Jake Weber learned to speak Korean and to love literature during six otherwise wasted years in the Marine Corps. Afterwards, he published a few poems and earned a B.A. and an M.A. in English, the latter in University of Illinois-Chicago’s writing program. After his M.A., he wrote nothing for ten years, had kids, and became a translator. Korean was a saturated market, so he learned Tigrinya. It has been his immense privilege to help a few families from Ethiopia and Eritrea to adjust to life in America. “American as Berbere” is his first published work of fiction. He has been blogging lately about getting back to writing and his doubts along the way at workshopheretic.blogspot.com.
American as Berbere
For Meb, and everyone I know like him.
When he was twelve, Tesfay came to the conclusion that all Habesha music had a drumbeat that sounded like somebody had chucked two shoes into a Laundromat dryer, and soon thereafter developed a contempt for Ethiopian music—and perhaps Ethiopia in general—that stuck with him. There had been a few years, soon after he came to the United States at eight, a fugitive of famine and the Derg’s policies he knew nothing about, when he would listen with admiration to the beat of the kebero, as the horns and krar and flute-like thing with the name he couldn’t pronounce all worked around it, like pilgrims weaving their strands around a May-pole. But over time, it became harder for the Greater D.C. Tigrayan People’s Cultural Center to find anyone who knew how to play the krar, so they settled for a competent drum player and a synthesizer. In this arrangement, Tesfay heard only the drum’s repetitious “ba-bump, ba-bump” drubbing away at the same speed. It filled him with a sense of futility, that no matter how many times someone hit the drum, the cycle would just keep going around, until someone finally yelled “d’rub!” and the drummer sped up to reach the merciful death of the song.
When he first came to the U.S. in 1984, he was a minor celebrity, having appeared as one of the crying children in a rock music benefit for Africa video, his distended abdomen hanging from him like an empty taff sack. A philanthropic organization sponsored his mother, younger brother Tsegaye and his sisters Meheret and Azeb to come as refugees. Their three bedroom apartment on the west side of Baltimore had been handed over to the family with some fanfare, newspapers snapping pictures of him and one of the lesser-known stars from the chorus of the rock anthem to end poverty. A councilwoman had even handed his mother the key to the front door. After the crammed-in shanties they had shared with dozens of others at the refugee camps in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and later Sudan, having an entire room to just himself and his brother gave him a nauseating sense of agoraphobia. He felt abandoned, and had to keep looking across the room to Tsegaye and watch his younger brother make up stories to accompany the comic books they had been given but couldn’t read. Tesfay’s first winter in America, he believed his new country was cold because there weren’t enough people in it to keep it warm. He came down with pneumonia that kept him out of school for weeks.
A year later, their grant ran out. His mother, who, in one year of attending English classes twice a week had learned nothing but “hello” and “nice to meet you,” took a job cleaning bathrooms in office buildings with another Habesha woman who had started her own business. She didn’t earn enough to put food in the mouths of her children, let alone pay rent and utilities, so the family had to move in with Aunt Sophia in Silver Spring, near D.C. There were no cameras that came to record the day the family moved out, one garbage bag per person.
Aunt Sophia was a legend in the D.C. Habesha community. She was the sister of Tesfay’s late father, who had been killed (martyred, Tesfay would later learn to say) in the struggle against the Derg. Aunt Sophia’s own husband had also gone out a martyr. Aunt Sophia made her money selling home mortgages to Habesha families who would not take a loan from anyone who couldn’t tell them their interest rate in Tigrinya or Amharic. She must have made a lot of money that way, because she supported half the TPLA back in Ethiopia with what she sent them, along with a large number of destitute souls in America. She had enough left over for a four bedroom with a loft into which her sister-in-law’s family could squeeze without too much trouble, although Tesfay and Tsegaye had to share a room with her only son, Robel.
When Tesfay entered the house for the first time, the first thing he noticed was a trophy almost as high as the ceiling. It had four pillars on the bottom, then two more pillars on a second level, and finally a golden man on top holding a stick and twisting his torso with the stick in his hand. Tesfay thought it was made entirely of gold, and believed his aunt must be the richest woman in the world. When he later learned that it was Robel’s, he thought Robel must be the luckiest child alive. When he later learned that it was made of plastic with gold paint and worthless, he wondered why his aunt had such a large thing in her living room. When he learned that Robel had won it for being the best baseball player in his Hot Stove league, Tesfay stopped asking questions.
