Book of the month: Dawit Gebremichael Habte

The question of whether a book has to be set in a particular country in order to be ‘from’ that place was a recurrent theme during my year of reading the world. Many people feel that this is an important factor in determining a story’s cultural identity. Indeed, I know of a number of literary quests that make setting the primary consideration when it comes to choosing books from different regions – sometimes preferring stories by non-nationals over texts by people born or living in the nation.

During my project, I took a different view. Although the majority of stories I read in 2012 took place at least partly in the country under whose name they appear on the list, this wasn’t the case with all of them.

There were several reasons for this. Firstly, as British and American wordsmiths write books set all over the world, I didn’t see why I should expect authors from other places to limit their imaginations to the space within the borders of their own nations, or even to the real world at all. What interested me most was voice and perspective, rather than a representation of cultural detail in each place.

However, sometimes there was no option but to choose a story set somewhere other than in the country I was selecting it to represent. This was particularly true in the case of states where freedom of expression is limited and most of those who write have been forced to flee.

Eritrea is a prime example. Although North Korea is frequently described as the home of the world’s most oppressive regime, the north-east African nation often ranks below it for freedom of expression. The iron-fisted government control in this one-party nation, where all media is owned by the state, means that anyone who wishes to express an independent opinion must either suffer or leave.

As a result, when I came to look for a book by an Eritrean writer, I knew it was likely to be by someone no longer living there. This proved to be the case: the novel I chose was by Eritrean-born Sulaiman Addonia, who has spent most of his life outside the nation. It was called The Consequences of Love and was set in Saudi Arabia.

While I’m sure the oppressive atmosphere Addonia conjures around the illicit love affair at the heart of his novel owes something to the fear that his family must have known in their country of origin, the choice meant that the specifics of life inside Eritrea remained a mystery to me. So when I was contacted by a publicist to ask if I would be interested in reading ‘an immigrant’s story from war-torn Eritrea to asylum in the US’, I was intrigued. Within a few weeks, a copy of Gratitude in Low Voices by Dawit Gebremichael Habte had landed on my doormat.

As its title suggests, Habte’s is a success story. Having escaped to Kenya as a teenager in 1989, the young man made his way to the US. There by dint of hard work and extraordinary determination he carved out a life for himself, eventually receiving support from Michael Bloomberg to develop a software and training programme to benefit his compatriots.

Habte’s life has been a mixed one and his book reflects this. Part memoir, part treatise, part self-help volume, with a goodly amount of historical detail, political argument and philosophical musings thrown in, this is an unusual work.

For readers like me, its most interesting sections come in the first half, where Habte writes clearly and warmly about life in his homeland. He shares many insights. We learn, for example, about naming conventions among the Tigrinya-speaking population, for whom surnames don’t exist but who have the tradition of giving each child a new name and then the father’s first name from every known preceding generation, leading to official names that can stretch over numerous lines.

I particularly enjoyed his description of his time reading at the British Council Library in Asmara. Here was another writer inspired by reading stories from elsewhere. Indeed, Habte’s account of the influence of British stories and games on his thinking is a powerful testament to what books can do, as well as an echo of some of the sentiments other African writers raised on European fiction (perhaps most notably Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have expressed:

‘Thanks to the British version of the Monopoly board game and the books of Charles Dickens (Oliver TwistDavid CopperfieldA Christmas Carol…), we made London our virtual vacation home. We basically were strolling through the streets of London without actually setting foot at Heathrow Airport. It is at this point that we started to live locally but think globally.’

Habte’s explanations of the political and historical context of the situation facing Eritrea in the last few decades are clear and damning – if occasionally a little roughly shoehorned into the narrative. Through his eyes, we see how the nation has been failed by the international community, which has repeatedly allowed greed, oil deals and wider political considerations to come before the interests of the people in the region.

Yet the writer is not bitter. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the book is Habte’s unfailingly positive attitude to the challenges he confronts. In the face of huge difficulty, he does not look for help from others but relies on his own ingenuity, meeting prejudice and selfishness with compassion (as he does when he crosses paths with the people smuggler who betrayed him) and humour (fabricating an outlandish account of life back home to scandalise a group of ignorant high-school girls).

