gold against a dark background that was hanging in their living room, she told me with her sweet lips, “Ihdina sirat al mustaqim.”

Was this prayer of hers ever answered?

Inter-religious or inter-ethnic marriages are unthinkable these days, although innumerable couples had entered such unions in the past… People have now forgotten communally organizing the weddings of the children they brought up. They have forgotten all of that, and now they hold their weddings when it is fasting time for “the others”…

Like the deceitful deaf man who turned his face when the rather suspecting doctor dropped a penny on the floor and proved the healthy condition of his ears…we have turned out to be excellent deaf people who can only hear the jangling of coins…

* * *

In this land of yours, in this country of mine, where Ras Gugsa said, “You all are free to practice the creed of your choice” and declared liberty…even before any one had ever given empty hopes of democracy in the name of a constitution…how dare you do this?

Who is picking all the major memories and making us forget all the things we should never let go?

* * *

We erased our footsteps like a fugitive trying to hide…and when we fenced ourselves in with our holy books and kept impending marriages from our childhood friends to avoid their attendance, that was when we lost dunya8 and let akhira9 slip from our hands as well…

Have we become like beasts that only seek out their own kind?

I was left without a heaven to escape to, and so I plead for time to hide me. I still recall the past, and ponder on memories sweet as honeycomb. When this lane ends and I return to the present, I suddenly awaken…and every 60 seconds, every 24 hours, every seven days, every 13 months10…I ask without anyone answering.

Who here thoughtlessly says man is better than animals?

* * *

The daily prayer that I repeat to myself now is the Holy Qur’an verse I learned from Zebiba: ihdina sirat al mustaqim, may you guide us to the straight path, may you guide us to the straight path, may you guide us to the straight path…

This piece is an excerpt from the novel Heaven without Prickly Pears by Mulugeta Alebachew, translated from Amharic to English by Alebachew and Bethlehem Attfield.


1 Metaphysical body of water believed to exist in heaven.

2 Temperate zone.

3 The lyric is written in a Qene style (a speech or poem which plays on puns to imply a different meaning). It literally translates to “Indeed a (sharp) tongue can roughen one’s gut (be unsavory).” The implied meaning is that a sharp tongue breaks one’s heart.

4 A traditional belief that a starved person would be cured of his condition if he threw stones at the house where he had visited and had not been offered food.

5 A mythical spring in Islam.

6 Shoeshine.

7 Stove, adopted from an Italian word.

8 Earthly concerns.

9 The hereafter.

10 There are 13 months in the Ethiopian calendar (which is based on the Julian calendar and not the Gregorian one).

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