The Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia

The Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia

by Hagar Salamon, Salamon



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The Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia by Hagar Salamon, Salamon

The Jews (Falasha) of northwestern Ethiopia are a unique example of a Jewish group living within an ancient, non-Western, predominantly Christian society. Hagar Salamon presents the first in-depth study of this group, called the "Hyena people" by their non-Jewish neighbors. Based on more than 100 interviews with Ethiopian immigrants now living in Israel, Salamon's book explores the Ethiopia within as seen through the lens of individual memories and expressed through ongoing dialogues. It is an ethnography of the fantasies and fears that divide groups and, in particular, Jews and non-Jews.

Recurring patterns can be seen in Salamon's interviews, which thematically touch on religious disputations, purity and impurity, the concept of blood, slavery and conversion, supernatural powers, and the metaphors of clay vessels, water, and fire.

The Hyena People helps unravel the complex nature of religious coexistence in Ethiopia and also provides important new tools for analyzing and evaluating inter-religious, interethnic, and especially Jewish-Christian relations in a variety of cultural and historical contexts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520219007
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/07/1999
Series: Contraversions: Critical Studies in Jewish Literature, Culture, and Society Series , #13
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Hagar Salamon is a Lecturer in the Department of Jewish and Comparative Folklore at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Read an Excerpt

The Hyena People

Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia
By Hagar Salamon

University of California Press

Copyright © 1999 Hagar Salamon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520219014


A particular event constantly resurfaces in my mind, demanding to be told and giving form to the entire quest that led to this book. It was qes Avraham, the Jewish priest from Tigre in northern Ethiopia, who approached me with a request, many months after we became acquainted and following long hours during which I listened to his reminiscences: "I'm told that there are Christian Ethiopians living in Jerusalem. You live in Jerusalem, you know where they are, I need to talk to them. I implore you, take me to see them." I agreed. On a broiling August day, I picked him up from the Jerusalem Rabbinical Institute, where he was studying, far from his desert hometown in the south of Israel. With his dark Western-style suit and light-colored shirt, qes Avraham seemed more youthful from one meeting to the next. He is of slight build with bronze features and dark shining eyes; an enigmatic smile plays over his face when he recounts especially painful memories.

When we entered Ethiopia Street, I couldn't help but think of the special mythological ties between Jerusalem and Ethiopia, starting with the fabled meeting between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. After a short walk in thenarrow alley, between two looming stone walls, the majestic Ethiopian Church suddenly appeared. The church's round courtyard, built of local stone, provided a shady refuge from the teeming city that lay just beyond the heavy metal gate. The clergy, several of whom have lived in Jerusalem for decades, reside in the low, narrow monastic cells along the courtyard's inner walls. The rooms face the massive, impressive church situated in the center of the courtyard. Ethiopian priests, monks, and nuns in long dark robes cross the courtyard with silent steps. Qes Avraham entered the compound, introduced himself to the priests as a Jewish qes, 1 then straight-away drew then into conversation.

Within a short time, qes Avraham and Abba Abram of the church were absorbed in a lively discussion. I sat watching these men of two different Ethiopian religions discussing theological matters in a church in Jerusalem. Qes Avraham was extremely intense. He argued that the Jews' arrival in Jerusalem was incontrovertible proof that, despite the superiority of the Christians in Ethiopia, God favors the Jews. I was struck by the sense of urgency with which my friend approached the standing of the Christians and by his consuming need to have the last word in an argument which had obvious never left his thoughts, even years after he had left Ethiopia.

Qes Avraham and I had traversed a long road together in our mutual endeavor to breathe life into his past in Ethiopia, leading up to this theological discussion in the heart of Jerusalem. My first encounter with Jews from Ethiopia had taken place more than twelve years before, a few months prior to my meeting with qes Avraham. Even today I savor the astonishment I first experienced when I saw the knots of dark-skinned people grouped near my house, the men wearing knitted kipot, the women in gleaming white robes embroidered down the entire length in black, red, yellow, and green. To my even greater amazement, I saw among the tattoos on their bodies the symbol of the cross.

