Sunday, July 1, 2007

Held at a Distance: A Rediscovery of Ethiopia

Held at a Distance: A Rediscovery of Ethiopia
By Rebecca Haile
Academy Chicago Publishers
Reviewed by Nancy L. Horner

By the time I left for college and then law school, the number of Ethiopian immigrants in the United States was starting to swell, with the concomitant development of the Ethiopian community centers and support groups. Organized primarily around newly established local churches. But despite my parents’ own deep Christian faith and my father’s ties to the Church my parents had rarely taken us to church services, even in Addis Ababa, and I did not feel comfortable in traditional Ethiopian circles, which can be conservative, hierarchical and sexist. At the same time, I did not feel entirely American: I never felt at ease with the fundamental lightheartedness of my classmates or shared the sense of self-control and invincibility that seemed to underlie it. I struck a balance in which I displayed an American face to the world while I nurtured a private identification with Ethiopia that I kept mostly to myself. Held at a distance by the intervening years, by language and by culture, I felt farther and farther removed from our life in Ethiopia.

Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia is equal parts history lesson, travelogue of the author’s return to Ethiopia, and memoir of her experiences in both Ethiopia and the United States.

In 1974, Colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam and his army, known as the Derg, overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. A year later, Rebecca Haile’s father was targeted by the Derg and shot during an attempted escape from his blockaded home, while most of the family was preparing for a party at his sister’s house. Eventually allowed to leave for medical treatment in England with his wife and then continue to the United States to begin a new life, another year passed before the children were reunited with their parents in Minnesota.

Rebecca Haile was 11 years old when she was reunited with her parents in Minnesota. Growing up with distinct memories of her childhood in Ethiopia and later becoming a Harvard-educated lawyer and U.S. citizen, she felt as if she were straddling two cultures. Haile returned to Ethiopia 25 years later, in 2001, to visit her family and explore her native country. Her goal was not only to visit her childhood home (including the house she lived in for a year, which was seized by the government and held until just a short time before her return), but to make sense of her divided feelings, check her memories against the reality of modern Ethiopia and visit the historical and cultural sites she’d heard of but never seen.

Held at a Distance describes Haile’s return visit while also filling in the reader on Ethiopia’s rich history and culture and comparing both to the current political and cultural climate.

Haile’s analytical style can be annoying, but Held at a Distance illuminates the true Ethiopia, a place unknown to most Westerners because the press focuses on the violence of recent decades, poverty, and starvation in remote parts of the country, leaving most with a warped view. The book is illuminating for those who have no ties to the country and offers hope to Ethiopian nationals who have been driven out of their nation but wish to renew ties to their homeland. The book contains a helpful glossary of Ethiopian terms and phrases used or quoted by the author.

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