African Library: Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Ethiopian author Maaza Mengiste

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Beneath the Lion’s Gaze
Author: Maaza Mengiste

This recently published (2010) novel by an Ethiopian author re-envisions an earlier period of revolutionary activity in the more northern parts of our continent, viz the toppling in the early 1970s of the Emperor Haile Selassie, but also its terrible aftermath when the new military rulers, known as the Derg (a word in an ancient language meaning “committee”) unleashed what was known as the Red Terror on their own people, murdering and torturing thousands. Maaza Mengiste was born in Ethiopia but raised mostly in the USA, where she teaches creative writing at a leading university. She dedicates the novel to her grandparents and also to her uncles, the first two of whose names are used in the text: “… for my uncles, Mekonnen, Solomon, Seyoum, and all who died trying to find a better way”. (Amnesty International estimate is that at least two hundred thousand Ethiopians were killed during this period.)
It seems eerily similar to North African situations that are playing out in early 2011 to read in the opening pages of the novel, concerning scenes in Addis Ababa:

The whine of police cars flashed past the hospital. The sirens hadn’t stopped all day: Police and soldiers were overwhelmed and racing through streets packed with frenzied protestors running in all directions. … [The observer also remarks on] this relentless drive of students who demanded action to address the country’s poverty and lack of progress. (6)

The perspective depicted in the above quotation reflects the perceptions of Hailu, a middle-aged and highly esteemed medical doctor, one of the principal characters in the text.

Mengiste filters her portrait of huge historical upheavals and terrible suffering and social dread through the woes and joys of a single middle-class family who are Ethiopian Christians, some of whose members (like Hailu and his younger son Dawit) are initially of a more secular bent. Hailu’s deeply loved and mystical wife Selam dies early in the novel, of a heart ailment. The elder of the two sons, Yonas, lectures in history at the local university; he is married and has a young daughter. Hailu’s relationship with his younger son is a difficult one; the generation gap is exacerbated by the son’s fiery political convictions and fearless nature. The father’s love and concern for Dawit run deep, but he finds it difficult to convey his fear for his son while impatiently disapproving of the foolish seeming risks the youth is taking (Dawit is a law student and a radical-minded activist). Yonas and Dawit also have a fraught relationship whose tensions intensify as the whole family gets terribly tested by the political tensions of this time; the milder-seeming Yonas is in some ways as fierce in anger as his sibling. Sara, who is married to Yonas, is also given a prominent role in the text: familially and maritally as well as politically. Her strong spirit and profound convictions are impressive, but sometimes lead her into extreme demonstrations of her piety.

This fairly prosperous family rents housing to a number of other families at what are evidently rather charitable rates; because of it, there is a whole compound of people clustered here, by means of whom Mengiste enlarges the text’s social range. The author does give us some sense of the more private feelings of two of those who take power after the toppling of Selassie’s feudal monarchy, mainly those of Mickey – the weak-natured boyhood friend but later hated enemy of Dawit – who rises rapidly among the Derg for his pliancy in complying with orders. Interestingly, the emperor himself is portrayed with some sympathy in his rapid decline (in several scenes) as he is toppled from power and later put to death.

Early in the novel a still uncorrupted and earnest Mickey writes to Dawit from a terribly drought- and famine-stricken area where he was sent by his superior to observe local conditions:

My father died like an animal, still tied to those ropes when I found him, swallowing with his last breaths the dust of another man’s land, broken by the burden of his labor. The rich think this land is theirs though they have never earned the right to call it theirs. Not like these farmers. Not like my father. Most of those who are here, on the ground dying, are the ones who were strong to walk out of their villages and get here. The roads are littered with our people who died on the way, their bodies rotting in the sun if the vultures haven’t gotten to them first. We dishonor our dead and our workers, Dawit. The rich have kept this secret, the emperor has stolen this truth from us and we have to fight to get our country back and save these people. (29)

