Eritrea: The Self-Colonizing Mission: Names for Collective Identity

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Sep 5th, 2013
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(II) The Self-Colonizing Mission: Names for Collective Identity

 

By Yosief Ghebrehiwet

 

There is a method to the Eritrean madness of the past 50 years, and the alien naming mania that is surfacing all over Eritrea summarizes for us that madness rather neatly in a methodological way. The cluster of names behind which each population group wants to hide – modern, revolutionary, biblical and Arab – identifies for us, almost with pinpoint accuracy, the kind of alien identities that this madness has all been about. Behind the sprouting of these alien identities all over the Eritrean social landscape is ghedli’s chronic permissiveness as the gate-keeper of all things Eritrean, whose only and one requirement for admittance has always been: anything but habesha. As in all promiscuous cravings, the social-values bar has to be lowered to the lowest level imaginable to allow in any strayed belonging which fulfills the only condition demanded of it. And the scope of this degradation of values allowed by this promiscuous permissiveness is mirrored in the changing naming culture of Eritreans – all reflected in its alien variability, its widespread prevalence and its fast-paced acceptance. Together, as a condition for being let into the Eritrean naming culture by the vigilant ghedli guard at the door, these alien names have been pushing out most of the indigenous names through that same revolutionary door.

 

A name gets its meaning from the naming itself, the person to whom it is attached and the larger social context in which it finds itself embedded. Starting from this fact, we can think of various ways a name could degrade or lose its meaning as a result of mismatching these three variables. And that loss of meaning caused by this mismatching is reflected in the loss of values at every level of the society. In this part of the article, only three such mismatching cases will be discussed:

 

  1. when someone with an authentic name is made to lose the meaning that name used to carry because the context (that is, the society) has changed drastically to the worse;
  2. when a name is dragged from an alien place and gets grafted to a body in its natural habitat, and the society has a hard time matching the alien name with the local person;
  3. when a person with an alien name attached to him goes to the original place of the name, and the society refuses to acknowledge the meaning of the local name as attached to the alien person.

 

The entire rationale of the Eritrean revolution has been a search for collective identities, and alien ones for that. And mirroring that national quest are the various alien names emerging in today’s Eritrea. So is it with the degradation of values that necessarily follow such a quest. It is in the attempt to find a collective identity to belong to that all kinds of names are losing their meaning, be it some authentic ones from the past or alien ones uprooted from their original contexts. That is to say, it is only because the newly emerging names satisfy that overriding drive to collectively belong that they are adopted by the baptizers. And the five decades of revolutionary havoc has readily provided the nihilist context for such a belonging, as it keeps erasing content from every possible source in the society. Once that content is erased, the revolution would have no control on the kind of collective identities that various population groups may prefer. Hence, a divergence in the various collective identities that are emerging in today’s Eritrea: religious, Arab, “modern”, ghedli, “Eritrean”, etc.

 

There is nothing wrong with seeking collective identity, but only when it is organically arrived. The kind of organic collective identities that people belong to are a result of a symbiotic process between the individual and the society that goes on through the duration of one’s life – hence the hard work. As such, there is no actual “seeking” going on in this regard; one simply grows into that collective identity. In contrast, the collective identities that the post-colonial generations have been seeking are imposed from above; that is, even as they are self-imposed. And that imposition is what makes “seeking” in this case a real one, even when it is done at a subconscious level. Long before the masses joined into this mania, those who have initiated this “seeking” have been the elite – of course, all said and done in the name of liberation.

 

A massive social uprooting had to materialize first for such alien collective identities to find the necessary environment on which to grow, which ghedli happily provided. As no organic growth would be expected in a social landscape eroded of its top soil, unsurprisingly weeds have taken over the vegetation. Armed with all kinds of weed-names sprouting everywhere, it would be predictable how that search for inorganic identities would go: everything comes in its poor imitation form. If you want to be modern, get a fancy name from the West, and use a few silly English words in your language. If you want to join the Arab family, get a fancy Arab name from Saudi Arabia, and make sure to spice up your language with a few Arabic words here and there. If you want to go biblical, go for a baptismal excavation of a lifetime, and with luck you might find one rare Hebraic name from the Old Testament. And if you want to join the ghedli camp, give your unfortunate child a ghedli-derived name to remind you of your life-long romance with a revolution without cause. See how this kind of identities comes on the cheap; no hard work is required to acquire these inorganic identities, hence their appeal.

 

Modernity is about individualism in all its aspects; liberty, creativity, prosperity, fulfillment, responsibility, happiness, etc have to be sought at the individual level for them to count as such. Modernity is about the emancipation of the individual: how the individual set himself/herself free from the clutches of collective identities that put undue claims on him/her. This goes against the grain of what the ghedli generation has been doing, whose movement has been defined by the undue claims it put on the individual (with Shaebia currently doing a superb job in this task). In its search for collective identities, this generation has put modernity on its head: anything and everything that make an individual is suppressed, at best, and erased, at worst. And anything and everything that make the alien collective identity that one craves for is promoted irrespective of its prohibitive cost. To sum it up, collective identity achieved through top-down process and individualism are inversely related to one another: the former cannot be achieved without degrading the latter. Below, we will see how that goes with “names and naming” as we keep mismatching the above mentioned three variables to get the right context wherein a name gets divested of its meaning in search of such inorganic collective identity.

 

Towards the end of this part of the article (Part II), I will revisit the subject matter of “evidence” in regard to the alien-naming phenomenon raised in  Part I, as I respond to two commentators on the opposite side of this issue. Saleh Younis believes that such a phenomenon doesn’t exist, and in support of his claim he invokes the martyrs’ list of the border war. The problem is that he never asks where and when these names originate. He seems to have totally missed that the alien naming malady is not only an urban phenomenon, but that it has reached an epidemic level after independence. Unlike Saleh, another commentator by the penname of “newkid” comes up with a sample, albeit a small one, that meets these two necessary conditions. We will look at these two kinds of “evidence” closely to further clarify on the nature of this alien-naming phenomenon.

 

Now, let’s focus on the main subject matter of this posting: how the negating context of the past 50 years has provided a fertile environment for all kinds of alien names to sprout in the Eritrean social landscape in its various aspects.

 

[Here is Part I of this article for those who have missed it:http://asmarino.com/articles/1826--i-the-self-colonizing-mission-names-and-naming-in-eritrea]

 

Nihilist context that denies authentic names their meaning

 

Imagine a world where a mother’s wish carries no more meaning in the names she bestows to her children. Now I am not talking about the frivolous names that carry their silliness in their sleeves, but about the negating context in ghedli’s Eritrea that denies old names the meaning they used to carry. That is to say, even if a mother names her children with the right names, the nihilist world that the ghedli generation has created keeps erasing their content. The first of the three mismatching cases mentioned at the start of this essay deals with such a case: when someone with an authentic name is made to lose the meaning that name used to carry because the context (that is, the society) has changed drastically to the worse.

 

The example I have given of names such as Rahwa and Qisanet in Part I is one such obvious case. With these normal names’ contextualization to the larger ghedli-infused environment, you can see the wish of a mother getting appropriated by a clueless generation seeking a collective identity. Now it is no more a parent that wishes for rahwa or qisanet but the whole ghedli generation, the underlying assumption being that it is only at the national level that prosperity and tranquility could be made to be achieved. That, in turn, is meant to encourage everyone to postpone the achievements of these aspirations at individual level; of course, for the sake of the national ones. At its most detrimental aspect, it would mean the baptized child no more belongs to the parental family but to the collective Eritrean family, behind which Shaebia has always been lurking in hiding – a precondition for Shaebia to later come back to the doorsteps of these families to claim its children. And this is not the only way an authentic name gets debased in the present negating context.

 

Nothing is sacrosanct to Shaebia; it has no shame in wearing the mantel of tradition if it helps it to subvert that tradition itself – the naming phenomenon provides ample examples in this regard. Ironically, it is not the Bible-motivated new names that are going back to the Tewahdo or Geez past for inspiration and improvisation; rather, it is the ghedli ones that are doing so, but with perverse intention. When Shaebia seems keen to borrow from the rich heritage of the past to “enlighten” the present, it is always with a sinister goal in mind. A good example of this would be how it has used the Geez word “tehadso” to a nefarious effect. This religious term denotes spiritual “rebirth” or “renaissance”. Instead, Shaebia uses the same concept in a macabre context: this name is given to a chain of prisons for army conscripts run by the army. Under the hands of Shaebia, a spiritual rebirth meant to be used within the context of religion morphs into a different kind of “secular” rebirth: the kind of “revolutionary” rebirth that an army conscript undergoes after going through the harrowing experience of a brutal detention center characterized by isolation, indoctrination, torture, starvation, disease, execution, etc. Look how a deeply religious concept rooted in the Tewahdo past is gutted out of its original meaning in the new “revolutionary” world created by the ghedli generation. [1] And this perversion of religious names is not limited to Shaebia; the masses are emulating it.