Tesfay’s introduction to baseball came five seconds after he noticed Robel’s trophy. He heard his cousin yell “Heads up!” and saw a blur out of his left eye before he felt a crushing blow blind that same eye. He vaguely remembered lying, face up, trying to focus on the stalactites of paint from the ceiling while his aunt screamed in English at her son.
Later, as he was lying on the couch, his cousin was sitting on the floor next to him, holding a Ziploc bag full of ice cubes on his eye. He-Man was playing on the television. Tsegaye had already taken Tesfay’s bag to their new room. Robel brought Tesfay sodas and held on to the ice for hours, in spite of the awkward crouch he had to maintain on the floor. He looked so uncomfortable, but was so happily optimistic through it, Tesfay started to feel sorry for him. Aunt Sophia seemed to have been won over by his vigilance. She kissed him on the top of his head, called him “Robeley,” and sent him to set the table for dinner. Tesfay’s mother made injerra and shiro with berbere pepper, and Aunt Sophia praised Robel for knowing how to open the prayer with the correct Orthodox incantation.
His mother insisted that both Tesfay and Tsegaye learn to play baseball. Tesfay thought that perhaps his mother mistook “baseball” for the English word “soccer,” the only game she had ever heard of. Or maybe baseball was to be part of their education in becoming Americanized, and Robel, holder of the glittering trophy, was to be their mentor.
That spring, Tesfay went to school during the day, where he slowly learned to say he was confused rather than confusing, to hear the difference between live and leave, and to contract all sorts of things into shorter things that meant the same thing. He was in the same class as Robel, and sensed his cousin was the sort of student who did not often know the answers, but hid it through a sleight of hand that allowed him to change the conversation at the crucial moment. An ample supply of friends who knew the answers didn’t hurt.
Once home from school, Tesfay, Tsegaye and Robel always went straight to the playground to play baseball. Robel was patient in trying to explain how to swing, throw or catch, but when he threw batting practice to Tesfay, Robel would not hold back, and fired one pitch after another as hard as he could past Tesfay, who could scarcely get the bat started before the ball was already past him. Sometimes, Robel hit Tesfay, and they would retreat to the couch in the living room and repeat the scene from Tesfay’s first day in the house.
“You have to be careful with your cousin, Robeley,” his mother would say in between calls to clients seeking loans. “He’s not as good as you.”
“I have to throw hard at him, adey. The kids in the league are going to throw hard at him.”
“Just be careful, Robeley.”
Tesfay played on the same team as his cousin. Robel hit third in the lineup, the spot reserved for the best hitter. Tesfay played two innings a game, the minimum each player was required to be in the game, always in left field. While Robel pitched and batted his team to most of the wins they managed that year, Tesfay did not manage once to even put the bat on the ball, or even to walk his way on base. In truth, he was terrified of the ball as a result of being hit so many times, and just hoped to survive his few trips to the plate.
He only ran the bases once. It was the last inning of a game his team was losing by one run, and one of the good hitters at the top of the order managed a double, but hurt himself sliding into second. Robel told his coach that Tesfay was fast, and would be a good pinch runner.
Tesfay was fast. He took a runner’s stance at second base, like he had seen others do all season long, and waited while Robel stood in the batter’s box. On the second pitch, Robel sent a screaming line drive into centerfield. Tesfay did not wait. He tore off toward third base and rounded third toward home. He was a little awkward as he took the turn, but he was more than fast enough to make up for it. He heard the cries from his bench and the parents of his teammates, and it spurred him on to run even faster. He crossed home plate, and waited for the kids from his team to come running out to congratulate him. It took him some effort to realize that the center fielder had caught Robel’s line drive, and thrown Tesfay out at second base, where he had failed to tag up, for the last out of the game. He had been called out at second while he was halfway from third to home. The shouts from his team had been to go back to second. The other team had been laughing at him as he streaked for what he’d thought was the tying run.