They seemed to materialize from nowhere, coming in large, organized groups to visit the Western Wall near my home. Operation Moses was under way: one of the two clandestine operations in which the Beta Israel (Falasha)2 —about 50,000 members—were brought from Ethiopia to Israel.3

My own personal quest began in 1984. During Operation Moses, I accepted an offer to participate in fieldwork conducted by the Ministry of Absorption in order to evaluate the integration of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. The work required me to visit absorption centers throughout Israel and observe and interview the staff. At the time, a wave of enthusiasm colored by a warm, all-embracing paternalism washed over the country. I would pass through the crowded central bus stations of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and on to smaller towns, until finally I reached the absorption center I was to visit on that day. It might be a hotel thathad been converted into housing for entire families from Ethiopia. They were put in rooms painted pink, with open closets, a wide bed, and wall-to-wall carpeting. When not studying Hebrew, the inhabitants passed the time in the hotel corridors or lobby. Groups of children expertly rode the elevator; it became their most exciting game. At other times, I might arrive at an as yet uninhabited neighborhood which served as an absorption center. From the outside it appeared no different from many other standard housing projects in Israel, but it was immediately clear that a single, homogeneous group occupied it. Usually, however, the typical center was a caravan (mobile home) site thrown up especially to house the tide of immigrants from Ethiopia. On a bare, rectangular plot of land, light-colored caravans were set a few meters apart, divided into several housing units. A few steps, on which the inhabitants whiled away long hours, led to cement paths connecting the tiny apartments. The long days that I spent at the caravan sites gave me a sense of desolation. Like grains of coarse salt scattered on bare ground, where nothing but brambles grew, the caravans appeared as dreary islands.

I would arrive at one of the absorption centers, always after a long ride on several buses. The Absorption Ministry assumed that the way to pinpoint the difficulties in the absorption process was to speak to the officials. So I had to approach the staff: the Hebrew teachers, social workers, and Ethiopian interpreters. Very rarely did I have a chance to conduct stammered conversations with the immigrants themselves, who would usually wait outside the office, or sit in the classes I visited, or eat next to me in the hotel dining room. Although I had daily contact with them, the members of the community remained a sealed-off entity for me, becoming more and more monolithic and uniform, as they were refracted through the reports of the absorption center staff. Only gradually, in the course of the several months that I was engaged in the project, did I become aware, with growing turmoil, that this group challenged existing definitions of Jewish and Israeli identity.

At the time I couldn't put my finger on the exact reason for this, but I could not shake off the shock of the first sight of them. The crosses tattooed on their hands and foreheads remained a vivid symbol for me, shattering long-standing perceptions of Jewish identity. After the completion of the Absorption Ministry project, I returned to those same absorption centers, but this time I quickly bypassed the offices—with the secret, almost guilty sense of tasting forbidden fruit—and went straight to the apartments of the immigrants themselves. I wanted to invite their pastto enter our dialogues through the special lens of their individual memories and to explore with them the all-important question that occupied me: Who was a Jew in Ethiopia?

This question sparked in turn a myriad of equally perplexing issues: What was the essence of the dividing line between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors? How did they portray their daily lives in Ethiopia as perceived through distances of time and place? How did they view themselves within the interreligious dynamics that they experienced in Ethiopia?

Although these issues were formulated in a manner that might indicate the existence of a fixed answer lying "out there" waiting to be unveiled, identity is in fact far more elusive, shaped and reshaped in memory, and expressed in different forms and contexts. The constant process of identity formation accelerates dramatically with the passage of identity in Israel, from Jews in black Ethiopia to blacks in Jewish Israel. Within this state of flux, however, as this book attempts to illustrate, transactions of the present are mediated through deeper constructs with which the present engages in an ongoing dialogue. Memory as dialogue is fundamental to this entire process. Its precise formulation was the preoccupation of my encounters with the people I interviewed. The Ethiopia located in Beta Israel memory was the ethnographic landscape I was struggling to capture.4 My quest was for the Ethiopia within them.

