Inside the Blue Nile Restaurant, Andargie Lemma enjoys a club soda as he watches his place fill up. He is as pleased as he is amazed. Ethiopia, he notes, was once called the "hidden empire," but it seems everybody eventually found out about it. When the ancient Greeks found it, they called it Aithiopia, meaning "Land of the Burnt Face," after the legend that Phoebus' golden chariot passed so close to the tropics it left the people of that torrid zone permanently suntanned.
Now here, located out of view behind the mammouth Chastleton Apartment building, just off of an alley near 16th and R Streets NW in downtown Washington, people are packing into his hidden empire, The Blue Nile Restaurant--some permanetly suntanned, but most of them just plain white folk.
Lemma explains what they have all come looking for.
"Good food," he says.
Indeed, it is exotic, earth- toned and spicy hot beef, lamb and chicken served on a communal platter covered with a soft white spongy pancake dough bread that looks so much like a table napkins that some nouveau continental American diners have mistaken placed it in their laps.
But it is not the real thing. In Ethiopia, the spongy dough called injeria is made of a grain called teff, which is not available here. But that is cool, says Lemma, "All they have to do is eat it."
Well, maybe in Ethiopia. Here in Washington, Lemma is learning, cultural gaps are not always so easily bridged. And while learning new ways can sometimes be fun, it can often be frustrating. Especially when you can't go home.
Lemma, like most of the estimated l0,000 Ethiopians who live in the Washington area, are stuck here, immigrants who came with a plan to go to school and return to their wondrously romatic homeland, where women --especially mothers--and the elderly are held in special esteem.
This is, afterall, the land of the Queen of Sheba, of Ethiops, decendants of Noah's son, Ham. Here is a place where culture is literally as old as the hills. For more than 2,000 years the Ethiopians have basked in a lifestyle that put family and communal support at the center of their existence as they reveled in a belief that they were--and remain--the seat of culture for not only Africa, but Europe as well.
From where else, they ask, would the Greeks get such lovely eyes?
But now, here in these United States, a proud people of color must come to grips with the reality that they may never go home, or, if some in the State Department have their way, sent back against their will to face life under a Marxist regime.
This community is in limbo, reluctant to relinquish their precious heritage while finding it necessary to do so to survive in this new world.
"I have more difficulty explaining and demonstrating Ethiopian culture and food to Americans than any other group," he says. "I send a waitress over to them to show them how to eat the food with the hand and they say, 'Oh, no, we are not going to use our fingers. We must have a knife and fork.'"
"I say to them, 'Please, try it with the hand; that's how we do it in Ethiopia. They say, 'Bring me a fork.' I say, 'Go to the bathroom and wash your hand--this is how we serve. They say, 'Bring me a fork--this is how we eat.' So we give them the fork and there is no way they can eat this with a fork and get everything. So everything is a mess."
There are more Ethiopian doctors in New York than Ethiopia today; more economist and professors here in Washington than in the homeland. They are needed their, would be welcomed--indeed, says their government officials, they would be much happier there too.
"To be born and raised Ethiopians means you can't really be happy anyplace else," says Tamenme Eshete, the second secretary of the Ethiopian Embassy here. "The Ethiopians here may eventually have a luxury life, materially speaking, but a spiritual life I'm not so sure they will ever find. In Ethiopian society, there is a strong degree of community relationships but here there is the tendency towards individualism. In terms of a person getting sick at home, he phones a neighbor instead of a hospital. It is worse to be sick away from home."
Waiting in a taxi line at National Airport, Hailu Below , 34, agrees with this assessment as he reads a copy of Negarit, the Ethiopian biweekly newspaper, sipping on an RC cola.Even though the Emabssy man represents the government he doesn't want to return to, he speaks facts about Ethiopian feelings for the homeland.
"There is so much to get used to," he says, his Amharic accent thickening around his English pronunciations. He had planned to finish studing economics at the University of the District of Columbia and open a business in Ethiopia.
"Back home there are l3 months of sunshine," Hailu says. This day at National Airport it is 34 degrees and cloudy. "Yes, 13 months. We don't even keep time like you do. I have missed Punji altogehter."
That is the l3th month in the Ethiopian calender, just six days long. Nevertheless, it was the month Hailu celebrates life with his family. He has not seen nor celebrated his family since l975.
When Lemma left Ethiopia in l973, he too envisioned a brief but exiciting stay in Washington where he would expand his international horizons, study business at Howard University then return to Addis Ababa. He had no idea that he'd end up as owner of a restaurant, a home away from home for hundreds of Ethiopian exiles and culture school for the handful fo black Americans curious enough to venture inside its exotic doors.