As resistance builds up, the emperor’s dignified prime minister tenders his resignation, but Selassie is too out of touch with his people and conditions on the ground and still too absorbed in the myth of his divine descent to see that his days are numbered. When Dawit is enjoined to take on leadership of a huge student demonstration his political mentor reassures him that the massed soldiers will not shoot into the crowd: “We’re all on the same side,” Solomon tells him (34). Dawit’s placard reads: LAND FOR THE TILLER, and Solomon’s: A PEOPLE’s GOVERNMENT FOR ALL. Not long after this the Derg (opportunistically and exploitatively, Hailu believes) organise a television broadcast showing the deaths and awful suffering in the area Mickey had visited. The citizens of Addis Ababa are stunned: “It seemed the entire city was slowly opening their doors and windows, their surprise and stunned anger too volatile to be contained within four walls” (52). The broadcast juxtaposes the emaciated bodies with shots of laden banquet tables in the palace and of Haile Selassie feeding his pet lions choice tidbits. From this moment the emperor’s fate is sealed.

The real nature of the Derg’s political takeover soon emerges. Despite the repeated assurances of fair trials, scores of dignitaries, imperial office bearers and older military men are arrested and summarily executed and secretly buried in mass graves.

These were the men who’d once ruled Ethiopia with the emperor, graduates of Harar Military Academy, Oxford, the London School of Economics, the Sorbonne, and Harvard, dignitaries to European nations, speakers at United Nation forums, proud warriors in the fight with Italy [in the Ethiopian anti-colonial war]. (87)

The executions were organised by the man who in the novel is Major Guddu; a thinly veiled allusion to and fictionalised portrait of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam who in the late 1970s became the Derg’s supreme leader. He is Mickey’s superior officer and the man who seduces this weak youth into committing atrocities on his orders. When Mickey in a state of horror and moral panic at having shot (on Major Guddu’s orders) numbers of the dignified and elderly men described above, rushes to confess and be succoured by Dawit, the latter does comfort him a little, but this evening marks the beginning of the break between them, for “Mickey had become enemy and victim all in one night” (88). The Derg announces closure of Addis Ababa University and suspension of the last two years of high school “in preparation for student deployment across Ethiopia to assist in reforms”; Ethiopian socialism is now to be instilled. The Derg also conveys the news that “Counterrevolutionary agitators were arrested for the intent to incite riots” (84). The terrible aftermath of the regime change is beginning. Lily, Dawit’s “girl friend” who is one of the students deployed to the countryside, later tells Dawit that “The night Tariku and Meseret [two of her fellow students] destroyed their altars [ie the Christian icons of the local peasant community], they came after us with guns.” The local police, she says, “just watched. I found out later they had orders from the Derg to arrest any of us who survived” (129).

In the meantime Hailu and his family’s private lives and emotional crises continue. Hailu cannot accept that his wife Selam is not only dying but wants to be allowed to die. Her deteriorating condition and serenely fatalistic attitude engender in him feelings of “solitude and panic that had been eating into the edges of his days” since Selam’s first hospitalisation (6). Hailu keeps attempting to delay or stave off the inevitable by means of his medical skills, but Selam dies and Hailu is pained by the traces of his dead spouse in Dawit’s face. Another crisis in the family is caused by the abdominal seizure of Tizita, Yonas and Sara’s eight-year-old daughter. She, too, seems to be dying and Sara, who is utterly distraught, attempts by means of a dreadful type of penance or demonstration of piety to persuade God to spare Tizzie. What Sara does is to crawl on seven consecutive mornings, on her bare knees, on earth which she has had sprinkled with glass shards around St Gabriel’s Church. The intensity of Sara’s concern is not only that of a mother with but a single child; she had early on lost both her parents, and her first two children were stillborn. Dawit is struggling to feel as close to Lily as he used to; she is showing increasing signs of her compliance with the Derg’s ideology, desperate to get a scholarship to qualify as a medical doctor in Cuba. Hailu for his part has been ordered to heal a terribly tortured teenage girl’s mangled body; the mysterious girl was brought in in a body-sized plastic bag and is under military guard in the hospital. She is said to be an “important” patient, but has “wounds no human being should have” (131) and Hailu is horrified at the thought of somehow being compliant in her suffering. Yonas discovers that Dawit has left a stack of compromising anti-Derg pamphlets in his [Yonas’s] car boot; when, just after this, a fugitive – an unknown man crying to Yonas for protection from the soldiers chasing him – appears at their front door, Yonas cannot help the man. For if the soldiers were to find the pamphlets, he and his whole family would be liable to similar persecution. Yonas, as principled a man as his brother but less ostentatious about it than Dawit, is so horrified at not having helped the man and so incensed at Dawit’s irresponsibility that he attacks and hurts his brother – to the dismay, in turn, of his own wife and daughter.

