Book Review: Kab Rix’ Ḥǝfnti (ካብ ሪቕ ሕፍንቲ): A Memoir by Tekie Beyene

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Abraham T. Zere

Kab Rix’ Ḥǝfnti (ካብ ሪቕ ሕፍንቲ): A Memoir by Tekie Beyene. Asmara, Hidri Publishers, 2009. 286

Kab Rix’ Ḥǝfnti, a memoir written in Tigrinya, breaks new ground in the annals of Eritrean literature not only for the style it adopts but also for its treatment of the independence struggle through personal experience.

Starting from the title, roughly translated as “A Handful of Grain from the Granary‟, the author acknowledges that his book is a modest attempt to narrate the history of the Eritrean independence struggle. Memoirs are rare in Eritrea. Kab Rix’ has already drawn criticism for the personal stance the author adopted in the book in describing his experiences as a member of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).

Tekie Beyene, a writer, a journalist and a freedom fighter with the EPLF, has served as head of the then Eritrean Relief Association. After independence, he headed the Eritrean Investment Center and served as Governor of National Bank of Eritrea. He has written for, and served in the editorial board of, Ḥǝwyät, a Tigrinya magazine. His major literary contribution came in the form of a Tigrinya translation of Sophie’s World (1991). The book sold a record of 1000 copies in the first five days of its publication. Kab Rix’ is the first original book-length work by the author.

After three weeks of its publication, Kab Rix’ was subjected to strong criticism for its “unconventional” personal account of the author’s long-standing involvement with Eritrea’s liberation movement. A writer in Ḥadass Erǝtra (2009) criticized the author for “dwelling on the personal by ignoring the communal culture of the EPLF‟. Tekie seems to have anticipated this, as he, in the preface, revealed that it was his plan to go against this tradition.
He stated: “I have tried to deliberately go against the wisdom of avoiding the use of the personal ‘I’ in the struggle and the society. However, in the book I have also tried to show that the ‘I’ is in fact part of the ‘we’.” Readers can sense a hint of discomfort the author feels as he embraces the subjective stance. But he is forceful in pointing out the threat the tradition poses: “[T]he history of Eritrea faces the danger of trivialization due to this uneasiness to treat it from personal angles.” The absence of personal accounts in narrating the history of Eritrean revolution has been noted by Alemseged Tesfai, a well-known writer and historian. Tesfai in an interview in 2006 with Tsedal Tigrinya magazine, noted the importance of personal accounts of former revolutionaries in enriching the works of historians interested in the liberation movement.

Kab Rix’ covers two decades (end of 1950 to early 1980) of the author’s experiences in the resistance. The six-part book, although the author maintains that it details his personal political life, is also an account of the political phases the country was undergoing. The fate of the author was the fate of many Eritreans: innocent youth were confronted with terror and intimidation from the Ethiopian regime which pushed many to eventually join the resistance. This can be clearly read from the pages of Kab Rix’, and clearly supports the author’s claim in the preface that the
personal experiences are in fact subsumed within the collective ones.

In the first chapter, the author narrates his and five other students’ role in the 1960 student riots. The organizers were young students who were disillusioned by Ethiopia’s political domination exercised under the federal arrangement. The students’ response was to organize mass protests in Asmara and other towns. The young students, who were barely 20, except for their leader Tikue Yihdego, planned to organize protests in every corner of the country. However, except for the ones in Asmara, their plans elsewhere were not successful. In Asmara, they had already made secret contacts with many students and when the time came they were surprised to see many students joined by many more from the public who simply seized the opportunity to express their
frustration with the Ethiopian domination. This event would make a lasting impression on the author throughout his life.

Book-cover-of-Tekie-Beyene.jpg

After the protest, the organizers, including the author, were arrested and put in detention for six months. Once in jail, the organizers came to realize the extent and significance of their role in a riot that shock the entire city of Asmara. Other students on the outside continued to demand their release by protesting in front of the offices of the police. This section of the book clearly shows what topics the young people like the author used to debate about and paints the sociopolitical situation of the 1950-60s in Eritrea. The pages of the book clearly show the innocence of many Eritreans, the mischief and secret dealings of Ethiopia, and the feelings of siege inside Asmara.

The author faced many difficulties after the successful Asmara protests he helped organize. Because of constant police surveillance and harassment from the security service, he was forced to move to a school in Debrezeyt (Central Ethiopia). After a relatively calm year finishing his high school there, he had to move to Addis Ababa to join the University. But even there, the security service and police continued following him even to the hotel where he was staying. The author became restless. He then decided to go back to Asmara where family and relatives would be easily informed if anything was to happen to him. On the trip back to Asmara, he saw police and members of the security service board the same bus. The Ethiopians hoped their constant surveillance of the author would lead them to the main leaders, as they thought the author and his student friends were not acting alone.

The instability of the 1960s had affected many young Eritreans. Ethiopia increased its dominance in the federal arrangement and it became clear that its intention was to annex Eritrea. As part of this plan, Eritrea’s economy was deliberately decimated, and unemployment became rampant. The frustration was evident in the traditional beer houses, bars and nightclubs where many students spent their days and nights. This was coupled with strict surveillance by the security forces that instigated fear and terror. After his stay in Ethiopia, the author came back to this difficult situation in Eritrea. He tried to get a job. But due to his prior involvement with student protests he was turned down in many places. The author finally secured a position with Egypt Air.