Tesfay sat with his head down in the dugout and refused to line up to shake the other team’s hands. He did not huddle with his team to hear the coach tell them to shake it off and get the next one, nor did he take a juice box and a bag of chips someone had brought for the after-game snack. He waited until his family was loaded up in the van, then dragged himself to the back seat, not looking at anyone from the dugout to the parking lot. As he sat, his arms crossed and his cap pulled down over his eyes in the van, his mother continually turned around to congratulate him for his performance. He had run so fast, she said. She could not understand that running fast was not the whole point of the game.
Tesfay tried to hide in his room that evening, but Robel and Tsegaye were there. He tried the basement, but Robel followed him there. For the first time, he began to feel that the house he was living in was too small. He eventually opted for the living room, where at least the television was a distraction for others, and he could rely on being ignored. But after Family Ties ended, Robel got up and changed the channel to the Orioles game.
“We need to watch so Tesfay knows the rules,” he said.
Tesfay did not move quickly, or with any hint of the briskness anger brings, but he stood up from the couch, stepped deliberately to Robel’s trophy, and tipped it over with no more effort than he would have used to turn on a light switch. The swinging man on the top of the trophy hit the floor, broke off and ricocheted toward the television, barely missing hitting the screen.
His sisters, aunt, mother and Robel turned to him, as if waiting for an explanation, some improbable excuse about how he had just been admiring it and not meant to smash it. Instead, Tesfay stood, his arms pushed straight down at his sides and ending in two fists balled up like burnt bread.
“You never told me the rules, Robel.”
Aunt Sophia started after him first, but when his mother realized what was happening, she quickly jumped up and won the race to Tesfay, pummeling him on the ears with slaps and pulling him by the hair. Robel came to his aid, and tried to get his mother off of him.
“It’s okay, Aunt Feven. It’s okay! He’s right. I didn’t tell him the rules.”
But he couldn’t speak any language Tesfay’s mother could understand, and the only words of his language she knew meant nothing right now. She beat Tesfay until he forgot that he was angry, and was only aware that she was hurting him. He tried to ask for mercy, but his throat was so sore from holding back his tears, he could get out nothing except a slight, croaking “bejahi, adey.”
Tesfay held his balance for ten seconds, twenty, thirty, his left hand holding his left foot aloft behind him. His knee formed an upside-down goose neck while he stretched his quadriceps. He was wearing the headphones his mother had bought him when she took over her boss’s cleaning business. They were the best, and he could scarcely hear a thing outside of Brahms’ violin concerto. He had loved Brahms since joining the orchestra in seventh grade, because of the way his teacher overpronounced the German: “Bwghaaahms.” Tesfay had tried his best to reproduce it at home in front of Robel. Robel, instead of a violin, had a large drum set that he tinkered with sometimes. He tried to introduce Tesfay to Stevie Ray Vaughan, but Tesfay assumed that if Robel liked it, it was probably a bad influence. That was what Aunt Sophia called everything and everyone Robel liked then: a bad influence.
Tesfay never played baseball after that year when he broke Robel’s trophy. Robel played through high school, and was good, but not good enough to earn a look from any scouts. Some said he had been too lazy, and relied too much on his talent. Others said he was distracted by tinkering around with music and smoking pot and the girls who had taught him how to groove to both.
So Tesfay became a violin-playing non-athlete, and had the social status to match. Robel once tried to convince some of the school’s jocks not to pick on him by telling them that Tesfay had grown up during the famine in Ethiopia. When the school got a hold of a video from the library of him at six, naked with his stomach protruding beyond his infant penis, things took a dangerous turn. Phys Ed was the worst. Anytime he wasn’t looking during volleyball or football, a ball somehow found its way to his head. Someone would then come running over to offer profuse apologies and explanations about how the ball had just gotten away from him. The only bright spot was that it was the last period of the day, and Tesfay was spared from showers with his tormentors.
Eventually, Tesfay offered his P.E. teacher a deal. If Tesfay ran the whole time during gym, he would not have to take part in any of the sports being played. Tesfay hoped that if he could turn himself into a moving target, he’d be harder to hit. His teacher never believed that Tesfay could keep moving for 52 minutes, so he took the bargain. Three months later, his gym teacher brought someone to meet Tesfay while he was running his laps.