But not all is gloom and terror, even at this dark time. Tizita has been cured by the peasant skills and ancient medicinal knowledge of Emama Sebele, an older, widowed woman with a strong personality and natural authority who lives in the compound. Indeed, healing of even the worst wounds and social recovery after even the most terrible of times is perhaps the deeper but subtly communicated theme of this text.

An increasingly prominent role will be played by an initially quite unlikely-seeming character. Long ago a court musician, now the keeper of a stall supplying household goods and soft drinks in their area, he is first evoked as follows:

Still single, Melaku had become as much a part of the neighborhood landscape as the trees that grew alongside the road. No one seemed to recall a time when they couldn’t run to the kiosk for a bottle of Coca-Cola or a small bag of sweet dates. He was the eyes and ears of the close community, relaying information when necessary, defusing harmful gossip when needed. He was everyone’s grandfather, elder uncle, and forsome of the women, their favorite former lover. (141)

Melaku becomes the mentor, in particular, of Dawit and, during Hailu’s enforced absence and the strained marriage of Sara and Yonas, also of the latter two.

The next big rock to shatter the family’s still relatively peaceful life despite the overall national crisis is the arrest and detention and (as they all guess) torture of Hailu. Unable to bear the thought that the ravaged and ravished young woman whose body he had helped heal in his hospital would be taken back for further torture to be inflicted on her, Hailu had taken the decision he had found so unbearable in his wife’s case and had helped her to die by secretly inserting a cyanide capsule between her teeth; but the death is immediately deemed suspicious by the terrified soldiers whose job it was to guard her and who had so recently reported that the girl had nearly recovered. (We do, indeed, learn later in the novel that these men are executed for supposed dereliction of duty.) The first terror Hailu has to face as he sits in his cell awaiting interrogation is his own nearly overwhelming anticipatory fear – despite being a veteran of the war against Italy. In this way the author gives us a taste of what so many detainees underwent at this time, and in other times and sites of terror. Hailu’s arrest is unreasonably blamed on Yonas by Dawit, merely because his brother obeyed his father to drive him to the prison, knowing that escape was impossible and that any such attempt would bring terrible retribution on him and on the rest of the family. Yonas in turn cannot unburden himself to his wife and their estrangement is a further strain.

In the meantime Dawit has started defying the Derg’s orders by collecting the bodies of people (of all ages) who have been branded counter-revolutionaries; the Derg wants these bodies to be left rotting in public places to intimidate the rest of the population – something particularly abhorrent in this profoundly religious society, where decent and ceremonial burial is considered sacrosanct. Dawit, who at first did this spontaneously, has been recruited into a small but effective anti-Derg group led by a charismatic man whose nom de guerre is Anbessa and Solomon is in it with him. Dawit in turn chooses the name Mekonnen for protection. Few as they are, their exploits encourage the broad population by showing that the Derg is not invincible, but every one of their successes is followed by dreadful crackdowns on the people of Addis Ababa, where their efforts are concentrated. Yet the return of at least their relatives’ bodies for secret burial by the families is deeply appreciated. Dawit, who has been instructed to recruit two helpers in the retrieval of the corpses of the Derg’s victims, chooses Melaku and thinks to enlist Lily. He changes his mind about this, however. When he confides to Lily his fear of discovering one of the bodies to be his father’s, she pooh-poohs this. It is when Lily adds, “Sacrifices need to be made sometimes, change always causes pain” (211) that Dawit realises the extent to which the woman he was in love with has been brainwashed; only this can account for so glib and insensitive a response to his pain. He does recruit another woman, though – Sara, as Melaku had from the first advised him. She is strong in spirit and resolute as well as discreet and trustworthy; a brave woman who will risk much in these dangerous, yet humane undertakings, and who will take the dreadful task of informing victims’ mothers upon herself.