Back in their native Ethiopia, the Beta israel constituted a religious and professional minority scattered across the vast reaches of northwestern Ethiopia amid a predominantly Christian population with whom they shared both physical appearance and language. According to studies on the origins of the Beta Israel, the group originated from an apostatic movement that broke off from Ethiopian Christianity in the fifteenth century.5 While the question of the group's actual origins is pertinent to the question of their Jewish lineage, their self-identity as Jews in Ethiopia was defined, more than anything else, vis-'-vis the Christian "other." The Beta Israel regarded themselves as a distinct religious group upholding a religion forsaken by the majority for the younger, now dominant religion of Christianity. Their faith clustered around the Orit, the Old Testament written in Ge'ez, the language of both Jewish and Christian sacred writings. As a group, the Beta Israel strongly identified with the Orit 6 and constructed their identity in reference to their Christian neighbors, rather than to a Jewish "other." This situation did not change significantly until recent decades, when the awareness of a Jewish meaningful "other" becamemore fully present in the Beta Israel consciousness. The enigma of Jewish life in Ethiopia and the dramatic airlift of almost the entire community to the State of Israel aroused public debate both within the Jewish world and without. Implicitly assuming a dichotomous separation between Jews and non-Jews, the sole aim of these debates was a clear-cut answer to the question: Are the Falasha "real" Jews? Previous studies dealing with this group had been occupied with the same question. The question persists. One school of thought characterizes their lives in terms of isolation from their surroundings and ongoing struggles and emphasizes their similarity to other—primarily historical—Jewish groups.7 A second school focuses on the cultural and religious similarities between them and their Ethiopian neighbors.8 Without diminishing the inherent interest in the debate between these polar approaches, I find the explanations engendered by both views to be riddled with contradictions and ambiguity.

The ethnographic study of cultural relations in Ethiopia at the level of daily interaction as recalled by Beta Israel is as important as the prevailing historical approach. Accordingly, I will concentrate on exploring concepts and dynamics that molded the intercommunal relations and were in turn molded by them. While most research in this field hitherto has dealt with the consequences of the encounter between Beta Israel and their neighbors, I am interested in the experience of the encounter itself. This experience is positioned, albeit tenuously, in the group's memory and in the consciousness they brought with them to Israel. Incidents such as the mesmerizing meeting between qes Avraham and the Christian clergy of the Ethiopian church in Jerusalem led me to question whether either model offered an adequate framework for understanding the life of the Jews in Christian Ethiopia. As I pursued this inquiry, it became increasingly apparent that for Ethiopian Jews, relations with Christians are not something which they left behind but are an expression of a fundamental aspect of their very identity, an identity inextricably pervaded by intergroup dynamics. The Jewish–Christian rubric cannot be overemphasized, for the Jews defined themselves and their activities largely in relation to the dominant Christian society. The ethnography of Jewish life in Ethiopia is the ethnography of the Jews' relations with their Christian neighbors.9

At the same time there is a constant, ongoing dialectic defining their identity as a separate group within this Ethiopian Christian world. There is, then, an affinity between the "external" scholarly models, on one hand, and the complex and multifaceted conceptual system and ideology of Beta Israel themselves, on the other. An understanding of the life of this group,including its contemporary self-narration, must be sensitive to the Ethiopian cultural characteristics shared by the Beta Israel. It should also reflect the particular responses that Beta Israel developed to that culture, especially to its Christian elements. This book is, in many ways, an ethnography of the fantasies and fears, the facts and fictions, that divided groups and in particular Jews and non-Jews. Beta Israel brought with them to Israel an ongoing internal dialectic defining their identity as a separate entity. Beta Israel memories comprise the cultural and historical imagination of a people redefining their own sense of place in history. The specific contents are constantly redefined in light of changing reality, but on many levels of consciousness, the conceptual frame of reference remains meaningful in the new cultural context in Israel.

