After Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974, Ryszard Kapuściński—Poland’s top foreign correspondent—went to Ethiopia to piece together a firsthand account of how the emperor governed his country, and why he finally fell from power. At great risk to himself, Kapuściński interviewed members of the imperial circle who had gone into hiding.
The result is this remarkable book, in which Selassie’s servants and closest associates share accounts—humorous, frightening, sad, grotesque—of a man living amidst nearly unimaginable pomp and luxury while his people teetered between hunger and starvation. It is a classic portrait of authoritarianism, and a fascinating story of a forty-four-year reign that ended with a coup d’état in 1974.
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Forget about me — The candle's been snuffed. (Gypsy tango)
Negus, our Negus, Only you can save us Our lines in the south Have been caught in a rout And to the north of Makale All our tactics are folly. Negus, our Negus, Give me shot, give me powder. (prewar Warsaw song)
Observing the behavior of individual fowl in a henhouse, we note that birds lower in rank are pecked by, and give way to, birds of higher rank. In an ideal case, there exists a linear order of rank with a top hen who pecks all the others. Those in the middle ranks peck those below them but respect all the hens above them. At the bottom there is a drudge who has to take it from everyone. (Adolf Remane, Vertebrates and Their Ways)
Man will get used to anything, if only he reaches an appropriate degree of submission. (C. G. Jung)
The DOLPHIN, desiring to sleep, floats atop the water; having fallen asleep, he sinks slowly to the floor of the sea; being awakened by striking the bottom, he rises again to the surface. Having thus risen, he falls asleep again, descends once more to the bottom, and revives himself anew in the same fashion. He thus enjoys his rest in motion. (Benedykt Chmielowski, The New Athens, or, An Academy Replete with All the Sciences)
In the evenings I listened to those who had known the Emperor's court. Once they had been people of the Palace or had enjoyed the right of admission there. Not many of them remained. Some had perished, shot by the firing squad. Some had escaped the country; others had been locked in the dungeons beneath the Palace, cast down from the chambers to the cellars. Some were hiding in the mountains or living disguised as monks in cloisters. Everyone was trying to survive in his own way, according to the possibilities open to him. Only a handful remained in Addis Ababa, where, apparently, it was easiest to outwit the authorities' vigilance.
I visited them after dark. I had to change cars and disguises. The Ethiopians are deeply distrustful and found it hard to believe in the sincerity of my intentions: I wanted to recapture the world that had been wiped away by the machine guns of the Fourth Division. Those machine guns are mounted next to the drivers' seats on American-made jeeps. They are manned by gunners whose profession is killing. In the back sits a soldier taking orders by radio. The jeeps are open, so the drivers, gunners, and radiomen wear dark motorcycle goggles under the brims of their helmets to protect themselves from the dust. You can't see their eyes, and their bristled ebony faces have no expression. These three-man crews know death so well that the drivers race their vehicles around suicidally, making abrupt high-speed turns, driving against the flow on one-way streets. Everything scatters when they come careening along. It's best to stay out of their range. Shouts and nervous screams blare amid crackles and squeals from the radio on the knees of the one in the back. You never can tell if one of the hoarse screams is an order to open fire. It's better to disappear. Better to duck into a side street and wait it out.
I penetrated the muddy alleys, making my way into houses that from the outside looked empty and abandoned. I was afraid. The houses were watched, and I was afraid of getting caught along with their inhabitants. Such a thing was possible, since they often made a sweep through a neighborhood or even a whole quarter of the town in search of weapons, subversive leaflets, or people from, the old regime. All the houses were watching each other, spying on each other, sniffing each other out. This is civil war; this is what it's like. I sit down by the window, and immediately they say, "Somewhere else, sir, please. You're visible from the street. It would be easy to pick you off." A car passes, then stops. The sound of gunfire. Who was it? These? Those? And who, today, are "these," and who are the "those" who are against "these" just because they are "these"? The car drives off, accompanied by the barking of dogs. They bark all night. Addis Ababa is a dog city, full of pedigreed dogs running wild, vermin-eaten, with malaria and tangled hair.
They caution me again, needlessly: no addresses, no names, don't say that he's tall, that he's short, that he's skinny, that his forehead this or his hands that. Or that his eyes, or that his legs, or that his knees ... There's nobody left to get down on your knees for.
It was a small dog, a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor's great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor's lap and pee on dignitaries' shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years.