Also living in Hailu’s compound is Sofia, a young woman whose husband, the father of her two little boys, has disappeared. The reader knows that he was a friend and a fellow soldier of Mickey’s and was executed by Major Guddu for his refusal to shoot down the handcuffed former dignitaries of Ethiopia in the earlier mass killing. Sofia, too, suspects that her husband is dead, but pretends still to hope for her husband’s return for the sake of her two sons – Robel, who is twelve, and Berhane, who is seven. Poverty forces Sofia to send even her younger son out to help earn something for the family by selling newspapers. It is soon after he has started doing this that Solomon (Dawit’s associate) gives the boy a threatening note to deliver (along with a newspaper) to an officer of the Derg, who is immediately afterwards assassinated by being shot from nearby. The terrified boy retains the note, which reads: “The essence of our existence is the destruction of the Derg” (218). Not long afterwards, one of the terrified Derg soldiers, half maddened by fury against those defying Derg rule, discovers Berhane’s entirely incidental and unintended involvement in the delivery of the threatening note to the assassination victim; the little boy’s torture parallels Hailu’s by the terrible and feared “Colonel” in the jail so close to his own home. From the little boy his main interrogator demands the name of the stranger who gave him the note and when the boy answers truthfully that he has no idea what this might be, the torturer decides on further outrages, insisting (to a colleague who recognises the boy’s innocence): “He’s not a child […] This is our newest enemy” (232). Hailu, after weeks of “prior” torture by another man, is in the cruel hands of the Colonel who demands to know (about Hailu’s now dead sixteen-year-old patient) “what she looked like” and what she said (250-51). The Colonel responds with inexplicable fury on hearing that the girl had been raped and burned and wounded and that she had called for her father and was wrapped in a plastic bag. He cries out, “Are you telling me they disobeyed my orders and took her to that butcher? […] that you were merciful in killing her?” (252). In the meantime, outside the city, a pregnant woman is bayoneted merely for having worked at the printing press where some anti-Derg pamphlets were printed (226). The killer will himself be executed; the Colonel will shoot himself, howling out the grief of even so cruel a man.

Dawit disappears; Yonas searches futilely for his brother’s corpse in the mortuary. Little Berhane is shot down in a procession of paraded “political criminals” and his body taken home against orders to his mother by Yonas, who saw the killing. The compound people help a distraught Sofia to give the boy a funeral on an incongruously lovely hillside; Hailu is soon afterwards released and stumbles home on “bruised and beaten feet” (271), unrecognisable, on his eventual arrival, by his beloved granddaughter.

The novel draws to a close from this point. Mengiste (the author) weaves the onset of the Red Terror (historically, the cruellest and most bloody years of Mengistu and the Derg’s tyranny) into her narrative by portraying it as unleashed by both an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Major Guddu (the Mengistu figure in the text) and the fatal shooting of his faithful sidekick Mickey by Dawit. Fleeing the city afterwards, Dawit (who is known as Mekonnen), along with Solomon and Anbessa, take refuge in a centuries old, hidden mountain monastery. Troubled by his shedding of blood, Dawit is reassured by the old monk, who likens him to “the warrior King Dawit” and tells him:

My child, Ethiopia, stand up and fight against this new beast that has descended on our country. I will pray for you nothing but blessings, for eyes that see in the night and legs that carry you far and fast, for a life long and peaceful, for children who will not rest until our country is free again. (293)

Dawit some time later is allowed to return to the capital; he has heard that his father was released. At this emotional time the brothers are reconciled and Yonas and Sara’s marital rift healed. While Dawit hides in his mother’s prayer room there is a military raid on their home by soldiers searching for “Mekonnen”; they are chased away by Hailu who embraces his son and dies soon afterwards, peacefully joining the wife for whom he had been longing. It is a fitting end to Mengiste’s complex narrative which so carefully interweaves the familial and the public lives of her characters.

In conclusion, two notes:

1. The cover image shows the boy Berhane inserting the note he was given by Solomon to deliver to the soon to be shot Derg officer into a newspaper.

2. The Derg regime was overthrown in 1991 by the rebel movement; Mengistu was given shelter by President Mugabe in Zimbabwe, where he apparently still resides. This was the return favour for Mengistu’s harbouring of Mugabe and the former’s support for the Rhodesian anti-colonial struggle.

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