“This is Coach Vetter. He’s the cross-country coach.”
Tesfay stopped to say hello, but felt uncomfortable not running. “You mean you travel a lot?” he asked.
Soon, Tesfay had as many trophies in the living room as Robel. Then he had more. His senior year, Coach Vetter stopped Tesfay during a practice to introduce him to someone. It was the largest man Tesfay had ever seen, both in height and width.
“This is Coach De Sapio, Tesfay,” he said. “He’s the track coach at University of Maryland.”
Tesfay shook his hand. Coach De Sapio’s eyes were hidden by small, round sunglasses perched on top of his puffy cheeks.
“We’ve been getting our asses kicked lately by schools with all the best Kenyan runners,” the coach said. “We were hoping you could change that.”
“Well, I’m from Ethiopia, not Kenya,” Tesfay said.
“Well, I won’t tell anyone. As long as you can run like a Kenyan.”
Tesfay won his first ACC title two years later in the 10,000 meters. He won his second a year after that, a day before he found out Robel had been killed, shot in the head and the forearm. The police did not know who had shot him, but they figured he had been shot in the forearm when someone pointed at his head and he had instinctively put his arm up to shield his face. When Tesfay wanted to withdraw from the nationals, his Aunt Sophia would not let him.
“If I can lose a husband and come to America and start a business, and your mother can lose a husband and come to America and run a business, you can lose a cousin and run around in circles a few times.”
He relaxed his hold on his foot, and the final strains of the concerto faded away in his ears. Rather than start a new piece of music so close to the race, he removed his headphones and looked up into the stands. Usually, it was easy to find his mother and sister Azeb. Meheret was off at college herself, as was Tsegaye, although they had sent their love and best wishes. Today, it was impossible to find his family in the crowd, because they were surrounded by a sea of Habesha faces, already bursting at the seams to cheer for him, waving the green, yellow and red flag of Ethiopia. Some wore their traditional white clothing. The heads of a few women were covered by netsella. They erupted into cheers when Tesfay looked up at them, and the flags circled happily like the vultures he had once seen descend upon a dead calf in Tigray. Tesfay laughed and waved, but ended his wave with a slight swipe of the hand that hinted at rejection. He wondered if they understood he was trying to qualify for the American Olympic team.
Some of the other runners were jogging back and forth along the straightaway, trying to get warm. Tesfay had never understood running as a way to get ready to run some more. He was always ready to run, could wake up in the middle of the night to find Robel was in trouble somewhere and run halfway around the Beltway to get him. At times like that, he would ignore his mother’s disapproving looks, the questions about whether it was worth it that even Aunt Sophia began to ask after a while. Tesfay never questioned it when Robel needed help. Even Robel understood that for Habesha people, “family” was the end of an argument.
He had asked his mother once why, if Aunt Sophia was family and so well off, they had not moved in with her at once, or been rescued from the famine earlier by her money. His mother told him that Tesfay’s father had wanted it that way. As a comrade of the struggle, he could not allow his family to escape the fate others were facing because they were fortunate enough to have a wealthy relative. He wanted them to fight to live, and through fighting to learn to love what they were fighting for.
The signal came for the runners to approach the starting line. Tesfay felt no nerves at all. To win or lose was in God’s hands, just as to live or die was in God’s hands. To be rich or poor. To choose a violin and become an Olympic hopeful, or to choose dirty blues and end up dead. All God, God, God. He had heard it so many times it didn’t matter if he believed it in his mind. His body believed it.
The gun sounded and Tesfay shot out ahead. He could always tell within twenty strides what kind of a day he would have. Today was a good day, and he wanted to bury the field early, to leave them wondering for so long when he would drop off that eventually the question would slip from their minds, and they would view the race as a race for second.
As he rounded the first turn, he felt a familiar thrum vibrate through him. Someone in the Habesha crowd had brought a kebero, and was beating it to spur Tesfay on. It was the wrong tempo for him, though. It was impossible to match up with it, because its two beats landed too close together for him to land left-right in time to the two thumps. He tried to just land on the left foot on the first beat, but that was too slow. He tried to land once between the downbeat and once on it, but that was too fast. He tried to ignore the drum altogether, to recall Brahms or Stevie Ray Vaughn or the silence of slow death, but the kebero oscillated though him, blocking other music from his mind. He could not keep his pace, and he slipped from first to second, then to third, then to somewhere in the middle of the pack where he did not know what place he was in.