At times, the gratitude of the title can become a little wearing. Habte makes no secret of the fact that the book is intended at least partly as a thank you to the many ‘angels without wings’ who helped him on his way. His earnestness is touching, but the repeated, dutiful digressions to give accounts of the lives of people who were kind to him get rather exhausting.

The narrative is patchy too and could have done with tighter editing. And I’m sure I won’t be the only one to find the final third, in which Habte recounts his progression through various US educational institutions, dull in comparison to what goes before (although the accounts of the lengths he went to to fund and sustain his education are often inspiring).

And yet this remains an important book. It is an insight into a nation that is little represented in the minds of many people, as well as a powerful portrayal of the experience of being an immigrant. As such, it provides a sound riposte to anyone who thinks people leave their homelands and everything they know to travel across the globe and start from scratch lightly.

Those looking for masterful writing won’t find it here. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.

Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir by Dawit Gebremichael Habte (RosettaBooks, 2017)

Eritrea: heart and home

This was a recommendation from an Eritrean friend of mine. She had read Sulaiman Addonia’s The Consequences of Love not long after it came out in 2008 and enjoyed it. If I was looking for Eritrean literature in English, this was her top tip.

I had my reservations: a brief scan of Addonia’s biography revealed that, although he was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother, he has spent very little of his life there, having fled to Sudan and subsequently Saudi Arabia as a young child. He now lives and writes in London – could his work really be counted as Eritrean?

Then I thought about my friend’s own story. Like Addonia, she was driven from Eritrea, which has long been in the grip of a regime so oppressive that Reporters Without Borders ranks the country below North Korea for press freedom. The danger is such that my friend has been unable to visit her family there since she left, and her mother has never met her son-in-law and grandchild as a result. I began to wonder if such stories of separation and displacement were not as much a part of Eritrean life as the experiences of those who’ve stayed put.

Exile is also central to Addonia’s novel, which is set in the late 1980s, towards the end of Eritrea’s bitter 30-year war with Ethiopia. Like its author, the central character, 20-year-old Naser, has spent his teenage years in Saudi Arabia. Yet, although he has escaped the perils of conflict, he finds himself hemmed in by a whole range of other restrictions in Jeddah, where religious police scour the streets for people who break the strict behaviour codes, lovers are flogged and executed in Punishment Square and the vitriolic sermons of the blind imam blare through the city.

Lonely and anxious for the mother he left behind in Eritrea, Naser faces a life of isolation, until a mysterious, veiled woman drops a love letter at his feet one day. But in a society where communication between unmarried men and women is banned, it will take all Naser and his secret admirer Fiore’s courage and ingenuity if they are to give their happiness a chance.

Naser’s world is one where direct emotional expression is outlawed. Whether they are yearning for their homelands or pining for lovers, he and his cronies must shroud and sublimate their feelings so as to avoid chastisement at the hands of the ever-watchful authorities.

Such repression in this ‘world of black and white’ can have surprising results as blocked emotions and impulses play out through other means. There is Jasim’s café – where wealthy older men coerce the waiters, including Naser, into being their sexual partners until they get married and have a legitimate outlet for their libido – and there is the thriving trade in banned books, including Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (my Sudanese pick), through which the characters live vicariously from inside the country Jasim describes as ‘the biggest prison in the world’. In addition, creativity blossoms, in the shape of Fiore’s drawings, the lovers’ impassioned letters, and the inventive means by which they get messages to one another. As Naser puts it, ‘caged emotions make poets out of all of us, even the illiterate’.

Caged emotions also make for a compelling story. In this tale of ‘love before sight’, the scene where Fiore is finally able to remove her hijab and the lovers come face to face after months is very moving. The sky-high stakes also make for a nail-biting conclusion, although, for my money, the final unravelling is too heavily foreshadowed to come as a surprise. However other readers may feel the dramatic irony creates a tension all its own.

Taken as a whole, though, this is a thoroughly engrossing and often beautifully written portrayal of what happens when regimes and laws run counter to human needs and emotions. As Naser puts it, it is the story of an individual’s struggle to ‘do what it takes to get a life that is rightfully [his]’ – a struggle that, by the sound of it, many Eritreans know all too well.

The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia (Vintage Digital, 2008)