 

We have seen in Part I how in the habesha naming tradition of juxtaposing names with various prefixes (Ghebre-, Tekle-, Tesfa-, Lete-, Ande-, Haile-, Wolde-, Fre-, etc) was an innovative way of generating dozens of names. Here I am interested in such names that begin with the prefix of “Fre-” (meaning “fruits of”): Fre-Weyni, Fre-Hiwet , Fre-Ezghi, etc. Now look at one such name that has emerged in ghedli’s Eritrea: Fre-Sewra (the fruits of sewra). A ghedli romantic of the Kebessa type in Eritrea would give this name to his daughter without having any clue where and how the word sewra (or more appropriately “thawra” in Arabic) originated from. Here is what Haggai Erlich has to say regarding the origin of this concept in the Eritrean context: [2]

 

“…thawra …, an early twentieth-century Arab and nationalistic term, revived by the Ba’th party and by Nasserites, was used extensively by the Arabized ELF (and became the standard term for revolution in Eritrea in Tigrigna) It was an idealistic, nationalistic concept, denoting fighting against an alien, non-Arab oppressor, and containing a nonmaterialistic social change …”

 

Notice what the clueless father would be doing under such circumstances: not only is he making his daughter carry a name heavily loaded with Arab nationalism that half of the ghedli generation were pining for, but does that by sacrilegiously juxtaposing it with a Tewahdo or habesha concept. Leaving that aside, I bet you no Egyptian, Iraqi or Palestinian would ever call his daughter “Sewra” or “Thawra”, however fierce his Arab nationalism happens to be; he/she realizes that naming is not to be tampered in such a frivolous way. And then we wonder why a girl named Fre-Sewra would wander haplessly towards the Sinai: nothing in her naming alerts here of the danger she will meet there – a true sign of an uprooted people who have lost their survival instinct.

 

And last, let me go back to the “ugly” names that parents used to give to a son following the death of all the other sons to ward off the Angel of Death, in the hope that he might find the names too repulsive to bother with the newborn (mentioned in Part I), to make a further point on the same subject matter: how the nihilist context renders such names inconceivable to have. I said then, when mothers came up with the “ugliest” of names imaginable, it was still done with all the good wish for their children that one could hope for attached to none other but those “ugly” names. I had such “ugly” names like “Godefa” and “Adgoy” within the brutal ghedli context of today’s Eritrea, in general, and the border war, in particular, in mind when I wrote this stanza in Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism [3]:

 

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.

 

The poor Devil would have no means of recognizing the warding-off bait that an Eritrean mother had cleverly laid for him to save her beloved one. Within Shaebia’s serialized world that has reduced someone’s distinct child into an indistinct lump of anonymity, the Devil has no means of distinguishing one from the other. What would an “Adgoy” or “Godefa” denote in a ghedli-concocted world that keeps serializing every attempt to provide meaning to a name? In a land where meswaitinet has become a badge of honor, any name that attempts to put off death would be unthinkable. Within such a world, who cares if one’s child is given a frivolously detached name like Kevin, Ronaldinho, Harnet, Eyael, Sinai or Furhanna, if there is no cohesive context to stick it to? Who wants to have names with roots in a landscape eroded of its rich soil through 50 years of reckless cultural denuding?

 

Warsai: the “China Marys” of Eritrea

 

Before the children grow up to be adults, Shaebia snatches them from their parents’ homes and, at their tender age, erases the wishes of their parents and replaces them with its own hidri instead. Indeed, that is what has been happening in the past 50 years, with a collective wish (be it under “ghedli” or “Eritrea” or pan-Arabism) replacing every individual wish. After independence, an entire generation is given a generic name “Warsai”, as the “inheritors” of the ghedli past, one that reflects that collective hidri. This collective name then becomes a precondition for their serialization. The Warsai are of course supposed to be the creation of Yikealo, those who have anointed themselves with a name nothing short of godly aspiration. [4] Appropriate to that aspiration, it is in their image – that is, in the image of teghadalay – that the new generation is meant to be remolded. And, as in the Creator’s case, this creation is meant to be ex-nihilo, a task that first requires the wiping out of the entire past.

 

There is this documentary on the early Chinese immigrants’ experience in the US on PBS that throws light on this phenomenon. It deals with an era where the typical white man was unable or unwilling to see a distinction between one Chinaman and another. And the names given to them were a reflection of that state of mind. When Chinese women first came to America in the 19th century, the most common name used to “identify” them was the generic “China Mary”: “Those few Chinese women here were treated as identically anonymous.” [5] To make a distinction between them as distinct individuals having their own distinct characteristics is to humanize them, for that would mean one sees more than their being Chinese in them. And to lump them together into an indistinguishable anonymity that denies their individuality is to dehumanize them. And once you render them anonymous, their indistinct nature is treated as raw material easy for exploitation. That is the road Shaebia has taken to dehumanize the Warsai generation: it has made an indistinguishable raw material out of this generation so that it can shape it in its own image, the national service serving it as a laboratory for simulating temekro mieda.

 

How would one distinguish one “China Mary” from another “China Mary”? The point is one needn’t, since whatever function the “China Marys” were meant to accomplish in that white man’s society, they happened to be easily interchangeable in that task; that is, they could do it entirely in their anonymity. And in the eyes of the white man, whatever distinguished one “China Mary” from the other happened to be either superfluous to the task, in which case it would be ignored, or detrimental to the society, in which case it would be suppressed. That is to say, whatever made them interchangeable in the task they were assigned to accomplish was preserved, while the rest was discarded. This way, they were turned into variables that the oppressive society can easily manipulate to its own exploitative advantage. So has it been with Warsai: except for those tasks that fit Yikealo’s hidri (or hidri suwuatna which amounts to: “teqebeleni biretey”) – those of the selfless warrior and of the slave worker – the Warsai have to suppress or give up all other individual aspirations (those that identify them as an “individual” rather than as the collective “Warsai”) that would hamper those tasks. It is in this sense then that this generic name has to be seen as a precondition for their dehumanization and exploitation.

 

Notice how China Mary was made to lose her distinct individuality by giving her a categorical name from the top that identifies her to her group identity only. In the Eritrean case, this is exactly what has been taking place, except that this collective categorization is done by none other but the Eritrean elite themselves: the self-colonizers. The self-colonizers’ attempt to collectively belong to alien identities, as displayed in the kind of names and naming they prefer, cannot be done without degrading, at best, or extinguishing, at worst, the content from those very names. Even as these names come in their individual variability, their attraction lies primarily not from their meanings extracted at individual level but from the power invested in them to make that individual belong to a preferred collective identity.

 

The irrepressible urge to collectively belong

 

As a parent, if your overriding concern in seeking a name for your child is for belonging purposes, you don’t necessarily aim for a name that picks out an individual as an individual. All that you demand of that name is whether it does the job of squarely putting your child within the group you desperately want to identify your child and yourself with. And if, in the process of doing that, the name is divested of its meaning, you wouldn’t mind it at all; given your overriding need, that would be a price you are willing to pay. Does it put my child within the larger Arab family? Does it put my child within the ghedli family? Does it put my child within the religious family? Does it put my child within the larger “Eritrean” family? Does it put my child within the modern family? These are the kind of questions that these desperado seekers of alien names have been primarily asking. The meaning derived from such naming at individual level, if any is actually sought, remains secondary to this categorical task of locating oneself (and one’s child) within these alien groups. To underscore this point, all you need is to notice this special characteristic that holds among all these alien names: the moment the name-givers have made these categorical choices, they end up depriving the names of any meaning that used to be associated with them in their original contexts.

 

This then takes us to the second of the three mismatching cases mentioned at the start of this essay: when a name is dragged from an alien place and gets grafted to a body in its natural habitat, and the society has a hard time matching the alien name with the local person.