The Emperor slept in a roomy bed made of light walnut. He was so slight and frail that you couldn't see him — he was lost among the sheets. In old age, he became even smaller. He weighed fifty kilograms. He ate less and less, and he never drank alcohol. His knees stiffened up, and when he was alone he dragged his feet, swaying from side to side as if on stilts. But when he knew that someone was watching him, he forced a certain elasticity into his muscles, with great effort, so that he moved with dignity and his imperial silhouette remained ramrod-straight. Each step was a struggle between shuffling and dignity, between leaning and the vertical line. His Majesty never forgot about this infirmity of his old age, which he did not want to reveal lest it weaken the prestige and solemnity of the King of Kings. But we servants of the royal bedchamber, who saw his unguarded moments, knew how much the effort cost him.
He had the habit of sleeping little and rising early, when it was still dark outside. He treated sleep as a dire necessity that purposelessly robbed him of time he would rather have spent ruling or at Imperial functions. Sleep was a private, intimate interval in a life meant to be passed amid decorations and lights. That's why he woke up seeming discontented with having slept, impatient with the very fact of sleep. Only the subsequent activities of the day restored his inner balance. Let me add, however, that the Emperor never showed the slightest sign of irritation, nervousness, anger, rage, or frustration. It seemed that he never knew such states, that his nerves were cold and dead like steel, or that he had no nerves at all. It was an inborn characteristic that His Highness knew how to develop and perfect, following the principle that in politics nervousness signifies a weakness that encourages opponents and emboldens subordinates to make secret jokes. His Majesty knew that a joke is a dan gerous form of opposition, and he kept his psyche in perfect order. He got up at four or five and, when going abroad on a visit, at three in the morning. Later, when things grew worse in our country, he traveled more often. Then, the only business of the Palace was to prepare the Emperor for new journeys. Upon waking, he rang the buzzer on his nightstand — the vigilant servants were waiting for the sound. The lights were turned on in the Palace. It was a signal to the Empire that His Supreme Majesty had begun a new day.
The Emperor began his day by listening to informers' reports. The night breeds dangerous conspiracies, and Haile Selassie knew that what happens at night is more important than what happens during the day. During the day he kept his eye on everyone; at night that was impossible. For that reason, he attached great importance to the morning reports. And here I would like to make one thing clear: His Venerable Majesty was no reader. For him, neither the written nor the printed word existed; everything had to be relayed by word of mouth. His Majesty had had no schooling. His sole teacher — and that only during his childhood — was a French Jesuit, Monsignor Jerome, later Bishop of Harar and a friend of the poet Arthur Rimbaud. This cleric had no chance to inculcate the habit of reading in the Emperor, a task made all the more difficult, by the way, because Haile Selassie occupied responsible administrative positions from his boyhood and had no time for regular reading.
But I think there was more to it than a lack of time and habit. The custom of relating things by word of mouth had this advantage: if need be, the Emperor could say that a given dignitary had told him something quite different from what had really been said, and the latter could not defend himself, having no written proof. Thus the Emperor heard from his subordinates not what they told him, but what he thought should be said. His Venerable Highness had his ideas, and he would adjust to them all the signals that came from his surroundings. It was the same with writing, for our monarch not only never used his ability to read, but he also never wrote anything and never signed anything in his own hand. Though he ruled for half a century, not even those closest to him knew what his signature looked like.
During the Emperor's hours of official functions, the Minister of the Pen always stood at hand and took down all the Emperor's orders and instructions. Let me say that during working audiences His Majesty spoke very softly, barely moving his lips. The Minister of the Pen, standing half a step from the throne, had to bend his ear close to the Imperial lips in order to hear and write down the Imperial decisions. Furthermore, the Emperor's words were usually unclear and ambiguous, especially when he did not want to take a definite stand on a matter that required his opinion. One had to admire the Emperor's dexterity. When asked by a dignitary for the Imperial decision, he would not answer straight out, but would rather speak in a voice so quiet that it reached only the Minister of the Pen, who moved his ear as close as a microphone. The minister transcribed his ruler's scant and foggy mutterings. All the rest was interpretation, and that was a matter for the minister, who passed down the decision in writing.
The Minister of the Pen was the Emperor's closest confidant and enjoyed enormous power. From the secret cabala of the monarch's words he could construct any decision that he wished. If a move by the Emperor dazzled everyone with its accuracy and wisdom, it was one more proof that God's Chosen One was infallible. On the other hand, if from some corner the breeze carried rumors of discontent to the monarch's ear, he could blame it all on the minister's stupidity. And so the minister was the most hated personality in the court. Public opinion, convinced of His Venerable Highness's wisdom and goodness, blamed the minister for any thoughtless or malicious decisions, of which there were many. True, the servants whispered about why Haile Selassie didn't replace the minister, but in the Palace questions were always asked from top to bottom, and never vice versa. When the first question was asked in a direction opposite to the customary one, it was a signal that the revolution had begun.
