As his plane lands in Axum, Garret Holcomb cannot help but wonder if he is on a true pilgrimage in search of the lost Covenant or to escape from the emptiness of emotional bankruptcy. His seatmate, Jamaal Abdul Meriweather, wants to be the next Spike Lee and is heading to Axum, where he hopes to film a documentary about the Covenant. After the two realize they have much in common, they pair up to help each other with their missions. But when they eventually meet up with three oracles of an Ethiopian coffeehouse, the holy men soon help them look inward to reflect about life's most burning issues as well as the personal challenges each has been afraid to face, ultimately revealing a stunning reality for both.
In this poignant tale, two young men forced out of their conventional paradigms bravely confront their truths, with help from three oracles of an Ethiopian coffeehouse.
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Oracles of an Ethiopian Coffeehouse
By Paul T. Sugg
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 Paul Sugg
All rights reserved.
Morning sunlight drenched the streets of Axum, making the flaking white paint gleam over the concrete walls of its buildings as the city beckoned its inhabitants out to stroll about, attend business, or just exchange gossip in the morning cool. An occasional newspaper somersaulted across the street only to be tossed up by gusts of wind to kiss aged handbills on the walls and then fall over as if to caress wounds left by older bills that had either been torn or worn off, peeling off blotches of paint with them. The sleepy, ancient little town in the Tigray province of Ethiopia had now come fully alive but exhibited no mood of urgency in greeting the new day, as life would go on pretty much as usual. Axum, once a capital of world commerce in the first century, was now reduced to being a quaint ancient city at the base of the Adwa Mountains, whose sole claim to fame lay either in its towering obelisks or rumors that it actually housed the legendary "lost" Ark of the Covenant.
An Orthodox priest, or "abba," strolled down the dusty street clutching his jeweled, iconic Axum cross, feeling across it as he thought. Abba Befikuda (meaning "by God's will alone") cut a striking figure with his black robe flowing in the breeze. He noticed a small awala nefas, or dust devil, of about two meters in height, twisting its way incoherently down a side street, flinging a few large papers and other debris about in its minicyclonic activity. He mused at it, thinking it was a beautiful metaphor for other "dust devils," those that pester people, little pests from Satan's realm, or possibly figurative imagery for those other devils — insecurities that project those little voices of doom, depression, or inferiority complexes. Some might blow your way. But in many cases, unless one opens the door or walks directly into them, they aren't liable to mess up your hair much.
His eyes turned upward to see an azure collage of icy blue and aqua that tried to feel its way through thin stretches of clouds that overextended their reach, fizzling out at the sky's edge. He watched as an occasional breeze-turned-gust began chasing the wispy clouds across the horizon. Or maybe that was not his true focus of attention at all, for after noticing the beauty of a new day, his eyes seemed to peer straight through it all, revealing his contemplative mood, that his mind was clearly somewhere else, deeply concentrating on matters far more important than mere atmospheric conditions. He felt something in his bones, deep within his soul. His prophetic inclination began conceiving the notion that something or someone was on its way and would intersect his life in the near future. He began to feel a curious sense of anticipation, the way he did whenever a stranger, pilgrim, or some estranged person would be placed in his path by God's hand. He and his brothers had met several, several who believed they were on some course or spiritual walk but had either stumbled or been knocked about, staggering in an unclear pattern and needing to make greater sense of it all. He and his brothers would provide them with a sense of community and impart whatever insight they could to help those pilgrims chart or rechart a clearer course.
A camel's loud bellow jerked his attention back to the mundane. Mussie, a local merchant, was trying to get his camel, heavily laden with goods to be sold in the marketplace, to move from the spot where he had parked him outside a café. Camels still populated the ancient town despite the appearance of cars, which were mostly of pathetic Russian manufacture and all badly in need of spare parts and repairs. Camels and donkeys were still used either as pack animals or for human transport.
The camel, Wugat by name (meaning "piercing thorn in my side"), actually went by several names. Many, depending on how angry his owner was with him, were quite profane, and sometimes Mussie just called him the Antichrist. Wugat waited dutifully outside the café as his owner slipped in for his "morning coffee." His was a drink radically different from anything served in the coffee ceremony. Mussie and his friends liked to lace their concoction at least half and half with bourbon. Mussie (named after Moses, but whose name in Amharic actually translates into "one who is plucked from the water") liked to embellish a bit on the old biblical story concerning his namesake, inventing parallel scenarios regarding his own birth and childhood. He claimed that he too had been plucked from the water at birth and that the event so severely traumatized him that he was "forced to swear off water permanently" and opted for alcoholic beverages instead, the stronger the better.