 

Think of what the names Veronica, Levi and Furhanna would respectfully mean to an Italian, an Israeli and an Arab. No doubt, there would be genuine connotations attached to these names if located within their own original cultures. For instance, a daughter could be named Veronica in remembrance of a beloved auntie. Or it could be that a pious Catholic family named their child after St. Veronica. But a habesha girl – be it in Eritrea or Ethiopia – named Veronica would lack all such meanings attached to that name. In this case, the only reason why a habesha would choose Veronica is because it sounds “modern”, “cute” or exotic to the name-giver’s ears. And since the “modernity” that is sought is to be found in the sounding of the name and the fact that it comes from the “civilized West”, nothing else is demanded from that name except for these collective preferences. Similarly, think about what a Levi would mean to an Israeli. Among other things, it may identify the family as a descendant from the Levi tribe (a priestly caste). But a habesha would choose such a name (Lewie) simply because it is in the Bible or it is rare or it sounds “cute” (like “Lili”), or any combination of these three collective wishes. So is it with Furhanna (Arabic for happiness); for an Arab, it could be a particular happy occasion that may not have any religious connotation that it invokes. Not so to his Eritrean counterpart, whose “happy occasion” has to be Arabized and Islamized first before it would count for anything. In this instance, it would not be the content that primarily matters, but the language with which that content is uttered, and the alien identity it drags along. Thus, when the only reason for adopting a name becomes none else but to belong to an alien group that one has no clue to begin with, that name is deprived of any relevant content that could be meaningfully attached to that unfortunate individual so baptized. In all of these examples, that irresistible urge to collectively belong to a modern, revolutionary, religious or any other alien group seems to override any other sense and sensibility that could be extracted from looking solely at each and every one of those names. That is to say, all the alien names that would otherwise have had meaningful presence in their original contexts are rendered vacuous when used within the Eritrean context.

 

The frivolously detached names of this generation that are emerging in different odd ways seem to be an acknowledgement of the current nihilist reality, where names are not meant to pick out a distinct person in his individuality but to reflect a projection of the alien collective wishes the ghedli generation carried with it for 50 years. Names such Harnet and Netsanet are given not with individual liberty in mind, but with a generation’s wish for a collective ghedli alien identity distinct from its habesha past. So is it with names like Intessar (Arabic for “victory”), where a child’s baptism is made an unhappy confluence of three collective alien identities – sewra, Arabism and misguided religiosity – that a generation aspires to belong. This reduction of the distinct individual into an indistinct representation of the whole (be it of “modernity”, ghedli, nation or religion) symbolizes that overriding aspiration of the ghedli generation to collectively belong at the expense of their individuality. Thus, with the alien names that they are increasingly embracing, the masses collaborate in the demise of erasing their true identity.

 

Erasing the past

 

This modern mania for rebaptism of anything and everything under the Eritrean sky should be seen as emblematic of the greater task of ghedli in wiping out the rich past. What we have seen above is that, with the modern generation’s penchant for exotic and alien names, their children’s names have been denuded of their meanings. As we look into the various reactions to modernity (either the disdain to modernity or the love affair with its surface appearances), we might miss the greater task that all are involved in: erasure of the past. Now we need to look of how that erasure goes.

 

Here is a version of a stanza I once wrote in Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism [6] that encapsulates the erasure task that the ghedli generation happily undertook:

 

Eraser called ghedli

 

After decades of frantic erasure,
the only memento left
is the eraser itself,
that Eritreans now confuse
for their history.

 

On a page, one first erases what has been written before, then writes anew. In a social context though, it is the rewriting that doubles as erasure. We have seen how that goes with naming: if you want to erase the traditional names, you do that through their replacements – it in this sense that new baptisms double as burials of traditional names. So is it with the entire past; be it culture or history, the erasing is done by their ghedli replacements: temekro mieda and the revisionist history that validates that experience. Thus, when I say that it is the “eraser” that Eritreans confuse for their history in the above stanza, it actually means it is with the history of that eraser (called ghedli) that the ghedli generation wants to replace the entire past. But what could be possibly said about the history of an eraser? You guessed it: how it erased this and that page from the past. You could talk about the metkel, haben, finan, dejen, fenkil, awet, etc of that eraser, but in the end all those “revolutionary” attributes were employed to do nothing else but erase the social capital of the society: history, culture, tradition, religion, rule of law, family, etc. And ever since, Eritreans have been proudly naming their children befitting to that 50 years of frantic erasure of the past: Metkel, Haben, Finan, Dejen, Fenkil, Awet, etc.

 

In the end though, the blank page and the rewritten page amount to the same thing, for the newly writ never holds for long. It is as if the page keeps rejecting the ink again and again – a fact that explains Shaebia’s hyperactivity in trying to instill a ghedli culture without roots in the past (the relentless violence primarily comes from this fact). If, in the first place, it is possible for one to erase one’s culture and replace it with a different one, the loss might have not been that big. For instance, if it is possible for one to adopt a genuine Italian culture by rejecting habesha culture, the loss to the human soul might not have been that great, for the two cultures are rich in their own ways. The problem is the rejecter of one’s own culture can only come up with an imitation version of the culture that he/she wants to adopt – that is to say, it is an undoable task. In the ghedli case, it is even worse – for the world that the teghadelti want to impose on Eritrea is an imitation of a world without content. Thus, recreating temekro mieda in today’s Eritrea requires a quixotic attempt with unparalleled violence to reach a goal distanced twice from reality – it is like seeking an imitation of an imitation world. To attempt such a foolish endeavor that would never hold requires a special kind of blindness: content-blindness.

 

Content-blind

 

The attributes that define temekro mieda are: meswaitinet, tewefayinet, tetsewarinet, haben, tsin’at, qoratsinet, bitsifrina, biqiltsimna, jigninet, etc (perseverance, steely resolve, sacrifice, martyrdom, self-reliance, pride, etc). If you have noticed, all these “virtues” never answer the question of content on their own: what for? That is to say, deprived of any discernable goal, they remain content-blind. [7]

 

The problem with temekro mieda is that it wants to turn these attributes into “ideals” without tying them to any content. It remained fixated with the ghedli journey characterized by these devoid-of-content attributes simply because there had never been a discernable destination to begin with. Thus, it was making up the goal as it went along that journey: so far as the collective identity that the ghedli generation craved for was easily met from the journey itself, no other goal was required. Once one counted himself/herself as part of the pilgrims of this journey, identified through the attributes acquired in that journey, his/her craving for collective identity was fully met. Notice how similar this is with the craving for collective identity that inspired alien naming: neither of them cares for content. The only problem is that this pilgrimage has to go on indefinitely for that collective identity to hold – that is, in the parlance of the eraser, the erasing has to go on, for the eraser gets its content only from the act of the erasing itself. The parallels with the eraser are rather striking.

 

The eraser abhors content; it just erases anything and everything that come along its way. The moment an eraser touches a page, as if by magic, the entire script on that page is deprived of its meaning long before the erasing has started. That is, the eraser lacks an eye with which to read – it is content-blind. Through its eyes, any script looks the same: gibberish. (Or think about this: if you want to assign someone for the task of erasing only, he doesn’t have to know how to read what he is supposed to erase; he could even be a total illiterate.) Similarly, Shaebia (and the ghedli generation) is incapable of seeing relevance or beauty in the society’s history, culture, rule of law, tradition, religion, language, family, etc. Given this content-blindness, all the social capital accumulated through layers of generational input remains gibberish to its “modern eyes”. It might as well be looking at derho z’tsahtirato page. In that sense, Shaebia lacks awareness of the worth of all that it keeps destroying; that is, even as it pays lip service to “qirsitatna”. If all its eyes could discern is gibberish written all over the social landscape, then it is easy to understand that irresistible itch in its hands to erase, erase and erase. We can see then, as in the eraser’s case, the moment Shaebia looks at the Eritrean society as a blank page on which to write, that page has to be deprived of all its previous content long before the erasing began – a trait that the ghedli generation carried from its urban beginnings.

 

If all that there is to it is this irresistible urge to erase, what would history look like as witnessed by the eraser itself; that is, if it was capable of telling it? Given that it is unable to see content outside itself, it would be entirely self-referential: how it erased this and that “content”. That is why the history that the ghedli generation wants to tell remains entirely self referential. Even when it seems to invoke the historical past, it is only to confirm that ghedli history. And as in the case of the eraser, even when it comes to itself, the history it tells is devoid of any content: it happens to be about means without ends – that is, about a journey with no destination. And if you want to know what Shaebia’s current history-in-the-making looks like, you have to see how that ghedli eraser is currently working on the ground: try to think about how recreating temekro mieda in today’s Eritrea looks like. You get a very surreal world, where one has to recreate tewefayintet, qoratsinet, jigninet, bitsifrina, riese-murkosa, etc in absence of any objective that calls for it. All that such an effort would do is just erase everything on its way: history, culture, religion, family, economy, education, society, etc – that is, anything that has content. If the journey actually comes to recognize content along its way, it would abort itself. That is why it is essential for the journey to remain content-blind for it to continue as a journey. And that is why ghedli has to necessarily find its extension in national service. The only other outcome that one would expect out of this madness to erase anything and everything along its way is for the eraser to consume itself in the very process of this frantic erasing. Thus, Ghedli/Shaebia is an eraser on steroid; there is no stopping it until it consumes itself to death in that erasing process.