The sociopolitical situation in the country deteriorated. The Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) continued to secretly organize its cells. One of the influential leaders of the national movement, Ato Woldeab Woldemariam, tried to broadcast radio programs from Cairo. Meanwhile, armed resistance started in Barka in 1961. The ELM started to wane for lack of coordinated leadership. Uncertainty grew in the face of continued Ethiopian harassment and economic hardships. In 1963, General Tedla Ugubit, who sided with Ethiopia and played a part in harassing many, was said to have committed suicide. The federation was formally abolished. All these combined created a frightening climate of uncertainty in the country.

In such distressing national circumstances, the author took his annual leave from Egypt Air and toured Egypt and Italy, a tour he called “honeymoon.” The description of this tour is also a relief to the reader as it gives a break from the sometimes very gloomy narrations of events in the previous chapters.

In 1972, the author went back to secret political activity after some years of self-alienation from the movement due to the continued harassment he faced. He was secretly enlisted, through an agent called Tarzan, to the ranks of clandestine urban cells of the Popular Forces, later to become the EPLF. His main tasks were to distribute revolutionary texts, collect monthly monetary contributions from members and recruit additional members.

His new job as head of the Keren Branch of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia gave him a stable job in an unstable political situation. In 1974, the author faced pressure from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), the other major independence movement at the time. Its agents wanted him to secretly hand them the money at the bank and flee with them to the field. As he was already a member of the EPLF, the author found it difficult to comply with the ELF request. Readers are kept in suspense as they read how the author tried to eventually dodge the request.

After the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia and the advances of the liberation forces in Eritrea, the new rulers of Ethiopia started to put additional surveillance on the author and other members of the mass organizations of the EPLF. The Ethiopians suspected that the author might find it easier to join the rebels from his banking post in Keren and later in 1975 in Asmara. They didn’t waste time to transfer him and many of his bank colleagues to Addis Ababa. Soon, he found himself struggling to secure annual leave so that he could come back to Asmara. Through suspenseful dramatization, the author succeeds in conveying the difficulties he faced and shows the true character of the new leaders of Ethiopia.

During his stay in Addis Ababa, the author gradually rose to higher levels of leadership in the secretive EPLF mass organizations located within the city. To cover his clandestine activities, he befriended Ethiopian officials and actively participated in meetings organized by the officials. This put Tekie in bad reputation among many unsuspecting Eritreans. The author secretly collected money and recruited and organized members. This didn’t last long. He was forced to flee Addis Ababa in 1980 when the Ethiopians penetrated the secret cells and took some members to prison. The author skillfully renders the events of this ill-fated saga a fictional quality; he writes so deftly causing the reader to sometimes wonder whether this is a masterpiece of fiction or a depiction of real events. In such writing style, the author narrates the story of his journey from Addis Ababa to the Eritrean mountains where he joined the freedom fighters. The author’s account is also enhanced by the occasional humor.

The final part of the book recounts the experiences of the new freedom fighter Tekie, assigned to Ala in the eastern escarpment, one of the EPLF strongholds at the time. He met with the leaders of the urban cells of EPLF and they told him how the enemy managed to infiltrate the cells and dismantle the secret organizations. Things started to fall apart as around 120 members were jailed and many others were killed. After his departure, the author’s family faced prison and torture. Against all these challenges, the author, as he solemnly states at the end of his book, started the life of a freedom fighter in the valleys of Ala.

The author shows his remarkable writing and story-telling skills in his first original work. His style of writing made the book an easy read. It is difficult to put away the book once you open it. In some parts of the book, the author makes the reader easily identify with the author’s thoughts, and at times, readers may feel that the sentences and words are narrated to them in person. In addition to the writer’s narration skills, the point of view he adopts also contributes to the readability of the book. It is indeed a readable personal account of the yet unexplored history of Eritrea’s independence struggle. It is more than “a handful-of-grain,” a significant contribution to the historical study of the independence movement, and a challenge to those freedom fighters who have yet to raise their pens and write. Although a number of witty anecdotes and other humorous accounts bring smiles to the reader’s face, the secretive activities the author describes naturally engender fear and suspense. We read that many young people faced daily terror, imprisonment and torture for years. Still, despite the many harrowing tales of terror and oppression, the reader never fails to sense the author’s and his fellow comrades‟ steely conviction that they will eventually succeed in bringing the light of freedom to the troubled land.

The author’s acknowledged urge to engage in personal accounts, without forgetting the communal experience, i.e., his wish to dwell on the personal “I” as subsumed in the collective “we”, has meant covering many of the participants of the secret missions the author and his colleagues were involved in. This urge has led to the inclusion of too many characters in some of the stories related in the pages and has dragged the narration to some extent. Although to a limited scale, this has also negatively affected the focus of the book as some of the details could have easily been left out.

As it is usually the case in writing a book, further research would have made Kab Rix’ more complete. In addition, the author could have easily  made further use of written sources and other types of secondary data that would have given the book more depth. It is common to read works on the political history of Eritrea which are commonly written from the impersonal stance. Many may find books written using such a style as dry and boring to read. Kab Rix’ has managed to break this barrier as the author managed to present the political upheavals in Eritrea during the 1960s and 70s through a readable and personalized writing style that borders on fiction writing. In this book, through personalized narration style, the author has skillfully handled an issue commonly reserved to few writers on politics. Kab Rix’ represents serious political issues written in fictional style and this makes the book not only a groundbreaking work in literature in the country but a must-read piece on the history of the revolution in Eritrea.

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*Taken from Journal of Eritrean Studies (6): 1 (July 2102); pp. 147-154. Two sentences have been changed to correct factual error.

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