When I first made the acquaintance of qes Avraham, his search for a bridge between the past in Ethiopia and the present in Israel eventually led him to the Old City of Jerusalem. Our meetings there followed a fixed ritual. I would pick him up at the last stop on the bus route that ran from the new neighborhood where he lived, through Jerusalem's main street, and ended at Jaffa Gate, the main gate in the Old City walls. After he got off the bus, we would greet each other with a smile and steer our way through the steep, colorful winding alleys of the market toward the Western Wall. We would tarry there for a moment, then climb the precipitous stairs until we stood in the doorway of my nearby small apartment in the Jewish quarter of the Old City. We would sit across the kitchen table and discuss Ethiopia, Israel, and whatever lay in between. Gradually, the conversations departed from the predictable formula in which his every reply was a monologue recounting the yearnings of the Jews for Jerusalem and their rigorous observance of Judaism over thousands of years. He began to recount personal anecdotes, filled with minutely detailed descriptions, thoughts, and feelings.

As early as my initial conversations with qes Avraham, it became clear to me that when he spoke of Jews, he was speaking of Christians as well, though Beta Israel also lived among a mixed population of Muslims and others.10 Even in areas highly populated with Muslims, it was still the Christians who dominated the life of the Jews. The mere presence of the Muslims, as preserved in the memory of the informants, lent a resonance to the drama being played out before them. The stories I heard were a narrative reenactment of the Oedipal conflict between Judaism and Christianity—religion born of religion, and, in the ironic inversions of daily interaction, religion dominated by religion—that was acted out sopowerfully in Ethiopia. The clarification of this drama became a personal challenge for me.

The stark contrast between the landscape where the interviews were conducted—the bleak absorption centers—and the landscape evoked by their memories, brimming with sensuality, was a source of challenge and tension.11 Was it at all possible to "recreate" their Ethiopia in the dreary rooms of the absorption centers, so foreign to their native landscape? Now that they themselves were no longer there, was it possible to approach any closer the riddle of Jewish life in Ethiopia?

Grounded in the understanding that ethnography is a scholarly construction of interpretations12 —both the group's and my own—this book grew out of more than a hundred in-depth interviews with members of the group who immigrated to Israel from different regions in Ethiopia. Taking its data from participants' multifaceted accounts, impressions, and interpretations of their daily lives, the study seeks to rise from the descriptive to the analytic. Recurring patterns of structure and content suggested that anthropological exploration might provide tools for understanding the contingent relations between a variety of themes which on the surface seemed unrelated, including religious disputations, notions of purity and impurity, the concept of blood, slavery and conversion, supernatural powers, the transmutation of natural elements, the metaphors of clay vessels, water, and fire, and the image of the Ethiopian Jew as a hyena. These themes comprise a conceptual system which stands for a reality often perceived by the Jews as baffling and incoherent.

A significant example: the Jews in Ethiopia owned no land but worked as tenant farmers on Christian land.13 No less central was their work as craftsmen, the men specializing in smithery and the women in pottery. Local Christian society treated these crafts with ambivalence. Though derided, and their practitioners despised, these products were not only essential to that agricultural society but also highly valued for their quality. This ambivalence was expressed by attributing supernatural powers to the artisans, to account for the extraordinary quality of their products. The Jew was depicted as buda, hyena-man, a supernatural being who crosses the line between the human and the inhuman. Although this figure appears frequently in African folklore in general and in the literature dealing with other minority groups in Ethiopia, face-to-face accounts conveyed much more than any writing can. The people sharing their memories with me testified that they had been perceived by their Christian neighbors as hyenas who disguised themselves as humans during the day, only to assume their animal form again at night.

Unprepared for what followed from this uncanny, utterly strange revelation, and alarmed by all the possible pitfalls in our face-to-face interview dialogue, I caught my breath. I was afraid my reactions would betray me. Bit by bit I learned to integrate these deeply mythical layers of information into the context of the world picture that was gradually revealed to me by my partners in dialogue. I learned to accept the charged experiences—many more of which would surface later—in the same matter-of-fact spirit in which they were presented to me.