 

It is important to grasp that there is no gap between “reading” and “understanding” as invoked in this context. If you are able to read a society, then that would amount to understanding it in the proper way. The problem with totalitarian minds is not that they don’t like what they read, but that they are incapable of reading the riches (or rather, the social capital) of the society. In fact, such blindness is inbuilt in any totalitarian system (be it secular or religious), without which it would cease to function. [8] And all the horror that these regimes commit comes from that chronic content-blindness [9] This also happens to be the case of classical colonizers. It is precisely because they are unable to “read” the natives that they consign the colonized to the Other. The natives’ culture, history and even language is taken as having no value, and hence treated as gibberish – the same line Shaebia has taken in treating its subjects. Indeed, there is no better way than this to describe the colonizing mission of ghedli, in general, and of Shaebia, in particular.

 

When one finds a gap between reading and understanding, it is only by inserting an artificial script in between. And it is that script interposed in between the reader and the reality that renders the eyes blind. That is what religious fundamentalists do when they put the literal Koran or Bible in between them (as readers) and the modern-day reality on the ground. That is what the ghedli fundamentalists do when they put the “ghedli experience” (temekro mieda) as a guideline in between them and the society in today’s Eritrea. And that is what alienated names do: first, they are plucked out from their original contexts, then they are grafted on an entirely different context; and in the process, the eye goes blind when “reading” those names.

 

Alien names that don’t stick

 

The eye goes blind twice when an alien name loses its content at both individual and collective levels. This kind of total content-blindness forces us to look at the third of the mismatching cases mentioned at the start of this essay: when a person with an alien name attached to him goes to the original place of the name, and the society refuses to acknowledge the meaning of the local name as carried by the alien person. So let’s ask this question: what would it mean for those Eritreans with all kinds of alien names grafted on their habesha bodies to venture all the way to distant lands where those very names originate from, where the contrast between the alien names they have carried to these lands and the brutal reality on the ground happen to be at its starkest?

 

The new generation Eritreans, with all kinds of alien names attached to them, had to take a different journey to realize the absurdity of the ghedli journey that brought them all these identity crises: the harrowing journey through the Arab Passage to Israel. They had to find the exact contrasting context in distant Sinai and Israel to see the absurdity of the alien identities they have been carrying, as displayed in their mismatched names. To see this generational malady carried to its logical absurdity, think of an Eritrean girl named Sinai being tortured and raped by the Arabs at the Sinai; another one named Yerusalem rendered homeless in the streets of Jerusalem, and haunted by a racist society an a daily basis; and a young man named Israel held in a detention camp in Israel, contained in a modern day “leper colony” reserved for African refugees only. It is as if these Eritreans have to carry their alien names all the way to their original places that eerily mock them in hollowed out echoes to comprehend the contradictory logic of their naming (and their identity), where the mental and physical dislocations of a generation come to cynically converge at the right places. Would there be any other place in the world other than Israel – and for that, in a detention camp – for an Eritrean named “Israel” to feel the full weight of the incongruity that his name carries?

 

When Eritreans keep calling each other through their Hebraic and Arabic names, they are mostly unable to detect the absurdity of their alien names since most of them happen to participate in this alien-naming mania. That is to say, they lack the contrasting background that would highlight these names as absurdly alien in their nature. It is only when they go to that alien environment that the names originally belong to, where their naming stands out in its fully discordant nature where the mismatching is starkly clear, that they realize (if ever) the extent of that absurdity. This is because the natives go content-blind on them at the collective level that those names were meant to do their work.

 

Once I wrote the following stanza in Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism [10] when it was in the news that eight Arabs raped an Eritrean lady:

 

Identity crisis in Arabia

 

As the heavyset Arab rapists
laid on top of her one by one,
all the tiny Eritrean lady felt was
the full weight
of her habesha identity.

 

Within the context of the subject matter of “names and naming” discussed here, nothing would illustrate better the  discordant nature of these alien names than this brutality the Eritrean refugees are met with under the hands of Arabs at the Sinai. Every alien name carried all the way to the Sinai loses it currency the moment it is faced with this brutal realty. The alien names get unhinged from the habesha body, leaving the individual in his/her mismatched reality. An Eritrean lady named Suzanna or Veronica would never be treated the same way as a white lady with the same name under similar circumstances. Under many occasions, Westerners have been kidnapped by Bedouin Arabs, but none of them were treated the same way as Eritreans. If any such thing were to be attempted, the Arab Bedouins know the wrath of the Egyptian army would fall on them like a ton of bricks. Invariably, these Western hostages were released within a day or two after “negotiation” with officials.

 

An Eritrean named Sewra (or Fre-Sewra) would also be met with no mercy at all; that is, even if the name-carrier attempts to painstakingly make the Arab connection to Eritrea’s sewra that her naming directly alludes to. Neither the Arab Bedouins nor the Egyptian government would be impressed – that is, even if the victim happens to carry an authentic Arab name. Even though that habesha lady mentioned in the stanza usually comes with a Christian name attached to her, I don’t think the Bedouin Arabs have spared those with Arab names – even though few in numbers, they are more or less facing the same fate. [11] To put this in a contrastive perspective, think of refugee Arab women (say, from Syria; and with names like Aaleyah, Ahlam, Huda, Firdus, Ilham, Intessar, Jana, Manaar, Nasimal, Ranya, Siham, etc – those very names that the new Jeberti generation are very fond of) in similar numbers held hostage at the Sinai, and treated similarly as the Eritrean women – torture, rape, organ harvest, extortion and murder. Al Jezzera would go nuts publicizing it day and night and the Egyptian army would be on the move instantly. How about the locals? They would be up in arms in rage (with Arab dignity in mind) at no time; with pitch forks and torches in their hands, they would finish off the culprits long before the army arrived. The point is this: while those Arab names seem to stick to the Arab bodies, in that they would elicit the appropriate response from the Arab world, no such reaction would be triggered by what happens to the habesha bodies carrying those very names – a precious lesson to those who crave for Arab identity!

 

Similarly, the typical Israeli in Jerusalem would give a damn about a homeless Eritrean refugee named Yerusalem; to him/her that name turns instantly into gibberish the moment it is attached to that “black lady” unfit to carry that name. Such a name would only trigger derision and repulsion from the onlookers. So would it be with an Eritrean named Israel, and all those Hebraic names excavated from the Old Testament.

 

The uncomfortable truth is this: the alien names that many Eritreans have proudly carried along through the Arab Passage and into the “unpromised land” [12], be they of Hebraic or Arab extract, quickly get unglued under the merciless Middle Eastern sun. Bereft of their borrowed names, what remains exposed for the vultures to peck is the naked habesha identity that the refugees have tried their hardest to cover with alien adornments. Those names refuse to stick to the habesha body; even as the victims try to hold on to these names, all the Arabs see is the “habesh” or the “abed”  and the Israelis, the “black infiltrators”. That is to say, all those Hebraic and Arab names turn into gibberish in front of Israeli and Arab eyes respectively.

 

In all of this, it is easy to notice that what is triggering the Arab and Israeli reactions is the collective identity of the refugees. Let me focus on the Israeli reaction to make my point. The Israelis are denying the Eritrean refugees asylum not by looking at each and every individual case if his/her rights had been violated in Eritrea, as it should have been if they had followed the UN guidelines – the claim that they are doing just that is dishonest, to say the least. Rather, they are denying them by taking a “collective look” at them; that is by looking at them as anonymous black entity that threatens the Jewish identity of Israel; in their own words: “They will dilute our Jewish identity”. Well, we have come to a full circle: a people obsessed with the purity of their collective identity (the Eritreans) have come to meet their counterpart in distant Israel.

 

Burying the past

 

Above, I have used the word “excavation” to describe the kind of digging the young generation has been fascinated with to come up with odd biblical names. This “digging” is unusual in the sense that it is not simply meant to enrich oneself as a result of the “riches” that one gets out of the archeological dig, but that it is primarily meant to bury the past with none other than the newly found riches (although it is mostly done so at subconscious level). Let me provide a tangible example of how this archeological dig that doubles as burial place goes on in the Eritrean context – literally.

 

When in between1998 and 2003 the archeological remains of early “urban” settlements were found in the Asmara area of Sembel, Sembel Kushet, Mai Hutsa, and Ona Gudo [13], at the beginning the Shaebia regime was elated not because of the rich archeological throve that goes back as far as 8th Century B.C. that was supposedly found there, wherever that finding might have led to, but because it provided Shaebia with a different narrative than the Axumite civilization to tell. The phrase that they overused at that time was “Pre-Axumite civilization”. This was further motivated by the timing of the finding: the animosity triggered by the border war was as palpable as it could possibly get. So the first question the Shaebia nationalists must have asked was, “Will this give us a different identity than the habesha one that we share with Ethiopians; and, for that, conclusively?” Or, to put it in more revealing terms: “Will this finding provide us with enough debris to bury the habesha past?” Here is a stanza that I wrote regarding this event in Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism [14]:

 

Archeological find in Asmara

 

They dug and dug furiously;
yet, they were ordered to dig more,
because the historians felt
it was not deep enough
to bury all the past.