"Hede, hede ... hede, hede," Mussie commanded. He began swatting the beast of burden about the flanks and buttocks with a switch in a futile attempt at getting the camel to move. However, Wugat refused to budge. Mussie's ire began to reach the boiling point, and he began to curse at the camel and hit him harder. Still the camel refused to move and even went so far as to raise its head in an act of snobbery, as if to crow and mock his frustrated owner's acts of futility. As Mussie continued to yell, the camel spat in defiance at his owner, let out a loud, guttural nuzz from deep within his stomach, braying into Mussie's face, and then proceeded to broadcast it around Axum. Mussie, now totally enraged, took the switch and prodded the camel, shoving it up his rectum, jabbing it a few times before pulling it out. But much to his surprise, rather than prompting movement, the camel responded by defecating the mother lode at Mussie's feet, much to the amusement of his friends hysterically laughing as they watched the spectacle unfold from the sidewalk. Mussie, not appreciating his friends' amusement at his expense, began swinging his stick, flinging camel dung at them. He proceeded to wander out into the street, shouting his laments toward heaven, asking God why he had been cursed with such an unruly beast.
The abba chortled, trying to hold back from erupting into loud, boisterous laughter as Mussie ran around swinging his switch. Befikuda quickly surmised that none of the four drunken sots would conceive of an answer to the camel dilemma. He decided it was time for him to intervene with the only likely solution.
He walked over to the beast of burden and patted him on the neck. "Wugat, Wugat, my large friend, why is it you torture your master so? I see he is administering the 'spare the rod, spoil the camel' school of thought, which has its place at times, but I know of a different remedy. I deem it necessary for these times when you are being so stubborn and really must move. I know your real weakness! I know of your sweet tooth and your love for the tangy nectar of pomegranates!" the abba said. He pulled a fresh pomegranate from his pocket. Befikuda had two more stashed away on his person, for the camel wasn't the only one in the street that day with a sweet tooth. The abba loved to crack a few open for a midmorning snack. He felt he could spare one for such a worthy cause. He cracked open the luring fruit and placed it in front of the camel, which nuzzed again with an approving tone, if not one expressing his sheer feeling of ecstasy at the very sight of his favorite treat! He quickly reached down and snatched up the section of pomegranate with his mouth from the abba's hand and began voraciously chewing up the delicious, fresh tangy seeds, extending his long tongue to lap up the juice that began trickling out of his mouth. He let off a higher-toned murmur that was more like a sighing nuzz, a sigh of pleasure, satisfaction, a strong indication that the abba's bribery was working. The camel gobbled up the pomegranate so fast, as if to inhale it. The abba laughed. "Oh, you really like that, don't you? Would you like another one? You would, wouldn't you?" He teased the camel, holding out a second pomegranate just out of the camel's reach. "Not so fast, Wugat. If you want this one, you have to walk with me over here, this way ... that's it. Come now, Wugat, keep going, keep going, keep going," the abba coaxed. Befikuda cracked open the second pomegranate, prompting even more movement at a quicker pace, as the camel decided that the bribe was sufficient enough to give up his stubborn stand defending his fair chunk of the street.
"Look, I have succeeded in taming your beast!" Befikuda said.
Mussie stopped his rant toward heaven long enough to observe the "miracle" and then walked over to his camel, still thoroughly disgusted with Wugat but grateful to the abba for his efforts. He masked his attitude with a tone of respect and cordiality. "Thank you, Abba Befikuda. I see you have resorted to the sweet-tooth bribe." Then he sternly spoke to the camel. "You wicked beast, you should not pester this holy man for bribes!" Then turning back to Befikuda, he said, "I do appreciate you dislodging his sorry carcass from this spot, but you know I cannot afford to break down and give in to him, buying him off with a pomegranate or two each time he decides to be stubborn and unruly, or the least of my problems would be him putting me in the poor house, going broke buying him so many pomegranates!"
"I know, but it's getting late to get your goods to the market, and you needed to get him to move."
"Yes, yes, I know, and I appreciate that. But you know what he would do if I gave him all the pomegranates he wants? You think that load he dropped in the streets was big?"
"I know, I know, his contribution would fill the streets, dropping considerably more!"
"More than all the grains of sand in the desert! Not even Moses, my namesake, would lead the Israelites through all that. He would have prayed to God for a safer path!" Then, turning back to his camel he said, "Hede, hede ... hede, hede. Let's go, you miserable beast. To the marketplace!"
Befikuda laughed and proceeded over to the drunken sots on the sidewalk still laughing at poor Mussie and his camel. The abba scorned them for having so much amusement at their friend's dilemma. He also admonished them for being drunk so early in the morning.
"So, you have amused yourselves so well at your brother's camel show and indeed at his expense? Then I think you should pay an admission fee!" said the abba.
"What fee is that, Abba Befikuda?" one asked.
"Take that shovel and this pail over there and whatever else you can find and clean this mess up — and clean it up now — to show all of Axum that you can do something worthwhile in your otherwise worthless condition!" ordered Befikuda.
