Like a million women before her, the bride walked down the aisle, statuesque in white chiffon, her nervousness evident as her deep breathing fluttered the fingertip veil. Six women in magenta, six men in black tuxedos, a ring bearer and a flower girl completed the party. Promises to "share with you in plenty and want, in joy and sorrow," were exchanged. When kissed, the bride blushed.
Yet, once outside the sanctuary, the formality of the by-the-book ritual vanished. As soon as the limousine pulled up, the women clapped their hands above their heads, clicking their tongues in a rapid, musical wail, a centuries-old signal of joy and sorrow. In the late summer haze, the cobblestones outside the Thomas Circle church could have been the packed dirt of a village outside Addis Ababa.
Except the flower-draped horses were missing, and the hours of poetry and songs between the groom and bride, parties that mock love and praise the union. On this afternoon, with some sentimental reluctance, the Western had to blend with the Ethiopian.
You might call it the Ethiopian emergence. In the last five years the lean, handsome Ethiopian faces at the drug store check-out counters, behind taxi wheels, parking cars, waiting on tables and sitting in the outdoor cafes, have added a striking look to Washington.
Though there is no official count, it is believed that Washington has become home for the largest concentration of Ethiopian exiles and students outside Africa and Europe. The Ethiopian Embassy here estimates the population at nearly 4,000. Others inflate the figure to 5,000 because of the large sub-rosa community of undocumentented political exiles.Most Ethiopians here are political opponents of the present military government and the increase in numbers is closely tied to the political changes at home since the 1974 ouster of Emperor Haile Selassie. Yet their protest is a muted one because they fear repercussions against relatives at home.
In an increasingly international city where the sight of fez and saris adds a special patina to the academic and diplomatic community, the Ethiopians have brought some distinctions. In looks they differ from most of their African brothers and sisters (though Sudanese and Somalians are often mistaken for Ethiopians): the deep brass skin, the bright, hooded eyes, the compact, usually short builds. Their bearing is straight, their glance direct, their appearance elegant, their manner at once arrogant, aloof and, somehow, jittery.
The women are particularly stunning, the jet black hair a complementary contrast to small-porportioned eyes, nose and lips. Customs also set them apart. When the women meet on the crowded sidewalks of M Street NW, they bow quickly to one another and kiss three or five times on each cheek.
Besides appearance, Ethiopian visibility has been underscored by growing participation in business, sports, arts and government. Taxi driving -- and cab ownership -- is the largest enterprise for the men, causing Tibabu Bekele, the ranking officer at the Embassy to laugh, "I wouldn't be surprised if half the taxi drivers, well a good number, are Ethiopians" he says. In the last two years, four Ethiopian-owned restaurants, three specializing in the pungent food of Ethiopia, have opened in Northwest Washington. The leading restaurant, Mamma Desta, has recently catered two weddings for white Americans.
Also, an Ethiopian soccer team joined a local league last year. An Ethiopian announcer is part of a weekly African-perspective music and news show on WPFW-FM. An Ethiopian businessman is planning to open an art gallery and the voice of the city's consumer protection information and education office is a lyrical Ethiopian. Perhaps best-known among the black American community are several Ethiopian artists: Haile Gerima, an independent filmmaker with three documentaries on African and American social issues to his credit; Skunder Boghassian, an artist and professor at Howard University whose work is part of the collections of the New York and Paris modern museums; Tesfaye Tesema and Falaka Armide, two painters and printmakers.
The majority of the Ethiopians living in this country oppose the current Marxist government in their country, but not all are political exiles. Some are simply seeking educational or monetary opportunities.
Many are actually stranded, the political changes halting financial support from home. Occasionally one particular cell of the student population, which is as politically fractious as their elders, will paste a poster scrolled in Amharic to a tree in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood. "They all have meetings and mimeograph machines," observes one middle-aged Ethiopian. "But it is sad, a waste of energy, because they are not as effective as the Iranians. Right now it's an exercise in futility."
