“Languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.”
Walter Benjamin in “The Task of the Translator”
Western culture has a penchant for worshipping the exotic from a safe myopic distance, overlooking the human reality rubbing up against its elbows and knees, unintentionally creating cross-cultural connections comical, frustrating, and inspirational all at once. Israel, literally and figuratively, finds itself somewhere between Europe and Africa. The “people of the Book”, are currently celebrating “Book Week” with hundreds of new titles on display in all the major cities. Despite Israel’s considerable Ethiopian population, the only work of fiction (to the best of this writer’s knowledge) published by an Ethiopian writer this year is Hama Tuma’s The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories, translated by Dori Parnes (Ahuzat Bayit 2009). Activist writer-in-exile Hama Tuma’s book is out of print and essentially unavailable in English, and has never been officially published in Ethiopia in either Amharic or English, so if you want to read this brilliantly funny, sensitive, intelligent portrayal of life under Mengistu’s reign of terror, start learning Hebrew.
The book is written in two parts, each consisting of eleven stories. The stories in the first part are all written as court cases, described by a narrator, able to observe and comment, yet not personally involved in the proceedings. This distance allows an ironic humor to permeate the text, as translator Dori Parnes recounts, “The first thing that grabbed me was his humor…then you suddenly reach the second half – it grabs you by the throat. These are the same stories but he tells them with pain.” Hama Tuma, who has been a political activist for freedom and human rights since his student days in the 1960s, “stumbled” into fiction writing when he responded to a BBC call for short stories.
“Vendetta”, the opening story of the book’s second part, was his first work of fiction, growing out of the painful experiences of life under Mengistu’s regime, and the moral dilemmas with which people had to contend on a daily basis. Translator Parnes says of “Vendetta”: “I was stunned when I finished translating it. It wipes the smile off your face and you say to yourself – what was it that I smiled at before?” “Most of it has not been written,” says Hama Tuma of this period in Ethiopian history, “What really happened, happened in a worse way.”
The Hebrew edition is prefaced by Professor Hagai Erlich’s eloquent introduction, providing an historical perspective on the revolution in Ethiopia which began in hope and culminated in oppression. Comparing Mengistu’s reign to that of Stalin, Hitler and Sadam Hussein, Erlich notes that a key to the success of these regimes lay in their ability to release the potential “little Stalin” and “little Adolf” lurking within any of us, and let them take over the hearts and minds of the people. As it happens, while he was translating the book, Parnes read Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia based on personal archives and interviews. Parnes says, “What 50 years of that government did to a people is more terrible than what Hitler did in 12 years. People were born into it. The books complement one another, I didn’t have much comfort between the two…When you read one and translate the other, your dreams at night are not very pleasant.”
“A lot of people collaborated out of fear,” says Hama Tuma, “They denounced others or didn’t help. It is a sad part of our history, we should live it as such, or else nothing is learned. I offer my stories as a suggestion: we should look for another way of solving the problems.” Hama Tuma’s stories penetrate the heart, mind and dreams. His humor is grounded in unflinching honesty, nurtured by a wellspring of hope, a sense of fun and mischief: “to prick their serious balloons.”
Parnes originally translated two of Hama Tuma’s stories at the request of Doron Tavory, artistic director of Hazira Performing Arts Center, for a stage adaptation to be performed by the Netela Theatre Company. “It suddenly aroused my curiosity,” says Parnes, who went to great lengths to acquire a copy of the book, feeling, “there is something here that seems to me important.” In his essay “The Task of the Translator”, Walter Benjamin discusses the way that a translation reveals the hidden connections between languages, saying that a good translation will bring some of the “foreign,” of the other language and culture into the text of the target language. Reading his translation inspired my own quest to locate the author, as described in “Finding Hama.”
The relationship between Israel and Ethiopia is ancient and current, certainly complex. The Ethiopian monarchy considered themselves descendents of King Solomon and the Jewish community there, known as Beta Israel, has ancient roots. Israelis are also mentioned in the book as having trained the Ethiopian military in interrogation techniques. As Parnes notes, “Our excellent young men went to give them all sorts of tips…Why must Israel be involved in the ugliest things?” This journey from Addis Abbaba, through Paris, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv brings forth a work of fiction in Hebrew that makes Ethiopia a more vivid part of our lives, to reflect on Israel’s relationship to Ethiopia and by extension, the situation of Ethiopian Israelis. Says Parnes, “I am curious to know if the book will reach the members of the Ethiopian community in Israel and what feelings it will arouse in them.”
Our lives and histories are interconnected in mysterious ways, on a cultural and personal level. The difficulties of translation may sometimes bring us closer to the text, as in the story “Madman, Killer, Saint, You…” in which a seriously injured political activist is hospitalized, his accusers await his recovery so that they can force him to reveal information, and he asks the attending physician to help him escape this fate by assisting his death. In contemplating this dilemma the doctor reflects on his younger brother, also a political activist, and the male nurse also plays a central role. In translating the story Parnes was confronted with a problem “because Hebrew has this thing you are stuck with – the same word means “brother” and “nurse”. I was afraid it would be confusing, so I wrote “head nurse” and as the story continued I slowly removed the word “head”. Having established the identity of the character as a nurse in the hospital, Parnes gave himself the freedom to let the word and its dual associations work in the reader’s mind.
I feel that it is this kind of relationship to the text that Benjamin had in mind when he referred to a translation as revealing the relationships between languages, one that can extend to cultures and the individuals within them. To paraphrase Benjamin, Parnes’ translation of Hama Tuma reminds us that “people” are “not strangers to one another…but are interrelated in what they want to express.”
Book Launching: “The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories”
By Hama Tuma, Translated by Dori Parnes, Ahuzat Bayit 2009–06–21
Sunday, June 28th at 20:00 at the Ma’abada, 28 Derech Hebron, Jerusalem
Doron Tavory presents:
Readings from the Hazira staging of the stories
Personal accounts of the Red Terror in Ethiopia
A short documentary on Ethiopia under military rule
Information and tickets: 02-6292000