Some striking instances of attitudes presented as contradictory by the Beta Israel: the Christians linked their Jewish neighbors to the buda image through a series of accusations which indicted them while profiting from them. These accusations, invariably tinged with religion, encompassed their crafts, their unlanded status, and their Judaism. Thus, the Jewish smith was regarded as a direct descendant of the Jew who forged the nails for Jesus' crucifixion. Yet, these same christians often showered Jewish religious leaders with requests for prayers in times of trouble. Ambivalence toward the Jews was further expressed in efforts at conversion, which often bore fruit. The Jews perceived these efforts as a sign of the esteem in which they were held by the Christians. Additional signs of recognition were the Christians' high regard for the Old Testament and its adherents. Thus the Jews of Ethiopia often found relations with their Christian neighbors incoherent and confusing.

What baffled my interviewees also baffled me. Was there a dominant organizing principle that might make sense of what confused us all? Accusations of sorcery and magic provided the first clues. The kindly Jewish blacksmith who forged your scythe might well turn out to be the hyena who dug up your family funeral plot last night. In a world governed by the supernatural, seemingly innocent things and people could suddenly turn on you by turning themselves into something else.

The unifying concept was malevolent transformation: the ability attributed to the Jews to assume a different shape, mostly with evil intent, transform the physical form of actual objects, and even cause them to change their nature. As a central idiom, this dynamic affected the most fundamental concerns of human life, shaping ideas, images, and precepts, and was also strikingly evident in the passage from one mode of expression to another. My interviewees thus frequently switched between modes of expression, be they descriptions of everyday life, rituals, mythological stories, or proverbs. These transitions were accompanied by changing moods, facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures. I was made aware of the centrality of this process as I apprehended striking changes inmoods and modes of expression, which constitute the meta-messages of communication. This master principle paved the way for a fuller understanding of the group's existence in Ethiopia.

The journey described in the book began in the cramped confines of the absorption centers and housing projects where the Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. We would usually sit in the family living room, considered the most respectable place in the apartment. During my five years of fieldwork, these rooms accumulated furniture and electrical appliances, bought for the most part with the aid of the absorption grant and considered by the immigrants to be symbols of Western culture. Although I wandered among settlements of immigrants from the north of Israel to the south, the rooms where we discussed life in Ethiopia were exact replicas of each other, and the almost total identity between them communicated to me the inhabitants' sense of insecurity. Following some preordained sequence, a sophisticated television set was bought, then a velvet-upholstered couch, love seat, and armchair set placed around a coffee table. The items of furniture were always distributed in the room in the same order. Before much time elapsed, a shiny new breakfront was set up opposite the couch. This piece of furniture became a ceremonial focus when the television and video were installed there, amid sets of Western crockery. Only much later, almost stealthily, did they begin to display Ethiopian straw trays wound with colored wool, which the Ethiopian women wove in Israel, photographs of relatives, posters from the Ethiopian airlines company, and Ethiopian maps patterned in yellow, green, and red, the colors of the Ethiopian flag.

From the moment of their arrival in Israel, the immigrants were exposed to invasive interference in their intimate, private lives. Absorption officials, whom they called feranj, the Ethiopian appellation for whites, usually female, entered their homes, their kitchens, and even more intimate corners of their new living areas. Acknowledging that academic study is also a kind of appropriation by the Israeli establishment, I thought it would be wise to create as clear-cut a distinction as possible between myself and these officials, especially between the interactions characterizing the two different types of meetings. I struggled to achieve the status of a guest, invited to their home in order to learn from them, not to teach them. Our meetings would usually commence with a long drawn-out silence. Following repeated greetings and salutations, I would usually initiate the conversation. "Life here is not like life in Ethiopia," I suggested. "I've never been there and it's very hard to find books telling

Figure 1.
Sitting with neighbors, Walaqa, Ethiopia, 1984.
Photograph by Doron Bacher, courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth Photo Archive.

how things were for you in Ethiopia," I added. "I've come to you to learn about your life there."

Usually silence would resume as soon as I finished speaking. I would start again: "Life in Ethiopia—your homes, the synagogues, your neighbors—you left it all behind. Even if you could go visit the villages now that you're here, we can't tell how life was when you lived there. There must also be differences from one region to the other. Ethiopia is much larger than Israel, and the Jews were scattered among many villages. That's why I have to ask people what they remember."