Despite the uncertainity of their lives the Ethiopians remain strong nationalists. Ethiopia is one of the oldest continuous governments in the world, dating from the first century A.D. From its earliest years, Ethiopia has been a crossroads of culture, commerce and religions. It has a literary heritage predating Christianity. Also, Ethiopia has never been colonized, except for the region of Eritrea by Italy and the occupation of the country by the Italian army for five years during World War II. "One bond between the Ethiopians here is not wanting the culture to die," says Johannes Aaleyesus, who worked as a parking lot attendant, a carpet cleaner and chauffeur before turning to cab driver and radio announcer. "we have our own alphabet, calendar and a 3,000-year-old history. In another country you have to learn to survive and adjust. And while I have no complaints about Washington, I don't want to become an American."
For most Ethiopians the question of assimiliation will continue to be a struggle. Though his political perspective is totally different from Johannes (the Ethiopians prefer a first name address), Aklilu Habte, the former minister of culture and president of the National University who is a government appointee at the World Bank, agrees. "We don't fit in the cloak of another culture."
They sit in the Cafe de Paris or at Gusti's sidewalk cafe. Usually three or four women together, stylish in designer silks. At 4 p.m. they usually all disappear for the restaurant night shift. Rarely do they smile or burst into laughter. Explains an Ethiopian, "what you see as visibility or sociability is really desperation. They can't talk in a disco, they would be intimidated by Faces. It's not wanting to get away from their own, the Cafe de Paris is simply neutral ground."
Ethiopia Liggins, 32, is not a cafe dweller. For the 14 years she has been away from Addis, Ethiopia Liggins has became more plugged into the American bureaucracy than most of her friends.
She has worked for four national organizations, including the Democratic National Committee, and presently works for the city's Consumer Protection agency. She was married for six and a half years to a black American. And when his father, the minister of states under Selassie, was imprisoned, she knew the right strings to pull on Capitol Hill to get information about his condition. Yet her familiarity with the American system doesn't mean she has truly assimilated.
"Every day of my life I think about Ethiopia, the closeness and the warmth.This country isn't the same. If something happens to me here I go on welfare, to the House of Ruth. But at home I would go to relatives," says Liggins, one of nine children. She worries about herself becoming more American, she watches her 6-year-old daughter and wonders what her mother would say about this alloy of black American Ethiopian cultures.
"When I first realized I was thinking in English, I worried.But I have stopped," says Liggins. "Ethiopian woman are supposed to be reserved, quiet, minor participants in conversation. But I find myself telling everything like it is." Cultural differences did add to her marriage's break-up. There always was an empty space. You can listen to Aretha Franklin and hear a different tune," says Liggins. "But basically we grew apart."
American racism has been one of the hardest lessons to learn. "Since Ethiopia had never been colonized, I hadn't been sensitized to white oppression. But after five years here I learned the signs. I learned you couldn't go to any apartment building to rent, that another woman on the job might get paid more than you because of race," says Liggins. The anger on her small, oval face is suddenly replaced with awe.
"What is fascinating is when you open your mouth. When the whites in charge of goods and services at department stores and delis hear your accent, they treat you differently. To them, foreign is exotic. But when you go for a job, foreign is a stigma. And that's from black and white professionals."
On a gray Saturday, the soccer ball is flying. Today is not a day for the regulation red and white jerseys but T-shirts appropriate for a scrimmage. One advertises the Gandy Dancer, another the Cougars, another American University, another Adidas. One wellwashed shirt announces, "Emancipation Through Revolution in Eritrea." The assistant coach, Welani Gemeda, a cab driver, says "in the past there might have been a lot of ideologic problems but we have pulled something together. They are all one on the soccer field."
As the goal is made, 25 voices from the sidelines cry, "bella, bella."
Tibabu Bekele, the charge d'affaires of the Ethiopian Embassy ever since the ambassador abruptly left 19 months ago, doesn't look like the center of a storm. But life isn't easy when your predecessor has defected, when the host government is cool toward your country and when the majority of countrymen you meet have all sorts of ready reasons why they can't go home again.