 

What is odd is that Shaebia wanted to use the archeological finds not as additional riches to the rich Axumite legacy the nation has inherited, but as a way of dissociating itself from its habesha past. Look how bizarre this undertaking is: one uses the distant past to bury the habesha past in between! Don’t be fooled; Shaebia doesn’t have any respect for the distant past either. It only wants it if it can help it to bury the middle past that links it with Ethiopia. After all, it uses the most recent past – the history of ghedli – for the same purpose. In fact, when Shaebia found that the archeological finds of pottery pieces unappealing to its “modern eyes”, and therefore considered not “deep” enough to bury the habesha past, it relegated the whole finding to an obscure place to the disappointment and frustration of the archeologists that discovered it. Names that the officials used to diminish the value of the pottery pieces were “garbage”, “just a lot of pot shreds”, etc. [15] Notice that all their “modern eyes” could discern was pottery pieces deprived of their historical content; that is to say, all they could read in these findings was gibberish: when they saw “value” in them, it was as valuable debris with which to bury the habesha past; and when they saw no value in them, it was as useless (or harmful) debris they had to get rid of lest it hampers them in their self-colonizing mission.

 

Although Peter R. Schmidt (one of the anthropologists leading this archeological research) doesn’t connect the regime’s reaction directly to its mangled concept of modernity, we see the tell-tale signs in all the regressive elements he attributes to the regime (and the Front) [16] – deep colonial roots, disdain for intellectuals, isolationism, the culture of the ex-fighters, etc – all of which are, in fact, encapsulated in temekro mieda. And temekro mieda is not amenable to preservation of history. It requires a totally different mind set than that of the teghadelti in charge, who anyways would have ideally preferred to start from an erased clean slate. The writer failed to make a direct connection with the modernity factor simply because he didn’t seem to be aware of where the teghadelti’s inspiration came from when they seemed to be interested in the archeological finding. If he did, he would have realized that for a people who happened to be so zealous to use the distant past to bury the habesha past, it would come easy to them to dump that distant past if it seemed to interfere with the ghedli past. It is hard to imagine that a movement entirely inspired by colonialism, and the misconstrued concept of modernity that goes with it – be it in its conceptual, developmental or behavioral sense – would be interested in genuine history. It was just that Shaebia’s objective happened to have found a momentary overlap with the archeologists’ objective (what the author calls, “the decolonization of archeology of the Horn” [17] ). So, in Shaebia’s eyes, the worth of the “pot shreds” happened to be as debris that would bury the habesha past. As soon as the debris seemed to find their way to the ghedli past (or its extension, Shaebia’s Eritrea of today), they had to be consigned to oblivion.

 

The post-colonial generation’s fascination with alien names has similar underlying structure as “the archeological digging that doubles as burial of the historical past” mentioned above. The Westernized, revolutionized, fundamentalized and Arabized names – call them, if you will, “debris of names” – are doing a good job of burying the naming pool of the traditional past. Be it the frivolously modern who names his children after Hollywood actors or movie characters (Kevin, Ben-Hur, etc) and soccer celebrities (Rolandinho, Zidane, etc); or the ghedli romantic who names his kids Netsanet and Harnet, as if they are the gene carries for that unfortunate dichotomy that haunts the nation; or the religious fanatic who keeps frantically digging the Old Testament to come up with extinct Jewish names no one uses anymore; or the Muslim elite who keeps equating anyt Arab name with Islam, all of them are doing a fantastic job of burying their past, be it of the habesha or other indigenous types. It is clear what the Eritrean elite have been doing: in their attempt to seek identity anywhere else but their past – be it tradition, history, religion or genealogy – they have been generating debris of names at an astounding rate to bury traditional names. That it is in this desperate attempt to run away from their “non-modern” roots that this debris is being produced shouldn’t be surprising: after all, so far as those borrowed names meet the burial demand for enough debris, who cares about the content of that debris?

 

Notice how it is in the rendering of names as collective identifiers that those names turn into debris. That is to say, it is in the very search for collective identity that content from all things that matter to the true identity of an individual – history, culture, religion, family, genealogy, ethics, values, etc – are turned into gibberish.

 

Faith and archeology

 

The theme of this article has been the self-colonizing mission of the ghedli generation, as displayed in the alien-naming culture that urban Eritrea has come to fully embrace. The concept of archeology has been central in understanding this phenomenon. That, in the end, it is the Hebraic and Arab names that will be used to bury the traditional names says a lot on how faith has become instrumental in that self-colonizing mission. The role of faith has made this venture acceptable in a way that many of those embracing alien names are not fully aware of the colonizing mission that they have embarked on, as they target their own children for this unholy task.

 

V.S. Naipaul says the following on imperialism that comes camouflaged under religion [18]:

 

“It was the poet Iqbal’s hope that the Indian Muslim state might rid Islam of ‘the stamp that Arab imperialism was forced to give it.’ It turns out now that the Arabs were the most successful imperialists of all time, since to be conquered by them (and then to be like them) is still, in the minds of the faithful, to be saved.” (P 142)

 

I doubt that this holds true in every case to the same degree, as the resistance of Turks and Persians to Arabization shows; that is, even as we find aspects of that self-colonization in other ways than linguistic still holding true among them. When it comes to these nations that have kept their language – Persia, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesiae – Naipaul has the historic and cultural aspects in mind. In the Eritrean case, it goes further than that for it includes linguistic colonization: nothing less than identity changeover is targeted. What names and naming have shown us is that the Muslim elite have fully embarked on this self colonizing mission, one that is meant to come to full fruition with the adoption of Arabic as a national language. There is a reason why this search for alien identity has taken this linguistic route: there has never been a nation on this earth that has adopted Arabic as its language and was able to retain its former identity for long. That is to say, Arabic comes dragging everything else with it – history, culture, religion and finally identity itself.

 

In our times, we have seen how religious fundamentalism has become the embodiment of self-colonization. The Taliban of Afghanistan destroyed the Buddha sculpture because they believed it is not part of their heritage, even as it was the pre-Islamic Afghans that built that sculpture. This would be like destroying the Aksum obelisks, built with the sun goddess and the moon god in mind (the solar disk and the crescent at the top of the obelisk), simply because it contradicts the Christian faith that came after it. For the Taliban, for anything to count as their heritage, it is not the “Afghan beginning” that matters but the “Muslim beginning”. Or rather, for them, Afghan identity starts with Islam; anything that happened before that has to be erased for the Afghan people to retain their Islamic purity. That doesn’t mean other heritages that fall under “Muslim” category are spared either, when and if they are locally inspired – as the case of Mali amply testifies. An Islamic militant group in Mali known as Ansar Dine went on a rampage destroying Muslim shrines inTimbuktu because they thought any local element in Islam would mar the Arab heritage that came directly from Koranic Arabia. In the attempt to retain purity, any local Muslim input exhibited in various ways – local saints, music, architecture, etc. – has to be destroyed. Although camouflaged in nationalistic rhetoric, a similar phenomenon has been going on in Eritrea. When the Tigre-speaking leaders in Jebha decided to burn Tigre books in mieda, it was the fear that such a local input would hamper the search for Arab identity that they believed could only materialize if Arabic is adopted as national language. I would consider such an attempt to destroy one’s own language as no less atrocious as the willful destruction of their own heritage conducted by the Ansar Dine and the Taliban.

 

Only those who respect their tradition are capable of emancipating themselves, even from some oppressive aspects of that tradition itself. That is why I have been stressing in my writings the importance of holding on to one’s tradition as one keeps adopting aspects of modernity. And reclaiming one’s past happens to be part of that process – the European case would be a good example.

 

The emancipation of Europe from the Dark Ages characterized by Christian fanaticism took place by reclaiming its non-Christian past. The Renaissance (the rebirth) took as Europe used the rich heritage of its pagan past, namely the Roman and Hellenic heritages, to come out from the chokehold that Christianity had put on it for more than one thousand years. After that, a synthesis took place where Christianity was “humanized” by “pagan” input of the past. Nowadays, we see the Italians proudly claiming both their Christian and Roman heritages. So is it with the Greeks, who proudly relate to their Christian and Hellenic past. Not so with the Pakistani – a point that V. S. Naipaul makes in regard to the Pakistanis’ ambivalent attitude towards the rich archeological finding of Mohenjo-Daro. [19] And not so with the Egyptians, who tend to display the same ambivalence to their rich pre-Islamic past. In a nation where religion still retains its heavy presence, the pharaonic past is assessed more by what the Koran says than by any other historic measurement. So is it with Persians and their Zoroastrian past: their ambivalent attitude towards Persepolis mirrors that of the Egyptians’ attitude towards their ancient heritage (the pyramids, the sphinx, the Luxor temple, etc).