Our journey was a linking of fragmented situations, each with a separate beginning, middle, and end. It became no easier for me to present my request each time anew as the quest advanced, but other difficulties contributed to my sense of standing on shaky ground. I would often arrive for an interview after an exhausting bus ride, only to find that the person I had come to see had suddenly left to visit relatives, or attend a wedding or a memorial service. The rhetoric of the interview reflected the flux of change and inquiry throughout all the long years of research. It was not a search for the flying carpet that would transport me to Ethiopia in the period when Jews lived there but a quest for the means to lead me to the Ethiopia that they harbored within.

I discovered, however, yet another Ethiopia that emerged in the

Figure 2.
Villagers, Ethiopia, 1984.
Photograph by G. Sabar-Freidman.

Figure 3.
Preparing food in the village, Ethiopia.
Photograph by G. Sabar-Freidman.

process of reminiscing. This was the Ethiopia that assumed an increasingly important status in intra-group discussions and was also reflected in material culture, in music and videos, and in the decorations adorning their new Israeli apartments. This Ethiopia reflected the transition in identity from Jews in black Ethiopia to Ethiopians in Jewish Israel. Characteristic of this Ethiopia was the fact that it collapsed individual stories, creating a more iconic, almost monolithic Ethiopian entity.

I developed techniques which would repersonalize the Ethiopia within my partners in dialogue and encourage the flow of memories. Thus, for instance, meeting an interviewee for the first time, I would refer to a map of Ethiopia that I carried with me. The map enabled us to attain a certain distance from the investigative context and drew us closer to Ethiopia. Poring together over the piece of paper that epitomized the "other place" rendered the discussion more serious and tangible for the interviewees. I encouraged the interviewees to begin with a general physical description of their village and its inhabitants. I asked them to tell me of daily activities and social encounters, to explain and interpret them for me by whatever means they chose. In addition to such verbal discourse, I drifted into random activities such as clearing the cups on the table or leafing through a booklet I would find in the room. I even came to the last interviews with my eldest daughter, who was then a baby, changing her diaper or feeding her precisely when the topics of discussion were complex and especially sensitive, for instance, magical accusations or slavery.

To this day I don't know whether these conscious and half-conscious attempts had any impact at all on the progress of the interview. The fact that they occurred simultaneously with the most open, in-depth, and flexible interviews underlines, in my opinion, more than anything else, my own need for security and perhaps even control, albeit minor and temporary, of the dialogue situation.

Most of the interviews were initiated by myself, in a structured framework arranged and agreed upon by both parties. In the many meetings, I usually sat in the informant's apartment, facing a single interviewee, totally absorbed by his or her descriptions and explanations. At times other people were present at the interview, mainly family, neighbors, or relatives. These conversations had their own dynamics, marked by the interplay between the different partners to dialogue as they spoke to each other on different subjects. Throughout this quest there ran a strong tension between two simultaneous currents: the past life in Ethiopia and the present life in Israel. The fieldwork engaged both. The controversy regarding the immigrants' Jewish status probably raised questions in their minds about whether the interview could aid or harm them. Obviously, I could not assume that it was only the past they were recounting to me; their narration was certainly colored by the present. Often the interviewees traveled back emotionally to their villages in Ethiopia. Thus, for instance, although interviews were conducted in Hebrew, the interviewees as a matter of course used the Ethiopian derogatory terms leveled at them by their neighbors. On other occasions, their descriptions were accompanied by emotional outbursts, verbal reenactments of daily scenes, and so forth. However, they also incorporated into their accounts expressions taken from the Israeli context to facilitate communication between us. For example, the title rabbi was used instead of qes . Examples taken from Jewish–Arab relations in Israel or referring to distances between different places in Israel served to concretize relationships and distances in Ethiopia. This dialogical tactic can be understood on two levels, with the connection between them highly complex. On one level, it indicates the difficulty of "translating" terms as they pass from one culture to another. On another, the discourse took place in two modes of expression: one in Hebrew, in an apartment in Israel, with a white Israeli woman who typified the immediate context; and then the more profound level of a psychological return to Ethiopia. The interviewees represented different points on the continuum stretching between the two levels, the immediate (Israeli) and the deeper (Ethiopian) that I have noted. Put schematically, the more adept and practiced the interviewee was at presenting the life of the group in Ethiopia to an external audience, the more heightened his awareness of the immediacy of the interview situation.