He shrugs slightly, the shoulders of his grayish blue striped suit barely moving. He lets the heady Ethiopian coffee cool. "There have been some problems with the students, quote, students, who keep on extending their visas. We have found that 85 percent of them are not making use of their stay here. The INS (Immigration & Naturalization Service) is very lax and the negative attitude of the U.S. Government toward the Ethiopian government has encouraged them," says Bekele.
While the diplomatic cold war is part of the envoy's baggage, his frustration is aimed at the resultant brain drain. "It not only results from adverse U.S. policy but to be fair the 'me generation' attitude which these young people have been caught up in has changed their attitude about the struggle at home. Their feeling is that we will take the easier life over the struggle in the bush."
His easy manner suggests a benevolent impatience but the career diplomat shares with the exiles a sadness over separation from family. "They want to stay here but are they doing anything useful for themselves?" says Bekele, 42, calling the students "amateur revolutionaries." For the middleclass political refugee he has more sympathy. "They find a comfortable existence here. Back home their parents are sitting it out."
Bekele is asked about the deficiencies of life in Ethiopia. It has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world and a 93 percent illiteracy rate among 28 million people. Reports of recent executions have been the subject of an Amnesty International inquiry to the Mengistu government. Bekele's warm style does not change. He says, "Amnesty International has been invited to look at the country but they haven't sent a team of people. We saw Amnesty International's activities becoming political rather than a human rights campaign. And we have given a full accounting to the Geneva Conference. Unless Amnesty International begins to see human rights in the context of revolution and Third World struggles, it will continue to misrepresent alleged vilations of human rights." He says. "You have to look at what we are doing for 90 percent of the people," and he points to a land reform program and literacy campaign, improvements that a congressional report has substantiated. "But we have to deal with past injusticies, by getting rid of people who caused it. If that means the deaths of a few people to improve the masses of the people. . ."
In one of Washington's tunnels of government enterprise, a distinguished looking Ethiopian, a former high official of his country, sits in his cubicle. "No, it is too dangerous to talk," he sighs, his eyes fixed on a wallmap of Africa. He insists his interaction with the Ethiopian community here is slight. Later when he unexpectedly runs into his visitor in an Ethiopian restaurant, he looks uncomfortable but smiles.
Mama Desta, the mother figure who unites the Ethiopian electicism under her restaurant roof, is sitting in her domain -- the kitchen. Her knotty hands skillfully demarble some beef for alitcha, a peppery dish of cabbage and chopped beef. Directions in Amheric fly around, as the steamy room is filled with the sizzle, pop and boil of food.
And when this small woman, her embroidered white dress teamed with hush puppy shoes, enters the dining room, there is respectful silence. She remembers all faces, delivering embraces with strong, thick arms that are tattooed with Coptic crosses, flowers and the name of a childhood friend.
"My pleasure is unlimited," she says, discussing the success of her restaurant. Since the restaurant opened on Georgia Avenue in February 1978, the clientele has grown quickly to an average of 2,000 customers a week.
Even though Mamma Desta hasn't been home in more than two decades, she is more Ethiopian than the newlyarrived population. "She is a traditionalist, who has spent her life cooking in Italy and Saudi Arabia, and then 17 years in New York. When I was going to school in Washington, I would take her a lamb every Easter so she could cook it in the Ethiopian style," says Ghebrai Asmerom, the restaurant manager. "When she moved to Washington, she cooked in her apartment until the complaints started. Then we decided it was the right time for a restaurant."
Converted from a Chinese place, Mamma Desta is an average-size room with 10 booths and a dozen surrounding moseb, vividly-colored baskets that function as tables. To eat Ethiopian-style, the diner takes a piece of injera, a fermented pancake, and wraps it around a stew-like combination of chicken and egg, dorro watt, or other lamb, chicken or beef dishes. All the food is washed down with beer or tej, a yellow drink of hops, honey and raisins.
Mamma Desta and Asmerom put aside the story of their modest success to talk about home. Neither one has a burning desire to return. Asmerom, who left Ethiopia in 1969, worked here as a donut shop weekend manager, drove a cab and earned one college degree before the restaurant opened, says, "because of the politics." Mamma Desta speaks of the living conditions. "Washington is pleasant. I wouldn't be living better if I were at home," she says as Asmerom translates. "Yet there is nobody who doesn't long for his country. Yet I live adequately here."
