Exile, Home and Nostalgia: In Conversation with Ribka Sibhatu

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Sept. 30, 2020

Poet, communication scholar, and human rights defender Ribka Sibhatu (PhD in communication studies) has recently released a book in English, Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! (Poetry Translation Center, 2020). The collection–poems and folklores—has been translated from Italian into English by André Naffis-Sahely.

Abraham T. Zere from PEN Eritrea has conducted a written interview with Ribka Sibhatu on her new book, the notion of exile and the role of an artist, among other topics.

Q: You have lived in exile since 1986; although I assume you have been returning regularly to Eritrea for short visits. You have been moving across languages, but you kept the nuances of Tigrinya in your other languages. What struck me was that despite the shifting of languages, you kept returning to your Eritrean roots. Was this a means of survival in your years of exile, a remedy for reminiscence, or was it a need to connect with your country’s culture and art and communicate it to the outside world?

Ribka: I arrived in Europe in 1986. I was released from prison at the end of 1979 and I stayed in Asmara for only a few months, as former prisoners had the obligation to meet every Saturday morning in a center that it is located between Mariyam Ghimbi and the hospital. They justified it by claiming they were “sensitizing us to the ideology of Marxism.” One day, as I was returning home, one of the political cadres who used to teach us Marxist thought told me I had been given a scholarship to go to Moscow to study Marxism-Leninism. Prior to that, I ended up in prison because I refused to marry a man who held an important position. The day after Easter 1980 I had to abandon my family and Asmara – I wouldn’t return until 1992 – and I tried to leave via Sudan. When I reached Inn, nearby Teseney, I was apprehended by EPLF freedom fighters and I was told I had two choices: either enlist with them or return to Asmara. My dream was to complete my studies and then I decided to stay with relatives in the countryside, in areas that were not under Ethiopian control. There, I discovered who I really was, where I came from, the love of my people and the welcoming culture of my people! I fell in love with my culture, my people, my history! I realized how much people who live in the city are wrong in saying “ሃገረሰብ” (countryside) in a derogatory sense to imply someone is uncivilized. Ever since, I have talked about our country’s hospitality, the traditional parliaments that used to sit under the sycamore trees, which have now been disbanded, about the wofera (collaborative volunteer/community work), the intercommunity help, of the importance of respecting the word given, and etc.

.Q: In the zoom reading organized by English PEN and Poetry Translation Center, your translator André Naffis-Sahely, said he considers himself more of an agent than your translator, since he found it more difficult to get your work published than to translate it, owing to institutional barriers in western publishing What can you tell me about the translation process you went through for Aulò! Aulò! Aulò!?  Difficulties and challenges?

Ribka: It was not easy to translate my work, especially the poems. A lot has been lost although we worked hard to produce a translation that was as close to the original as possible. Let me give you two examples:
1) from “ኣቦይ ኣቦይ’ኣቦይ” ቀረ ’’ – ከሊቅ እስከ ደቂቅ ሲጠባበቅ – “the intellectuals and ordinary people,” here the musicality and the alliteration of the verse is lost.
2)From “እቡበይ” – My Abeba – ናይ’ታ ከይ ዓምበበት ድዓረባ: እቡብ መተኣስርተይ
– “a flower who faded before she bloomed, my friend in prison”
(G. Negash and C. Cantalupo)
-“a flower who withered before she bloomed, my friend in prison
(by André Naffis-Sahely)
As we can see these lines lose their meaning in both Italian and English; we lose the alliteration (ድግመተ-ኣፈና), the figurative, allegorical or metaphorical ’(ምስሌኣዊ ትሕዝቶ) of the two verses: For example ‘ድዓረባ’ in Tigrinya has a double meaning: sunset and the end of life; all this is lost in translation. I must emphasize, however, that knowing several languages has helped me to see words and concepts from a variety of different angles, always trying to never lose the point of reference in the literal and metaphorical sense, which for me remains the Tigrinya originals.

Q: Although I am very much aware of the Lampedusa shipwreck tragedy, can you tell me little about the process of writing your poem “Lampedusa?” As heart-wrenching tragedy as it was, I want to know how you composed the poem? How were you holding up and dealing with the grief? If possible, I want to know when exactly you wrote the poem.

Ribka: “Lampedusa” for me is a melques (an elegy) until a real second funeral is held in our country and that tragedy’s victims will be buried in their own homeland. “’Lampedusa’ is a lament for the dead and an act of bearing witness,” as Sasha Dugdale described it. I felt I was in the sinking boat while composing it; the same is true with the Daesh (ISIS) victims of the Eritrean and Ethiopian who have been slaughtered like cows in Libya. The tragedy of the Eritreans begins in Eritrea. The proud and generous people who paid dearly for their freedom have now been reduced to slaves. Anyone who demands justice winds up in underground prisons, just like rats. The tragedy continues in Sudan when they get kidnapped by Bedouin human traffickers and then get sold like sheep for organ harvest in Sinai and other places.