Such interviews frequently opened with escapist descriptions like those recounted by qes Avraham, a kind of attempt to depart from the framework of the dialogic interview and pass into a formulaic defensive narration, though even in this type of interview certain important issues were addressed for the first time. The conversation about these issues was marked by a more "direct" sense of return to Ethiopia. The nonverbal messages I drew upon, which I judged to be most efficient in releasing tension, contributed to diverting the interview from the immediate present to the "other place." Most of the people I spoke with had not previously been interviewed about their lives in Ethiopia, and most still lived in the isolation of the Ethiopian communities in Israel. Thus, for instance, in three cities in the south of Israel where I conducted fieldwork, the interviewees lived in Western-style apartment buildings, in a neighborhood with otherEthiopian immigrants living in identical apartments, and they would pass from one apartment to the other visiting each other, as if it were a single, virtually self-contained space. These circumstances, with all their implications, heightened the sense of the "return" to Ethiopia in the interviews.

In addition to these lengthy, in-depth interviews, which lasted between two and five hours and often stretched over more than one session, I had spontaneous informal interviews, usually of shorter duration. Sometimes the most acute issues would emerge precisely in these circumstances, apparently due to the unforeseen, less constraining nature of these meetings.

A gap of several years lies between the immediate time of the interview and the time it evokes, a gap during which the group underwent far-reaching transformations. The transformations produced by this passage of time are indicated by the fact that communication in the interviews was carried out in Hebrew peppered with Ethiopian expressions and terms. The language shift thus stood for a whole other set of changes, transformations, and shifts in perspective in the search for the territories of memory.

The flow of time addressed by the study was comprised, then, of the two levels simultaneously. On the immediate level, "time" was the Past. The interview was conducted in a new context, a new language, evoking a reality that had disappeared. In some way the interview was an attempt to reconstruct it verbally. But the prime interest of the present work is with the conceptual system and its different levels of cultural manifestation: on a deeper level, the "time" of the study was the "continuing present," which was no longer a part of their daily reality but powerfully structured the dialogue between them and Israeli society. There were additional nuances. Thus, for instance, while deep in fieldwork I got married. I invited qes Avraham and his wife to the small ceremony. Festive in a Western-style suit, his wife Yaffa wearing a flowing white Ethiopian robe, they arrived by bus with their small son from the city in the south where they lived. The gift they brought was surprising, moving, and thought-provoking, especially as it did not match my cultural expectations. It comprised three elements: a Western porcelain coffee-and-cake set; a typical Ethiopian straw tray woven by qes Avraham's wife in Israel; and a sizable sum of money that he stuck into my husband's shirt pocket, mumbling awkwardly, "This is how we give." I was extremely moved by the immense effort and expense qes Avraham put into the three wedding presents. I sensed that there was an important message hidden in these gifts, but I lacked the appropriate tools to grasp it. Another year of fieldwork went by, and descriptions of wedding presents offered by Jews to their Christian neighbors accumulated on my tape recorder. While

Figure 4.
Roasting coffee beans, Ethiopia.
Photograph by G. Sabar-Freidman.

still trying to decipher their meaning, I suddenly became aware of some hidden messages expressed by the wedding gifts. While clearly echoing the traditional gift-giving usages with which qes Avraham was familiar in Ethiopia, it also seemed to reflect the new, complex system of identities he had assumed in Israel. This research has been an attempt to capture a consciousness by means of communication—something both recognizable in its universal human quality, yet utterly mysterious—in its foreign, intimate, and sacred specificity.


Excerpted from The Hyena People by Hagar Salamon Copyright © 1999 by Hagar Salamon. Excerpted by permission.
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