One thing Mamma Desta has learned is good public relations. She nudges Asmerom, reminding him to tell about the Los Angeles bank president and the Oregon university president who came straight from the airport, with their baggage, and ate, then checked into their hotel. Then she smiles, saying something about Jimmy Carter. Asmerom rolls his eyes slowly, "she says one day this will be one of the best restaurants in the world and she hopes Jimmy Carter will come."
"Nobody knows how many of us there are," the young man says. He's speaking of the Eritreans, who have been waging a seccessionist war against Ethiopia for decades."We are political refugees, our country is at war, and we shouldn't be counted by the INS and the State Department as Ethiopians. If we were counted separately, like the Vietnamese boat people, we could get some relief and ease the problems with our green cards. But no one cares."
Bereket Habte Selassie has been the bright young man sent abroad to study law, has been the attorney general in the Emperor's cabinet, has been the freedom fighter and adviser in the hills of Eritrea. Now he's the scholar and intellectual touchstone for the Ethiopians, especially the Eritrean nationals.
Following the February 1974 revolution, Bereket, who was an attorney at the World Bank, was called home to serve with the new government. "I was the commissioner of inquiry. I hoped to provide a just and peaceful solution to the Eritrean problem," says Selassie. The reaction of the military officers to reconciliation with the soldiers in the bush, Bereket recalls, was "contempt. And I was shocked. The revolution had been captured by the wrong people."
He turned that disappointment into humanitarian action. For the next two years, Bereket worked for his homeland's cause raising money as head of the Eritrea Relief Association.
During that period Bereket kept his wife and three children in Washington. "It was very hard for them, because my wife didn't work. But it was the wisest decision I ever made," says Bereket. While other Ethiopians talk about the comfort the community offers and the lower cost of living compared to New York, Selassie talks about the scholarly advantages. "The library facilities, the communications, the institutes," explains Bereket, who has been a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the Smithsonian's Wilson Center. He teaches full-time at Howard and has a forthcoming book on the politics of the Horn of Africa.
"Consciously, I try to maintain the culture. And I just have to bear it when the kids start talking like Americans. But unconsciously I have moved away from the culture, because I have lived in the West so long. And that tension will never be solved."
At the wedding reception, the pull between the homeland and the adopted country continued long into the night. For two hours, taped Ethiopian music played, drowning out any conversation. The women friends of Genet Assefa and Berhanu Mariam had prepared a feast of 25 dishes. It was downed with Millers; the threepiece continental suits and boutique silks outnumbered the richly embroidered white cotton dresses of Ethiopia the national dance, eskesta, a rapid stomp and shuttling of the shoulders, was abandoned at midnight for Donna Summer.
Her first year in Washington, artist Tesfaye Tessema, had headaches almost all the time. There was almost no relief from the routine of studying at Howard University, grabbing a quick, fast-food supper and then working as a security guard all night.
"I almost stopped talking, I really didn't like it. I was set to go back. I had planned to go back and introduce new design techniques," says Tesfaye, 27, who has remained because of his country's politics but still hasn't shaken that feeling of loneliness and isolation. It's the feeling of being displaced. It took another type of self-relization. I had to finally fact it. I am more artist than Ethiopian."
But his art tells another story, a subtle perspective on Ethiopia's world. He blends blood-stained Army helmets with Coptic church symbols, he pictures the Dergue, the military committee, in shadows, he celebrates the carnival and harvest times. But he also has been touched by American politics and has an abstract of Richard Nixon's secretary, Rosemary Woods.
"I have been approached by gallery owners who wanted me to do work for them. They give you $25,000 a year. Then you are a slave, then you can have the Mercedes, then you can play the artist," says Tesfaye, who has lived here since 1972. "But I think I better stay alone. And preserve whatever is left of my Ethiopian sensitivities so I don't come out rigid, patterned like all Americans, eating corn flakes and drinking Coca-Cola."