For lap after lap, he struggled to find his own rhythm again and to break out of the pack. He hated being in the middle of a sea of legs, where one misstep could end in tangled limbs and twisted ankles. Twice, he tried to move to the outside for a push, but each time, the kebero would increase the volume, and he would lose his pace and fall back into the pack.
That goddamned drum, that cycle that never stopped, never changed. Birth to famine to death, leaving your children behind to grow to famine and death. Running in a circle, hoping to get somewhere, ending up where you came from. Ba-bump.
He got nowhere through the fourth kilometer, or the fifth, sixth or seventh. He had never liked trying to come from behind in a race. He was either a frontrunner from the gate or that was that. Why couldn’t that drum stop? He tried to remember Robel’s playing in the basement, when, without ever having had a lesson, he did his best to keep up with Pride and Joy. Tesfay had wrinkled his nose at the looseness of the piece, and asked why Robel didn’t learn to play decent music.
“Man, don’t you know that Ethiopia is the home of the best jazz music in the world? This stuff is your culture.”
“That’s blues, not jazz.”
“Whatever. Same thing.”
Whatever. Blues. Jazz. Kenya. Ethiopia. Eight kilometers. Two to go.
Some of the field had fallen off, and he was somewhere around sixth place, in a group with several others competing for second. First place was a Kenyan who went to Stanford Tesfay knew from nationals. Nobody was catching him today.
Tesfay wished he could have grown up longer in the mountains of Tigray, so he could have built his lungs up in the altitude. He tried to recall those highlands. Right before they had left, running in the mountains was the furthest thing from his mind. He had been too tired from hunger to run. But earlier, he remembered—perhaps his earliest memory—running with Azeb and his father and mother. It seemed like the happiest game they were playing, something they were making up on the spot. Tesfay had to tag Azeb, who then had to tag their father, who then would tag their mother. Their father teased their mother as he chased her, flipping her netsella down over her eyes as he ran past her. The game went on and on for hours, and they wandered deep into the wild. It wasn’t until they returned to the village that night that Tesfay realized that they had actually been running from the Derg, who had come to look for TPLA soldiers. The game was meant to keep the children from being frightened. Tesfay wondered what it would look like if he went back now, where the TPLA--now the EPRDF and in charge of the country--was said to be building all over Tigray.
There were 500 meters to go when Tesfay heard the shrill, banshee-like ululation from the Habesha women. The drum increased its pace. Tesfay realized that this was the d’rub, the final part of the song. They were trying to send him down the homestretch with everything they had left. Without needing to think about it, Tesfay fell in step with the faster rhythm. First place was out of the question, but he only needed to finish third to qualify for the Olympics. And he had never saved this much for the end of a race before.
He pushed harder. The trilling of the women’s voices became louder. It was a funny custom, Tesfay had always thought. It sounded like ghosts coming from out of the grave, but it was meant as a welcome. Women generally made that noise when a loved one returned after a long time. Life is short, and we love you. We are glad you made it back. He careened around the turn toward the corner of the stands where his people were gathered. The flags bounced along with the white clothes, and the colors bled together into all the colors in the world.
He ran for Ethiopia. He ran for America. For Robel, for his father. For whatever. He ran for the finish, for home.
“ I realize that Meb Keflezighy, the runner in the dedication, considers himself to be Eritrean, and Tesfay of my story is an Ethiopian from Tigray. I also understand very well the sensitivities of Eritreans and Ethiopians alike to wanting to be considered something different from one another. Tesfay is from Tigray rather than Eritrea for no other reason, I suppose, than that I have known a few more Ethiopians than Eritreans. But I love you both the same. I love the word 'Habesha,' because it includes both Eritreans and Ethiopians, and it reminds us all that people on both sides of that now tragically hostile border are one people—hade hizbi. When one day all this politika malitika is over, I hope 'Habesha' is the only word anyone uses to describe his or her origin. ”