The three obediently got up, somewhat slowly, and staggered over to gather up the tools and receptacle to dispose of the excrement. The abba walked away shaking his head as his thoughts returned to the prophetic mystery that had been weaving various possible scenarios in his mind. He mulled over them as he walked over to the apartment where he would meet his brothers for coffee. He would discuss the matters with Pastors Addesu (meaning "new one," as in "new one in Christ") and Tsegaye (meaning "by His grace"). Addesu had become a Lutheran pastor and Tsegaye an Evangelical, all three representing the three major Christian denominations prevalent in Ethiopia. All three clergymen had known each other since early childhood. Each had his own office in his respective church in a different part of town. Hence, they decided to purchase a centrally located place to meet each morning and discuss various issues of importance over coffee. It had been a three-bedroom apartment located in a row house building. It had a fireplace for cooking, a dining room, a bath and toilet, and a sitting or living room. They had converted it into their own coffeehouse. It was a warm, cozy place in terms of atmosphere. There was a suitable amount of furniture for sitting and discussing the day's topics while enjoying the coffee ceremony prepared by their wives. The rich smell of aromatic roasted coffee beans warmed the soul, loosening one up far more than a good dosage of valium. The syrupy, brown liquid gave off glints of dark rust, reddish brown, and amber as the rays of sunlight filtered through the steady steam while the server performed the long pour into the cups. The taste, so rich, more so than a thousand treasure chests of a thousand kings, was enhanced with the spices of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and granulated raw sugar, perking up a person's taste buds and gently, seductively caressing them as if to say, "Hello, good morning, and what's new in your life today?" The experience led one to savor the coffee with a reverence not accorded to mere tea, much less "tacky alcohol." Coffee, the drink of kings, intellectuals, merchants, and prophets, was a spiritual experience that enhanced the imagination and accentuated the thinking process to churn out gems of genius, whereas alcohol all too often churned out nonsense, particularly when taken in excess. However, coffee in excess merely prompted one to charge through life like someone with ADD in overdrive, accomplishing more in one morning than governments could ever accomplish in a year.
However, the three Ethiopian oracles drank coffee in moderation, for it was only one of the two main featured attractions of the ceremony. Conversation — honest heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul conversation — was the true activity that took center stage. No cell phones should be brought in, for the annoying tendency of younger generations to text message themselves into oblivion was an insult to these things of real importance in life. Technology had its place, indeed a wonderful place, but it was not here. Here, meetings of the minds matched with meetings for the hearts took place only in an atmosphere of total, complete, serene honesty.
Befikuda approached the row house. Flaking white paint gave way to spot jobs, dabs of paint, or mere whitewash to provide some resemblance of maintenance. A band of red paint covered the base of the building about a meter high to cover up scuff marks and other signs of abuse, such as splattered mud from the streets and other debris kicked up by passersby. A poster or two left over from Mengistu's Marxist regime still remained, his once blazing image now faded away as if to disintegrate with time along with the rest of the worn handbills. Bits and pieces flaked off, more than fading from existence but being blown into the dust bins of irrelevant history, like Mengistu.
He walked in, greeting his two friends, and then sat down, pondering over the prospects running through his mind.
"You've got that look on your face. We should talk about this as Tsegaye and I too have had some prophetic inclinations, nuances, or something. But first let us pray, giving our day up to God and asking for spiritual discernment and guidance on these matters," said Addesu.
The other two agreed and joined hands in prayer, blessing the nourishment they were about to take and those preparing it, as well as petitioning God for a renewed, fresh anointing of grace and clarity regarding the matters at hand.
As they began to imbibe in their morning coffee and cakes, Befikuda said, "I have had some sort of prophetic instinct or inclination brewing up from my spirit trying to tell me something, not necessarily a foreboding warning or anything but perhaps something more important. I have that same restlessness that I have had before, indeed that we have all had prior to something like this. It's a feeling of uneasiness ..."
"But not necessarily your own," broke in Tsegaye.
"Quite right," Befikuda quickly responded.
"It's as if you feel the discomfort, uneasiness, or pain of pilgrims of some sort headed our way," said Addesu.
"Yes, exactly," replied Befikuda.
"I felt the same way when I woke up this morning, as did Tsegaye. We already discussed this, but of course we wanted to wait for you to see what you thought, if again you shared these same thoughts and feelings simultaneously with us, as we have all been prophetically linked. We wanted to see if you concurred with us on these matters. Now that all three of us have concurred on this, I believe we have confirmation. Someone or something is headed our way," said Addesu.
"Some would automatically jump to the conclusion that it may be the biblically prophesied rapture, but this isn't it. The signs are not there for that. Secondly, too many get caught up in end-time prophesy that they seem to miss the importance or flat-out ignore other 'prophetic nuances' and indeed their real ministry of 'walking the walk for the talk of the talk.' They often use this as an excuse not to actively engage in the important work God has actually assigned them to do," commented Tsegaye.
Excerpted from Oracles of an Ethiopian Coffeehouse by Paul T. Sugg. Copyright © 2015 Paul Sugg. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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