Attending to Geez Mind in Our Age: An Indispensable Approach to Regain the Ethiopian Perspective

December 8th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Joining in the Discourse on Ethiopia as a Voice of Geez

Having gradually grown extremely cautious of the current craze to suffocate the discursive space of Ethiopian Studies either with some overly supra-national (African/Global) issues that are not at all rooted in Ethiopian tradition and have little or no definitive relevance to Ethiopian society on the one hand, or with some excessively sub-national (ethnic/tribal) matters that tend to deliberately risk rather than maintain the national integrity of the country on the other; and no less worried about the tendency to resist some genuinely universal insights by labeling them either as simply “Western” or as merely “of this or that ethnic origin” even before ascertaining their source and considering their worth, I have become hesitant, at least for the moment, to situate my thoughts within any of the current trends in this field. Such a remark may perhaps be considered as wildly reactionary by the present-day standard, all the same I want to continue thinking what I have to think in a way that the matter of that thinking lends itself to be thought. How does this principle play itself out with regard to Geez and in connection to the discourse on “Ethiopian modernity”?

While appreciating the numerous serious philological works that have been done on Geez literature for more than a century now and craving the continuation of such a noble task in an even more concerted manner in the future, I would like to show the necessity to embark on further undertaking that goes beyond anointing, as it were, the dead body of Geez with sweet spices. Particularly, I will point up the need—or, shall create one, if it probably was held to have never been felt—for constructively attending to Geez/Ethiopic mind as it has been manifesting itself throughout the millennia-old history of this great nation. So that we may usefully restore the manner in which authentically independent and truly self-conscious Ethiopians had been accustomed to bringing their own specific points of view on any particular issue such that their views could automatically be identified with, or better, as the most basic transethnic national outlooks. I will argue that a rejuvenation of classical Ethiopian mode of thinking will prove to be not only desirable but also enormously important, indeed essential, to establish a characteristically Ethiopian position over against any foreign standpoint within any historiogrphic matrix—be it modernity, postmodernity, post-postmodernity/neo-retro-modernity or whatever.
A Question or Two: Wie steht es mit Geez? Wie stehen wir dazu?
How does it stand with Geez now? However much dreadful for many while immensely easing for some let me ponder upon the one central thing every self-standing Ethiopian should definitely want to know but may understandably be afraid to ask: is Geez perhaps dead? So soon as the question is posed, however, not a few people would be as quick as they are lucid to answer it affirmatively and exhort us to let it rest in peace (አነዳንዶች ግባተመሬቱን ድገሙለት እና ይረፈው ይሉናል). But on the other hand, there surely are many who would be no less quick if only less coherent to answer it negatively and urge us to wait on its table (ሌሎች ደግሞ ገበታውን ከብበን እንድናቅፍ ይወተውቱናል). I don’t think my ideas would fit comfortably in either of these camps. Rather, I may possibly belong to those, if there are any such, who would tend to describe the current state of Geez as “ምውት በከነዓን ወሕያው በምድረ ግብፅ” (dead in Canaan but alive in the Land of Egypt). For, although it still is kept afloat in some places, its table has no doubt been stripped of wholesome food (ሙሉ በሙሉ እንዳልሰጠመ ቢገመትም፤ ገበታው መደንገጡ አያጠራጥርም), or has even been cast aside in certain regions (ፊደሉ ሳይቀር መጠላቱን እና ተሸቀንጥሮ መወርወሩን ልብ ይሏል).
What do we do about it now? Dead, or alive, or both dead-and-alive in some way, however, how do/should we comport ourselves towards, or better, within it? Where do we stand—with regard to Geez, that is—in the discourse on our modern educational system, for instance? I mean each one of us, who would probably like to characterize his/her mode of thought as modernist, postmodernist or whatever way of thinking is supposed to have existed out there and yet still feels to be interested in Geez. I believe almost everyone in the audience has an answer to that, but unfortunately, there is no time to hear it one by one. I can only hope to provide you with a glimpse of mine in the following lines.
Geez and Modern Ethiopian Scholarship
Allow me to single out modern Ethiopian scholars, both established and emerging ones, as well as students like myself so as to make a lamentable remark on us. However well versed in Western idiom, the sad fact is that most of us are simply foreign to Geez. When we are referred to its literature, we feel as if we had suddenly lost the visual acuity we had when we deal with English or French, Italian or German texts and thus seek for able optometrists that we often times find in the renowned persons of a Ludolf, a Dillmann, a Conti Rossini, a Guidi, d’Abbadi or a Leslau, thanks to those (sadly) nameless masters2 (despised though they were/are by their own children)2 who taught Ethiopic for these curious Europeans. From among those very few ones whose eyes are as good to read Geez as they are sharp to analyze English or German, many a time, some of them are there to merely provide resources for foreign scholars as mere informants or assistants of the sort and are thereby doomed to “lose the inside of their own bread.” They may at best play along in a manner that reminds me of one of the grammatical functions of the preposition “ለ”: i.e., “አቀብሎ-ሸሽ” (deliver-and-flee?)! To illustrate one such (non-) function of “ለ”, take the sentence “ለይኩን ብርሃን” which means “let there be light.” In this sentence, there is no particular significance of the preposition “ለ.” It might well have been written “ይኩን ብርሃን” without thereby making any change in the meaning of the sentence. So we say the function of “ለ” in this case is “አቀብሎ-ሸሽ” (deliver-and-flee)!
My point is, unless we attend to Geez/Ethiopic mind and appropriate the Ethiopian spirit for ourselves, we will not be able to change such a state of affairs by increasing the number of manuscripts or artifacts of any sort and their respective catalogues, which we may again present to world renowned scholars on various occasions. Nor do we have any hope of transforming ourselves by reporting the often repetitious studies of others or by toying with whatever ideas that we may import from elsewhere. I think we need to first look around to see if we have something of some worth in our own home, stop fleeing upon giving away when we get one, and start reflecting on our own on the real substance of whatever is in our hand; then, and only then, may we be able to courteously share what we actually have and suitably look for what we possibly lack.

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