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Ethiopian cultural blog post 14.II.2009 07:57
In many countries, certain English phrases take root and spread throughout the population to become ubiquitous. In Ethiopia, in addition to the inadvertantly rude greeting 'you!' and the perplexingly incorrect question 'where are you go?', one word that has done so is 'cultural'. Anything even remotely Ethiopian gets pointed out to you. At a restaurant, your fellow patrons will proudly point out that you are eating Ethiopian cultural food, drinking Ethiopian cultural beer, and listening to Ethiopian cultural music - in fact, I have a picture of three adjacent shops all of which are signed 'Ethiopian cultural clothes shop,' with no other name to distinguish them. Ethiopians are proud of their heritage, and have preserved it against western influence better than almost any country I've seen - the youth here embrace more traditional culture than, say, their Tibetan counterparts; the constant repetition of the phrase, however, leaves one yearning for synonyms.

The main problem, though, is with how shallow a concept of culture the visitor is presented. Everyone's description of what they are so proud of in Ethiopia comes down to food, drink, music, language, clothes and dancing - especially dancing, which you will be pressured into trying, and, since its foundation is a fiendishly difficult movement of the shoulders, you will make a fool of yourself. Whenever I've asked about the differences between regions, after the standard religious answer I've often just got a description of the clothes - 'oh, we are in Wollo now; here people wear all white on Sundays,' or a comment about the cuisine. It's not that the culture isn't rich and deep as any other, of course - it is, after all, a millennia-old civilisation - but these things you have to discover for yourself by making the effort to establish deeper, perhaps longer-term connections with the locals.

Except in the cases of a few people I've got to know well, my conversations with English-speaking Ethiopians have been phenomenally shallow and tediously repetitive. They ask you if you've seen Gonder, Aksum, Lalibela and Bahir Dar, and they tell you some simple facts, and a few rote-learned boasts about their country - 85 tribes, 54 (or lately, more) languages, 2000 years of history. When I was there on Timkat, I was told that this was an 'Ethiopian cultural festival' dozens of times, but rarely more than that - only when we spent the day with the priests in Shehedi did we learn more. I thought perhaps it would change in Harar, which is supposed to be radically different from the rest of the country, but it really is the same. It takes a fair bit of foreplay to get the conversation to a level where you're getting information beyond the kind that any even minimally informed tourist would have.

I think, however, that I know the reason for this: most tourists here aren't even minimally informed. They come in their 4x4s and their truck-mounted hotels (seriously: it's called a Rotel, or Rolling Hotel) and keep themselves completely isolated from the culture or its people. Even most independent travellers stick to whatever facts and sights happen to be mentioned in the Lonely Planet - the 'faranji Bible,' as one of the Hararis perceptively called it. Of course, even reading the guidebooks gives more information than most of my conversations have, so it's not a bad start, but I think the middle-aged package tourists, out on 'adventures' with their water packs and massive Hummers are the kind of people the guides are looking for; they'll listen and nod happily along, and go back to England and tell their friends how amazing this tribe is - they wear plates in their lips! Of course, the tribes, not being idiots, play up to these impulses so that more tourists come to visit - a friend of mine who had studied the Dogon in Mali said that everything that used to be part of the culture has been turned into a part of the tourist industry, and several friends have complained of how ostentatious and artificial the Omo valley tribes seem, because the culture on display isn't the true rich and deep one but one rooted entirely in shallow trappings and shibboleths like robes and chants and dishes, at root from the same mentality as Homer Simpson's on his first taste of Indian cinema: 'It's funny! Their clothes are different from my clothes!'

Another interesting, but disparate part of Ethiopian culture, and one which I've never actually heard a native Ethiopian discuss, are the Rastafarians, who believe Emperor Haile Selassie (born Ras Tafari) is an incarnation of God and who have therefore come to his homeland as a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. Ethiopians seem to be partly mystified and partly appalled by this, and no Rastafari immigrant has yet been given Ethiopian citizenship, nor have their children, even if they were born here. The rastas claim they have the right to smoke marijuana legally, and they try to sell you some at every opportunity, with one guy in Addis bothering me constantly and in the end hating me for not buying any. It's strange, though, how isolated they still seem from mainstream Ethiopia, and it's not really a wonder: imagine if suddenly thousands of people started coming from, say, Papua New Guinea, proclaiming Prince Charles to be the messiah come to Earth; a genuine Christian (or monarchist) wouldn't know how to react.

Another aspect that the rastas have brought over the Atlantic is the famous Caribbean homophobia, of which I was somewhat unexpectedly, almost a victim on an Addis street. After six months of travelling my hair has grown pretty long, and although I'd like to cut it I'm reluctant to do so in a country where every single man has curly hair; I should have done it in Cairo. Moreover, I don't really care about dressing in a way that tries oh-so-hard to live up to some ideal of masculinity. So a fairly drunk guy comes up to me on the street and just out of nowhere yells, 'why do you act like a girl? In Ethiopia, you have to act like a man!' which is just the beginning of a fairly long tirade which just left me staring at him bemused. His friend took me aside and apologised, but explained that when I am in another country I need to respect its culture. How did I disrespect it? By not wearing low-slung jeans, having long hair, and generally not trying to look like a gangster. That, to him, was the culture, just the same way as the shallowest of people oppose school uniforms because it would rob them of their individuality, as if that amounted only to what one was wearing. I don't really put much effort into seeming straight or gay and honestly, the stereotypes associated with gay men are generally more positive than those of heterosexuals, but having grown up in Canada I never though I'd be at any kind of risk because some idiot on the street thought I was a faggot. And this was just from seeing me on the street - I can't imagine what he'd have done if he'd known I like poetry and Kylie Minogue.

Though, I've been quite negative about Ethiopian 'culture' here, I don't mean to disparage it, but only the way the locals describe it to outsiders. It is, of course, rich in subtlety, and the art is quite beautiful in addition to being old; one just wishes that the Ethiopians didn't focus so much on trumped-up and dubious claims about their country - the same goes for their government, whose incredibly propagandistic tourist information pamphlets just come across as laughable. Ras Dashen is emphatically not the fourth-highest peak in Africa, and the true Ark of the Covenant isn't behind some curtain at a church in Aksum, guarded by blind men and not allowed to be seen. I've enjoyed some aspects of Ethiopia, but it's been a struggle to see past the greedy guides and the presentation of the country as if everything about it could be captured in a ten-page tourist pamphlet. Now I head for Jijiga, in Ethiopia's Wild East frontier, but after that it's out and away from this interesting, but sometimes frustrating, Ethiopian cultural land.

Harar, Ethiopia Et

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