But I'm getting ahead of myself and must go back to the moment when the Emperor appears on the Palace steps in the morning and sets out for his early walk. He enters the park. This is when Solomon Kedir, the head of the Palace spies, approaches and gives his report. The Emperor walks along the avenue and Kedir stays a step behind him, talking all the while. Who met whom, where, and what they talked about. Against whom they are forming alliances. Whether or not one could call it a conspiracy. Kedir also reports on the work of the military cryptography department. This department, part of Kedir's office, decodes the communications that pass among the divisions — it's good to be sure that no subversive thoughts are hatching there. His Distinguished Highness asks no questions, makes no comments. He walks and listens. Sometimes he stops before the lions' cage to throw them a leg of veal that a servant has handed to him. He watches the lions' rapacity and smiles. Then he approaches the leopards, which are chained, and gives them ribs of beef. His Majesty has to be careful as he approaches the unpredictable beasts of prey. Finally he moves on, with Kedir behind continuing his report. At a certain moment His Highness bows his head, which is a signal for Kedir to move away. He bows and disappears down the avenue, never turning his back on the Emperor.
At this moment the waiting Minister of Industry and Commerce, Makonen Habte-Wald, emerges from behind a tree. He falls in, a step behind the Emperor, and delivers his report. Makonen Habte-Wald keeps his own network of informers, both to satisfy a consuming passion for intrigue and to ingratiate himself with His Venerable Highness. On the basis of his information, he now briefs the Emperor on what happened last night. Again, His Majesty walks on, listening without questions or comments, keeping his hands behind his back. He approaches a flock of flamingos, but the shy birds scatter when he comes near. The Emperor smiles at the sight of creatures that refuse to obey him. At last, still walking, he nods his head; Habte-Wald falls silent and retreats backward, disappearing down the avenue.
Next, as if springing up from the ground, rises the hunched silhouette of the devoted confidant Asha Walde-Mikael. This dignitary supervises the government political police. He competes with Solomon Kedir's Palace intelligence service and battles fiercely against private informer networks like the one that Makonen Habte-Wald has at his disposal.
The occupation to which these people devoted themselves was hard and dangerous. They lived in fear of not reporting something in time and falling into disgrace, or of a competitor's reporting it better so that the Emperor would think, "Why did Solomon give me a feast today and Makonen only bring me leftovers? Did he say nothing because he didn't know, or did he hold his tongue because he belongs to the conspiracy?" Hadn't His Distinguished Highness often experienced, at cost to himself, betrayal by his most trusted allies? That's why the Emperor punished silence. On the other hand, incoherent streams of words tired and irritated the Imperial ear, so nervous loquaciousness was also a poor solution. Even the way these people looked told of the threat under which they lived. Tired, looking as if they hadn't slept, they acted under feverish stress, pursuing their victims in the stale air of hatred and fear that surrounded them all. They had no shield but the Emperor, and the Emperor could undo them with one wave of his hand. No, His Benevolent Majesty did not make their lives easy.
As I've mentioned, Haile Selassie never commented on or questioned the reports he received, during his morning walks, about the state of conspiracy in the Empire. But he knew what he was doing, as I shall show you. His Highness wanted to receive the reports in a pure state, because if he asked questions or expressed opinions the informant would obligingly adjust his report to meet the Emperor's expectations. Then the whole system of informing would collapse into subjectivity and fall prey to anyone's willfulness. The monarch would not know what was going on in the country and the Palace.
Finishing his walk, the Emperor listens to what was reported last night by Asha's people. He feeds the dogs and the black panther, and then he admires the anteater that he recently received as a gift from the president of Uganda. He nods his head and Asha walks away, bent over, wondering whether he said more or less than what was reported by his most fervent enemies — Solomon, the enemy of Makonen and Asha; and Makonen, the enemy of Asha and Solomon.
Haile Selassie finishes his walk alone. It grows light in the park; the fog thins out, and reflected sunlight glimmers on the lawns. The Emperor ponders. Now is the time to lay out strategies and tactics, to solve the puzzles of personality, to plan his next move on the chessboard of power. He thinks deeply about what was contained in the informants' reports. Little of importance; they usually report on each other. His Majesty has made mental notes of everything. His mind is a computer that retains every detail; even the smallest datum will be remembered. There was no personnel office in the Palace, no dossiers full of personal information. All this the Emperor carried in his mind, all the most important filesabout the elite. I see him now as he walks, stops, walks again, lifts his head upward as though absorbed in prayer. O God, save me from those who, crawling on their knees, hide a knife that they would like to sink into my back. But how can God help? All the people surrounding the Emperor are just like that — on their knees, and with knives. It's never comfortable on the summits. An icy wind always blows, and everyone crouches, watchful lest his neighbor hurl him down the precipice.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Emperor"
Copyright © 1978 Ryszard Kapuscinski.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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