 

We see the same underlying structure in Eritreans’ ambivalent attitude towards their past, inspired by religious and ghedli fundamentalisms. In that reluctance to claim its past (as in the Dark Ages of Europe) is to be spotted the Dark Ages of Eritrea. Recently, there was a news article under the title of Eritrea: Back to the Dark Ages, referring infrastructural deterioration in the land. [20] But this happens to be simply the reflection of the Dark Ages mentality Eritreans have acquired through their ghedli journey. The self reliance mantra (even in history!) that both the regime followers and many in the opposition subscribe to is just one reflection of that archaic mentality. Those incapable of borrowing from their past are incapable of borrowing from other cultures. That is why they feel nothing less than change in their identity is needed in order to borrow. A whole sale borrowing if you will, except that there remains no self that would conduct such borrowing; hence the necessity for the memory loss exemplified in the erasure of the past.

 

We have seen how identity change that ghedli has all been about takes place within our lifetime. The Jeberti elite’s case would be the paradigmatic one because of the distance they have been willing to traverse to achieve that is the most distant among the other Eritrean groups. We can literally see how this changeover (as in makeover) takes place piece by piece – something that must have taken centuries in other societies to accomplish. First, the habesha attire has to be dropped unceremoniously: the ubiquitous netsela that identifies the habesha women uniquely has to be abandoned for liwyet; and among the conservative, for the chador. Second, the habesha way of saluting has to give way to an Arab one: the cheek-to-cheek kissing and the handshake are on their way out; and among the conservative ones, any touching between the sexes is abhorred. Third, we have seen how the habesha names have been dropped entirely, all to be replaced with Arab ones. Fourth, we have seen how even the Tigrigna language is getting Arabized to make it distinct from the one used by the Christians – the making of Al Jebertia [21] – this being the first step in the adoption of Arabic as the main language. If we add all the other tidbits – such as the separation of women from men in many conservative Jeberti households – that changeover from habesha to Arab identity becomes complete. Here then is an identity changeover put on a fast track, with ghedli playing the role of the great catalyst.

 

Before we conclude this part of the article, let me now revisit the nature of the alien names mentioned in Pat I, and try to answer a particular question raised regarding its validity: are the kind of names that are appearing in today’s Eritrea of the traditional type – Ghebre, Ande, Habte-Ghiorighis, Tekeste, Oqbay, Tesfai, etc – as Saleh Younis wants us to believe, or are they of the biblical (Hibraic) type – Abel, Isaias, Yonathan, Surafel, Henock, Nevi, etc, as another commentator claims?

 

Alien- naming: an urban and after-independence phenomenon

 

Saleh Younis believes that he has iron-clad evidence that I am dead wrong in my claim on the alien-naming phenomenon: the martyrs’ list (of the border war). [22] He says that I should have looked at this huge list of names (about 20,000!) “at the tip of my finger” (at asmarino.com) which, as he rightly claims, happen to be overwhelmingly traditional. He believes that, given that the list provides the largest sample that we could possibly get, it would conclusively show that the alien-naming phenomenon that I am talking about doesn’t exist. I wish I had thought about that list before I wrote Part I, for it provides an excellent source for comparative analysis. So let’s just do that now – with the kinds of alien names I mentioned in Part I in mind: ghedli, Arab and Hebraic. And since there cannot be more direct connection to ghedli than the search for ghedli and Arabic identities, let’s start with those two.

 

I hope Saleh is not expecting for ghedli names to show up in the martyrs’ list, even though there are few of those, for obvious reason: ghedli names made their appearance after independence. The few we meet in the list must have either been given to children born in mieda or survived as a result of their semantic ambiguity (ex: Awet). That is to say, ghedli-naming is more or less an after-independence phenomenon.

 

I know that Saleh, despite all his patriotic rooting for ghedli, would rather be found dead than give one of his kids a ghedli name. He would graciously leave that honor to his Christian counterpart. I would even go as far as to claim that he has been the dejen for ghedli in the cyberspace, but it wouldn’t even come to his mind to call his son “Dejen”. Please note that it is not the case  that he simply prefers another name to Dejen; his rejection is rather categorical in nature: he is rejecting ghedli names because they come in their Tigrigna version – in the same way the Lemlems and Mebrats have been purged from the pool of Jeberti names. So, even as he proudly wears the ghedli mantel, for him the ghedli names have been rendered “habesha” in their Tigrigna grab, and hence untouchable; even though he is happy of what those names are accomplishing as “debris”. That, by itself, talks volumes as to the priorities one has in mind when one invokes ghedli day and night – that takes us to the other identity closely tied to ghedli: Arab identity.

 

Where would we found the evidence for the kind of alien Arab names that I mentioned in Part I? Just to remind the reader the kind of names that I claimed are increasingly favored by the Jeberti these days: Aaleyah, Abeer, Ahlam, Huda, Firdus, Ilham, Intessar, Jana, Maha, Manal, Manaar, Nadiyah, Nafishah, Nasimal, Ranya, Siham, Adil, Ammar, Faaiz, Fuad, Jabir, Mourad, Naadir, Nabil, Najeeb, Miftah, Tariq, Thabit, Wafiq, Yasir, etc. If we seek them in the martyrs’ list, as Saleh advises us to do, we will find little of that evidence – which is his point. So where do we find them?

 

What is funny is that Saleh doesn’t even have to look at evidence “at the tip of his finger” (the martyrs’ list is also available at awate.com) – the evidence is much closer to him than that. All that Saleh has to do is take a virtual stroll among the Jeberti community that he is very familiar with – immediate family members, extended family members, close relatives, distant relatives, friends, acquaintances and others he occasionally meets in mosques, religious festivals, marriage and burial ceremonies and other events – and diligently tabulate the names of the children born to all the married adults he meets there. I am sure he will find an iron-clad proof of what I have stated: first, that the habesha names the old Jeberti generation were fond of have been entirely wiped out; and, second, that the kind of alien Arab names I mentioned in Part I have totally taken over. Now, if he is actually living it and hence experiencing it all around him on daily basis (in every household we make him visit in this virtual stroll), then why does he want to seek this evidence somewhere else – the martyrs’ list? He won’t find it there for the same reason he won’t find ghedli names there: in its epidemic form, this mania is an after-independence phenomenon. What is amusing in Saleh’s reaction is this: while he is fully aware of the alien-naming mania that has taken over the Jeberti community that he is surrounded with, he deliberately directs us to the martyrs’ list (where most of the Muslim names are of the traditional type like Mohammed, Ali, Ibrahim, etc) to tell us that no such alien-naming phenomenon is taking place among Eritreans.

 

Leaving Saleh’s evasive tactics aside, there is one thing that still remains unanswered: while one can easily mention the fear factor in the case of the late appearance of ghedli-naming, what could be the reason for the emergence of the alien Arab naming phenomenon in its epidemic form after independence?

 

Even though all kinds of alien names surfacing in the social landscape of Eritrea have been following the stricture of ghedli, “anything but habesha”, the strictest of them in zealously enforcing it has been the alien Arab naming. So far as Ethiopia was taken as the “habesha enemy”, the differences within were downplayed, even though they were always simmering beneath and, at times, erupting to the surface. It is only with independence that the Jeberti elite felt the total need to differentiate themselves from the habesha within – the Kebessa Christians. The biher question, the Arabic language and the alien-naming phenomenon (and the other imported tidbits, such as different styles in dressing and saluting) have become the means by which they demarcate their identity, and separate themselves from their Christian kin. It is with this kind of “wall of separation” in mind, that I wrote a version of this stanza in Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism [22]:

 

The wall in between

 

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 keep that difference.   

 

The headscarf, the hijab, the niqab, the chador, etc, as light as they seem on a haberdashery scale, are meant to do a lot of heavy lifting – as heavy as building up a permanent wall of identity that separates oneself from the other. It is not pure coincidence that as the individual identity keeps disappearing with more and more invasive attire covering the face (that unique manifestation of individual identity), effacing it to an almost disappearing point in the process, the collective identity that that face wants to identify itself with, be it Islam or Arab, gets more and more pronounced. The picture that evolves is, literally, that of a collective identity swallowing up the individual, as it makes ever-encroaching undue claims on the self-colonized – the very antithesis of what modernity is all about.

 

If it is with independence that the need to create that wall became urgent, then it means independence has become a big catalyst in Arab naming too. True, the emergence of religious conservatism has also played a role. But besides the fact that there is no neat way of separating religion and nationalism in the Eritrean context, this alien-naming phenomenon tends to be practiced throughout the Jeberti community; and as such, it has become a communal quest.