"Most of our customers are whites--so we having a saying back home: 'When in Rome, act like the Italians,'" says Lemma. "I'm not saying I don't consider myself black, but as far as culture is concern Ethiopians are really different from black Americans," Lemma says. "They talk different and act different. When I watch those who come in here, I think about how I was raised, I can see they are Americans."
But a lot of these notions have had to take a backseat to more current realities since Marxist Ethiopian army officers overthrew Emperor Haile Sellassie in a bloody coup in l974; even Lloyds of London was nationalized.
Of course, Lemma's job offer was still good, but most of the money had been taken out of Lloyds Ethopian branch office as soon as the Brits got wind of the impending revolution. They left the Marxist with nothing but a shell.
So Lemma was stuck here.
So what do you do when suddenly your whole life's program is nipped in the bud while you're on foreign shores. America is nice, he said, but there is no place like home.
Family ties are so important in a country as old as this one that Lemma says.
Although he is doing very well as a businessman here, he says he is can never be truly happy. Even when his cash register operater shows him recipts from a nice days take, he smiles but only briefly and then only with his lips, for his deep dark eyes are melancholy.
He was still in college then, working as a busboy, waiter, cook--odd jobing his way through monthly room and board. When he graduated from Howard in l976, the Marxist were still in Ethiopia and it looked like they were there to stay. When his father died in l977, he decided against returning for the funeral, fearing he'd he bcome a tool of the state. He has not been home since l973.
Unlike other immigrants or refugees, the Ethiopians are periodically paniced by news from the U.S. IMmigratin and Naturalization Service that they must go home.
Each time this happens, the Ethiopian Embassy announces that it would "welcome with open arms" any Ethiopian exiles or students in the United States who want to return. An estimated 15,000 to 17,000 students and exiles are believed living in the United States.
If I go back, my visa would be cancelled," he said. "That's putting it miledly. You go back and you do what the government says do."
This embassy is representing exisiting government, so most don't have status to travel because they don't go to embassy.
Lemma is talking:
"Here in the United States, as far as professionals are concerned, they have far more than they need. It would be much easier for me to go to a place like Saudi or Italy where the compeititon isn't so high for skilled work. But I'm beginning to settle down here and make new friends. I was talking with one of my friends from Addis and he said he had left Texas where he was studied computers and have moved to Italy. He said he is making more money over there than he was in Italy and the life style is more conducive.
My mother came to visit me recently. She slipped out of the country without the authorities finding out. The Marxist govenrnemt is not so organized you know. People slip out all the time, but I can't risk slipping in and slipping back out without a visa. Anyway, nobody knew she was out and I enjoyed seeing her.But I don't say anything against the government because all of my family is there."
More than anything else, it is mother in this land of Sheba that he misses most.
"Our mothers have held the family together during tough times, including war and famine," said Aster Abebe, who works as a parking lot attendant after classes at Howard University. "When your mother or father entered a room, you would stand up as a sign of respect. You never talked back to your parents. Over here, I cannot figure what is going wrong when I hear children talking back."
It is this kind of respect for community that some say has made the Ethiopians such a welcomed addition to Washington--atleast from the point of view of many of those who "sponsor" them to the United States, usually black Americans.
"They have a tremendous sense of self understanding," said the Rev. Knighton Stanley, who has sponsored several Ethiopians who live in Washington, including Lemma. "They believed that Queens and Emperors were God representatives on earth and this was very important to them. They are as Byzantine as they are black Africans and they lack the colonial arrogance that is indeginous to other Third World contires who have taken to immitating the ways of their former masters. For this reason, it is my opinion that Ethiopians--and Haitians--are extremely important to the cultural advancement of black Americans."
Rev. Stanley said when he first met Lemma he was a "student in distress," cut off from his family and his country. "I found him to be very determined and resourceful. I sort of adopted him."
Lemma worked over 20 hours a week as bus boy, waiter and later matri'd at a variety of restaurants around town until he learned enough about the business to try it on his own. Today, he's still misses home, but he's making it.
"Homesickness makes you cry," said Lemma, who is 31. "Being a foreigner means were are foreign all the time. This place, America, is a place where you have to work to live. Back home, you could rely on your daddy. You could ask your aunt for money, and get it. Here, though, to exist you have to make it. That's a good thing that will make you have more courage to work. In other words, the business of living will motivate you to try to make it through. Of course, that's doesn't mean you will make it.While Ethiopian national music plays in the background, he surveys his restaurant and summs up life here.
"Life is something," he says. "People plan but you never know where you will wind up."