Into Ethiopian Air

By John Auchard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 3, 2005

"I'm a good actor."

"How do you know?"

"Watch," he said.

He grabbed my cap, turned around and put the cap on backward. When he turned back, he began moving across the floor, back and forth, and slouched so that his trousers were now baggy, a tough kid from America settling into the moves of a hard-core East Coast rapper. His eyes were now cold as they slid over my face and startled me. His was a New York face that had seen New York things and thought New York thoughts. Back and forth again, forking his hands in the air as he moved, and then he turned away and removed the cap. When he turned back and handed it to me, he was once again a smiling, bright-eyed, slightly shy Ethiopian boy.

That boy, the son of a contact I had been given in Washington, surprised me less than many things that first day in Addis Ababa. Yes, there is great poverty, but you discover that many Ethiopians live good lives and know that theirs is a great country still -- in spite of everything. Although three decades have passed since the appalling famines of the 1970s, the day I left for my month-long visit a friend asked if I was worried about getting enough to eat.

Back home in Washington -- back in Little Addis, as D.C. is known in big Addis Ababa -- people in Ethiopian restaurants and lots of cabdrivers had assured me that if I gave their country a chance, I would find far more than I expected. On that first afternoon in Addis, after some Cokes and a pizza margherita, I passed beggars on Cunningham Street and watched people stream out of the Cinema Ethiopia. They had just seen a Bollywood musical version of "E.T.," and it was clear from their laughter and the movement of their hands in the air that they had liked it very much.

Lucy in the Sky

On the terrace of Addis's breezy Blue Tops restaurant, Stefano Bonizzato, an Italian who teaches in Addis, corrects his girlfriend on a minor point. When Tigist insists she is right, Stefano -- whom I had met at the National Library a few days before -- asserts his authority, going back to the Caesars. But Tigist Bekele, a famous Ethiopian singer, knows her own mind. She bristles and reminds Stefano that 4,000 years of Ethiopian heritage back up her assertion, and just this once it is good to see Italy's fat, unassailable past brushed aside as next to nothing. And at the National Museum across the street, "Lucy" makes the pedigree fantastic.

Her 3.2-million-year-old bones are laid out flat on a table, but in a nearby reconstruction they stand upright, and her eager, appealing skull looks you right in the eyes. When in 1974 Lucy was discovered near Hadar in the northeast of Ethiopia, she was by far the earliest known hominid -- remarkable because she showed that even before the development of big brains, Australopithecus afarensis had stood on two legs.

The Holy Grail of anthropology, Lucy centers Ethiopia's claim as the cradle of humanity, and her name in Amharic is suitably magnificent -- "Birkinesh," or "Thou Art Wonderful." But since "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" was playing in the background when the anthropologist brushed aside the first bit of dirt from her first bit of bone, that is how the outside world knows this ancient, eerie, queenly presence -- by a common name taken from an LSD-inspired Beatles song that asks you to follow her down to a bridge by a fountain where rocking-horse people eat marshmallow pies.

The Egyptians believed their gods came from the mountainous country to the south, and they called it Punt or the Land of the Gods. The Greeks named it Ethiopia, or the Land of Burnt Faces. From the time of Constantine, it was known as the only Christian country outside Europe, although in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" Gibbon recognized that, "encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Ethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten." But even during that sleep, the 12th-century King Lalibela received architectural instruction in a dream, and set to work on a New Jerusalem.

Today, 400 miles north of Addis, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are like nothing else on Earth. (Lalibela was one of the original 12 of the now 800 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.) Like figures that Michelangelo saw trapped in blocks of marble, Lalibela's free-standing churches were cut right out of rock -- as if, my guide whispered dramatically, they had been waiting there since the first moment of time.

Ethiopians know their country is poor, but their pride in a nearly infinite past remains intense, and in fact if Tigist Bekele had wished to, she could have wiped the floor with Stefano Bonizzato. She could have gone back before Lucy all the way to Genesis, Chapter 2:13, where six verses after God creates Adam out of dust, a river flows out of Eden and encompasses "the whole land of Ethiopia." Eve, one might note, is not created until nine verses later.

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