 

The fact that the Jeberti community happens to be overwhelmingly urban also explains why this phenomenon is stronger among them than other Muslim population groups in Eritrea. Here then is another factor that Saleh Younis totally missed when he looked at the Muslim names of the martyrs’ list:  that those names are overwhelmingly rural. So is it with the Christian names in that list.

 

Let me start with the most habesha of all names: the prefixed ones like Ande-Berhan, Habte-Ghiorgis, Ghebre-Amlach, Wolde-Gaber, Fessiha-Tsion, Wolde-Rufael, Zere-Yohannes, Ande-Meskel, Oqba-Gabriel, etc. I did some adding up on these prefixed first names in the martyrs’ list, and the number was roughly an astounding one thousand! This seems to vindicate Saleh’s claim: if these traditional names that I have claimed are on their way to extinction are appearing in these astounding numbers, what the hell am I complaining about? But wait: anyone from Asmara would tell you that an urban dweller would never name his kids after these prefixed “non-modern” names. So how do we account for this huge discrepancy? Wherefrom did these one thousand prefixed names hail from? There is actually a simple answer to this: almost all of these names are derived from rural Eritrea. And if any of these names have found their way to Asmara, it could only be because some of those born in haghereseb have moved to Asmara. So has it been with shortened names like Ghebre, Woldu, Oqubay, Habtu, Andom, Berhe, etc – they are disappearing fast from the urban scene, though at a slower pace than the prefixed ones. Which brings us to this question: so whose names are those in the Martyrs’ list? More than 85 percent derive from the rural areas – you could easily figure that out from the chart and their origin. As it was with the case of ghedli, the overwhelming number of martyrs in the border war happens to come from the peasant stock.

 

The alien-naming malady is an entirely urban phenomenon: the more urban, the more alien the naming gets. Probably I haven’t made the urban factor explicit enough in Part I, but I took it for granted as being understood only in that way. The other factor that figures big on identifying this malady is the recentness phenomenon: the more recent, the more alien the naming gets, with independence providing the greatest catalyst.  It is these two factors that Saleh totally ignores in presenting his “evidence”. If we keep these two factors in mind, it would be clear which direction we should go looking for the appropriate evidence. In the Muslim case, I chose the current Jeberti community because, among other things, it is more or less an urban population group. And the younger they come, the more alien get their names. So is it with Asmara dwellers. So if we want to really look at what future Eritrea would increasingly look like, the most ideal list to look at would be that of kindergarten kids in Asmara and not the martyrs’ list of the border war. For those who are familiar with the Bible, the biggest source of the odd Hebraic names that children are being given nowadays in Asmara comes from Chronicles, where the two chapters are written in the following format: “So and so begat so and so”.

 

Although this alien naming phenomenon has taken epidemic form after independence, it made its appearance earlier. For instance, the Filmons and Hermons are somewhat well represented in the martyrs’ list for the time. But more tellingly, Hebraic names began to make their appearance early with the urbanization of Eritrea. It seems that the fascination with Hebraic names started with those who can read the Tigrigna Bible. So far as the reading part was confined to the clergy, biblical names were rare occurrence, if ever; and whenever the Bible was an inspiration, the names were improvised upon and came in their Tigrigna or Geez versions. Thus, the further one goes to the past in the genealogical tree, the rarer the Hebraic names. In Part I, I tried to make a distinction between biblical names that were part of the habesha tradition and new ones, but I was wrong in doing that. That means that even though the appearance of Hebraic names came with those who read (that is, with urbanization and missionaries), it took the 50 years of madness in between to reach its epidemic form. We can see the snow-ball effect in all of this: with independence, all the alien identities that followed the stricture of ghedli have come to full fruition. Even the ones that are repelled by ghedli names (now that the Eritrean masses’ honeymoon with ghedli is coming to an end) know no other road than the escape route paved for them by ghedli itself: any road that takes them away from the habesha as far as possible. The Hebraic and Arabic names that have taken over the urban landscape of Eritrea are testament to that.

 

A commentator by the penname of “newkid” comes up with a sample, albeit a small one, in support of the alien- naming phenomenon I described in Part I. Even though as evidence it happens to be a small sample, it avoids the pitfalls that Saleh has easily fallen into with his “evidence”: not only does the sample confine itself to the urban area, it also happens to be more recent than the martyrs’ list. Thus, it happens to meet the two demands necessary to understand the alien-naming phenomenon in its epidemic form – in regard to the first demand, wholly; and in regard to the second demand, partially.

 

Inversion of values

 

On the comment section of Part I of this article, “newkid” brought precious evidence to the subject matter of “names and naming” in his comment that my article failed to do. [23] He provided us with two lists whereby we could conduct a comparative analysis to gauge the extent of the alien-naming epidemic sweeping over the Eritrean society. In doing this, we can actually see not only the extent of this epidemic in numbers, but also the total inversion of values championed by the ghedli generation as reflected in those very numbers. Given that we cannot come up with scientific samples representative of the two population groups to conduct a comparative study in between Ethiopia and Eritrea regarding this malady, the lists are as close as we could possibly get to having randomized samples. Here are the two lists of the names of soccer players in the two National Teams that “newkid” provided:

 

Names of Ethiopian National football team : Sisay Bancha, Jemal Tassew, Samson Assefa, Degu Debebe, Moges Tadesse, Abebaw Butako, Aynalem Hailu, Birhanu Bogale, Biadgelegn Elias, Siyoum Tesfaye, Asrat Megersa Gobena, Saladin Bargecho, Minyahil Teshome, Tesfaye Alebachew, Dawit Estifanos, Shimelis Bekele, Behailu Assefa, Addis Hintsa, Saladin Said, Getaneh Kebede, Adane Girma, Aschalew Girma.

 

Names of Eritrean National Football team (the disappeared one): Jemal Abdu, Abel Aferworki, Isaias Andberhian, Walid Atta, Nevi Ghebremeskel, Henok Goitom, Yonatan Goitum, Abraham Tedros, Hermon Tekleab, Samuel Tesfagabr, Surafel Tesfamichael, Yohannes Tilahun, Filmon Tseqay, Asrafil Tesfai, Ermias Wolday, Ambessager Yosief, Yosief Zeratsion.

 

The commentator aptly observed that while in the Ethiopian case, the overwhelming majority of players have retained their traditional names, exactly the opposite holds true in the Eritrean case. This is how the numbers go: Out of the 22 Ethiopian players, 19 have Christian names. Out of those 19, only 2 are Hebraic (or Biblical) names, and none of the two are of the deeply excavated ones. As for the Eritrean team, out of the 17 players, 15 are with Christian names. Out of those 15, 14 have Hebraic names! Only one – Ambessager – is authentically habesha. In terms of percentage, the Hebraic names consist 11.8% and 93.3% for the Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian names in the teams respectively. But that is not all that there is to the story: one has to look at each and every name to see the depth of the malady as reflected in the Eritrean society.

 

While the names Isaias, Abraham, Ermias, Samuel and Yosief in the list are within the range of the tolerably acceptable due to their surface availability in the Bible, the rest of the Hebraic names are what would qualify as “excavated” ones: Nevi, Henock, Yonathan, Hermon, Surafel, Filmon, and Asrafil. Of course, one can still grade these names with the “alien metric”: when it comes to names like “Nevi” and “Asrafil”, the malady for the search of alien identity is at its sickest.

 

What is more, there is something that the names of the Eritrean team tell in their totality that each and every one by itself doesn’t tell: together, they have managed to push out the habesha names almost in their entirety – only one remains out the 15! The purging process is that thorough. And if the rest of the urbanized society is following close to this trend (and there is nothing that would make us believe otherwise), we are looking at the image of Eritrea in the not-so-far future – an entirely alien one!

 

The two lists also give us a rare chance to compare two generations’ names: fathers’ and sons’. On the Ethiopian side, the ratio of Hebraic names to habesha ones has actually remained the same [24]: in the list of fathers’ names, 2 are Hebraic names (Elias and Estifanos), as compared to 2 in the list of sons’ names (Samson and Dawit). And it would be worthwhile to note that none of these Hebraic names are of the excavated types. Both generations have retained overwhelming number of habesha names: in each case, 17 out of 19. In this parallelism, we see that the Ethiopian fathers succeeded in transmitting the values in naming tradition to their sons in the same way their fathers had handed them over. We can clearly see continuity in tradition, which is essential for survival as a people in any society. The case of Eritrea happens to be just the opposite.