The poem “Lampedusa” arises from the indignation I experienced over all of this, but the inspiration came from Edvard Munch‘s painting The Scream of Nature, which seemed to sum up the tragedy of my people. When I heard the Eritrean state media address them as “African illegal immigrants drowned in the Mediterranean” and the flag was not flown half-mast in their country of origin, but only others like Italy, I felt as though I’d been stabbed. Such tragedies unfortunately continue today in Libya and elsewhere.

Q: In the poem “Lampedusa” both in the original Italian and the English translation, you used Tigrinya letters and words such as the trill and the hymns. I am interested to know why? Can you tell me the reasons to use exclusively Tigrinya words and alphabets while the poem is rather in European languages?

ስምኪ ጸዊዐ መዓስ ሓፊረ፣
ማሪያም ኢለ ኣበይ ወዲቐ:

ስምኪ እዩእ ስንቂ ኮይኑኒ:
እንሆ ምስጋናይ ተቐበልኒ!”

Ribka: This excerpt from a psalm that I included was sang by the 368 people who were present on that boat. They sang it before they died thinking that they had arrived safely. I used this as a prelude to the reader to be part of the journey, closer to the actual course of the tragedy and I felt translating the hymn would dilute the real feelings.
2) The trill is part of an ancient rite of joy sung by our mothers to announce the arrival of a newborn.

In Eritrean culture, the birth of a child is considered the antidote to death and a concrete pillar of immortality. The newborn child is welcomed with seven trills for a boy and three trills for a girl. An Eritrean proverb says: “Your death is equal to your life, your life is equal to your death.” and in the closing of the fairy tales it says: “If you forget what you have heard, you will be forgotten by death!”. This serene outlook on death is linked to the continuity of life guaranteed by birth, which forms an antidote to death. The newborn is welcomed with seven trills, so that it becomes a pillar of immortality.

Q: I found your use of Tigrinya alphabets and word usage archaic and in many ways different than most contemporary writers’ (in a positive way). Do you follow contemporary Eritrean writing? If so, are there any writers whose work impressed you?

Ribka: Unfortunately, I did not study Ge’ez, I taught myself Tigrinya because I initially learned Amharic at school. However, I am convinced that the architecture of our archaic alphabet is “scientifically and spiritually” premeditated as demonstrated by Memhr Bokretion Zerayohannes and the Ethiopian scholar Memhr Mesfn Solomon. Scholars of Abyssinian literature say there are about 250.000 books in Ge’ez. If we remove the letters from the archaic alphabet, we will not be able to read the books of our ancestors and therefore we will be unaware of our great history. Asres Tesema, Reesom Haile, Ghirmai Negash, Isak Yosef, Aba Yakob Ghebreyesus, Alemseged Tesfai, Beyene Haile, Solomon Tsehaye and Aba Isak Ghebreyesus are among some of my favorite Tigrinya writers.

Q:Both in your writings and other activities, including as a human rights activist, you have been very vocal about the ongoing repression in Eritrea. What do you think the role of an artist should be in such situations? There are some who argue an artist should be apolitical; what are your views on this?

Ribka: For a long time I used to believe that an artist should only deal with their art. Since 2004 and the tragedy of Lampedusa, however, I have changed my mind. The problem is not whether to be active or not, but to understand the thinking of those who enslaved us in our country and once we understand the mentality of the enemy, we can strategize better to deal with the dictator and his government. More importantly we should struggle to create a collective consciousness so that everyone can join the cause. I believe artists can play significant roles in raising awareness, while journalists and other public intellectuals can hold power accountable and expose it if there are any abuses.

Q:  The motif of Sycamore is recurrent in your writing. Can you tell your non-Eritrean readers a little about its significance? Is it only an expression of nostalgia, or you sincerely hopeful that such a return to tradition might happen following political change in Eritrea?

Ribka: Like the agora of ancient Greece, the sycamores were our local parliaments, where our ancestors elected the village chief, settled disputes, declared war or peace, prayed, held parties and funerals, and it was where many aulò (songs) were recited for the living and melques for the dead. The Eritrean dictator suppressed these forms of expression, too. I have tried to keep these memories alive in our collective consciousness and perhaps I am nostalgic, as I want to both immortalize the dream and reinstate as well.

You can order the book here: Aulò! Aulò! Aulò!


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