 

In the Eritrean case, the transformation is alarmingly drastic: out of the 15 fathers’ names, only one is Hebraic (Yosief), the rest 14 of them are habesha names. Then what they call a total “makeover” – in identity, that is – takes place. Please witness at how a mirror inversion of the naming culture has taken place within one generation: in the case of the sons, out of the 15 names, only 1 is a habesha name. To reiterate this important point: while in the fathers’ case the proportion is 14 habesha to 1 Hebraic, in the sons’ case it is 14 Hebraic to 1 habesha! Encapsulated in this inversion in proportions, lies the sad story of Eritrea in the past 50 years: it took those many years to put the entire habesha value-system on its head. And, by the way, it is not a coincidence that this happens to be the work of the post-colonial generations that put modernity on its head – a food for thought for those who churlishly believe that modernity and tradition are antithetical to one another.

 

The list of fathers and sons in the Eritrean case also provides us with a rare window to spot the time wherein a total breakdown in continuity between the past and the present took place. While the proud fathers under Italian colonialism, despite 50 years of colonial oppression, gave their sons (the ghedli generation) authentic habesha names, it is those that grew up under ghedli colonialism that, in a self-hating ritual unparalleled in the past, are refusing to name their kids with names like their own. They wanted them to seek their identity somewhere else than their fathers’ house. And that is where the discontinuity in culture took place; and with it, the survival instinct of a whole people was lost. That, indeed, sums up the mission of ghedli. Ironically, it took the ghedli generation 50 years of self colonization to socially uproot itself. This gives the expression of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” a bemusing twist: the ghedli generation did the amazing feat of uprooting itself by its bootstraps! Indeed, rightly deserving the name Yikealo (the can-do generation)!

 

Let me now address a question implied by Saleh’s evidence when we look at the evidence provided by the soccer players’ lists: Could the evidence in the soccer players’ list have been a fluke?  Couldn’t this short list with a majority of Hebraic names happen to be just by chance? But this Hebraic-naming mania that has gripped urban Eritrea can be easily verified by asking newcomers, by checking at the names of the young coming from Asmara and by looking at similar lists (though rarely found) as the soccer players’. One such list would be that of the six cyclists that will represent the Eritrean team in Tuscany, Italy, on September of 2013. This also happens to be a list of the top Eritrean cyclists that have been making news in various races: Daniel Teklehaimanot, Nathnael Berhane, Merhawi Kudus, Jani Tewolde, Fre-Kalsi Debessay and Meron Russom. You can see the alien naming mania among the Christians summarized in this short list: one is ghedli name (Fre-Kalsi); one is a corruption of a Western name, supposedly shortened to give it a more “modern” twist (Jani); and the rest are Hebraic.

 

It is not that there are no habesha names among Eritrean cyclists, but the trend is easy to follow. Here is a wider pool of cyclists involved in various African races (Rwanda, Gabon, Algeria, etc),  in European races (Turkey, Switzerland, Italy, etc) and in Tour Eritrea: Weynay Ghebreselassie, Meron Teshome, Daniel Teklehaimanot, Mekseb Debessay, Tesfai Teklit, Dawit Haile, Nathnael Berhane, Merhawi Kudus, Meron Amanuel,  Jani Tewolde, Fre-Kalsi Debessay, Russom Tesfai, Meron Russom, Amanuel Menghis, Abraham Zemichael, Bereket Yemane, Awet Ghebremedhin, Elias Afewerki, Tesfai Ogbamariam, etc. We can easily see that the majority are Hebraic names (Daniel, Dawit, Nathanael, Merhawi, Meron (3 times), Amanuel, Abraham and Elias). There are two ghedli names: Fre-kalsi and Awet. Notice also that none of the habesha names are of the prefixed type, and most happen to be acceptable under the “modern sounding” criteria: Tesfai, Bereket, Russom. And it is important to remember that most of the carriers of these names happen to be in their mid and late 20s, born before independence. One need to look at those born after independence – and the more recent, the better – to see the alien-naming mania both in numbers and kind. The more recent the names, the more likelihood that they will be the kind of alien Hebraic names peculiar in their oddness I mentioned in Part I: Asrafil, Eyael, Ebenezer, Abner, Haroni, Yanet, Selihom, Arsema, Sinai, Lewie, Eyobel, Eliyu, Hose’e, Yehudit, Nardos, Tabetha, Yonadad, Eyoab, Elshi, Dinah, Yonael, Bethania, etc.

 

Before I conclude this part, let me point to another mistake that I made in Part I of this article. By making the names of Eritreans in detention camp in Israel mostly of the Hebraic type in my thought experiment, I was assuming that they derive from urban areas – which is wrong. Since a sizable portion of those derive from the border areas, many of them would indeed have traditional names. Hence, the thought experiment I provided in Part I is seriously flawed. But the point that I wanted to make still holds true, if indeed the profile of future Eritrea is to be found in its urban areas as it is unfolding now.

 

Conclusion

 

In conclusion, let me return to our name-expert mentioned towards the beginning in Part I of this article, and seek his opinion again, with the future of Eritrea in mind.

 

If the trend in naming continues at the pace and scope we are witnessing now, then three to four generations from now, except for few leftovers from the traditional past, the entire names within the nation will be alien derived. I doubt the ghedli names will sustain their appeal; as one young man of relatively recent arrival told me, already ghedli names are becoming a rarity among the new born. The era of romanticizing ghedli seems to be over – Shaebia has done an excellent job of killing it. It is the rest of the alien identities which will remain resilient. As through times immemorial, it will be those hiding behind the Bible and Koran that will out survive any other identities. What would indeed our expert say if, after being provided with those surviving alien names three to four generations down the road, he would be asked to guess the country to which the name-holders belong. With about half of the names from Hebraic roots and the other half from Arabic, he would most certainly say “Israel” – the only land populated by Jews and Arabs. As for the few with authentic habesha (or other traditional) names, he would theorize that these must be some refugees (or infiltrators) from Africa in Israel.

 

It seems then that when Eritrean refugees are making their way to Israel, it is nothing but to meet the future – Future Eritrea, that is! Indeed, what a tangled web we Eritreans have been weaving in the last 50 years: to end up as refugees in our own land!

 

There is no doubt that the debris of names that the post-colonial Eritreans have come to embrace in face of modernity would make Aklilu Zere’s good woman howl in anguish. [25] As she pulls her hair and scratches her face in sadness and despair, she would definitely lament (as in liqso), “I cannot recognize them! These are not my children!” In Part III, we will compare the good woman’s (and her generation’s) reaction to modernity as opposed to the ghedli generations’.

 

Reference

 

[1] Lebona, Zekre; Eritrea: The Usurpation of Christian Religious Power and Lexicon; Nov 17, 2012; asmarino.com

 

[2] Erlich, Haggai; Ethiopia and the Middle East; Lynne Rienner Pub; Sept 1994; p. 157.

 

[3]Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism II; June 10, 2009; asmarino.com

 

[4] Lebona, Zekre; Ibid.

 

[5] China Mary – Ancestors in the Americas (cetel.org): Ancestors in the Americas- Viewer Guide: Part 2,Chinesein the

 

[6] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism III ; August 30,2009,asmarino.com.

 

[7] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Romanticizing Ghedli III; 2007; asmarino.com

 

[8] Ibid.

 

[9] For an overlapping concept as content-blindness look at “illegibility” as used by Scott, James C.; Seeing Like A State; Mar 30, 1998; Yale Univ Press.

 

[10] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism III.

 

[11] Tobia, P. J.; Eritrean refugees in Israel: Unpromised land; June 20, 2013; PBS Newshour.

 

[12] Ibid.

 

[13] Schmidt, Peter and XXX; Urban precursors in the Horn: early 1st millennium BC communities in Eritrea; Dec 1, 2003;

 

[14] [10] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism III.

 

[15] Schmidt, Peter R.; PostColonial Silencing, intellectuals, and the state: Views from Eritrea; Oxford Journal, vol 109, Issue 435, pp. 293-313.

 

[16] Ibid.

 

[17] Ibid.

 

[18] Naipaul, V. S.; Among the Believers; July 12, 1982; Vintage books, NY; p. 142

 

[19] Ibid, p. 141.

 

[20] Plaut, Martin; Eritrea: Back to the Dark Ages; July 12, 2013; wordpress.com.

 

[21] Johar Ibrahim Sisto Group; Wedi Temenwo vs Wedi Bilata; July 09, 2013; asmarino.com.

 

[22] wall.asmarino.com: http://wall.asmarino.com/

 

[23] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism II.

 

[24] Look at the comment section of Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; (I) The Self-Colonizing Mission: Names and Naming in Eritrea; Jul 25, 2013; asmarino.com

 

[25] Ibid. In my response to newkid, I miscounted the Hebraic names of the fathers’ (in the Ethiopian case) as one instead of two.

 

[24] Zere, Aklilu; What (Italian) Colonialism Did To My People of (Eritrean) Kebessa; January 13, 2013; awate.com.

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