Held at a Distance - Book Review

MediaETHIOPIA - March 12, 2007

In 178 pages of a remarkable story-telling, Rebecca Haile - an Ethiopian-American who grew up in the US since age 11 - offers a vivid and engaging narrations of a trip she makes back to Ethiopia in 2001 after an absence of almost 25 years. These 25 years cover one of the most brutal periods Ethiopians have ever witnessed and, therefore, provide a unique backdrop to millions of stories yet to be told; Rebeccas' promising to be among the first and most interesting ones.

Rebecca's book 'Held at a Distance' is mainly a story of a personal journey to reconnect to a land and its people and to events that led to the exodus of her family. Her father, a university professor and prominent intellectual with religious tilts, attracts the unfortunate attention of the Dergue due to his connection to the Orthodox church leadership. The Dergue sends soldiers to arrest him on one Saturday in October of 1975. What happened late on that Saturday in the family's two-storey house which Rebeccas describes as "perfectly ordinary Saturday" changes the life of Rebecca and her family forever and, therefore, forms the cornerstone of this book. While most Addis Ababans who remember those days are familiar with the story of the professor's almost fatal injury from a bullet fired by the Dergue soldiers, Rebecca offers new and private details that brings new interest to this story. The professor had stood his ground and fought these soldiers of the infamous Colonel Mengistu H/Mariam until he run out of bullets. By dusk - after holding the soldiers at bay - the professor had hoped to escape by climbing over the huge stone masonry wall. This attempt was stopped by a single bullet from one of the soldiers that injures and debilitates the professor's spine missing his heart by few milimeters. Rebecca's visit to the family house built by her parents where the father fought off the Dergue soldiers forms the most intense part of her narration. From the bedroom to the studyroom and the wall, Rebecca tries to retrace personal painful memories and along the way enages her readers to a degree few books have managed.

The reviewer feels that this part of the story of personal and family triumph and tragedy, a man's defense of his home and his freedom in the face of 1000 spent bullets, a daughter's visit to the family house of numerous pleasant and picture-perfect childhood memories is the highlight of the book. There still are tens of thousands and more of untold stories of such scale and perhaps more that capture the depth of the tragedy of the Dergue years and how the malicious act of few illiterate soldiers and their accomplices destroyed and interrupted millions of lives. For those of us who were old enough to have grown during those years but yet too young to understand the consequences of these tragic events, and for those who are too young to have been born in those years, Rebecca's book is an eye-opener. In fact, one can take it one step further and suggest that how Rebecca comes across as someone at peace and reconciled with past events after the visit to her family's house opens up many important issues that Ethiopians have not dared to talk about in public regarding the Dergue years. It can be argued that what followed the Dergue years in the image of EPRDF/TPLF is no less brutal and we - as a people - have not caught our breaths yet to reflect on the first act of an ongoing dreary drama. At any rate, the fact remains that unless the numerous such personal stories are told and we make a collective decision to say 'Never Again', we are - unfortunately - bound to see a continuation of such tragic acts that will keep interrupting and stopping ordinary lives. If such open conversation catches up among Ethiopians, Rebecca may have accomplished more than what she set out to do.

It is undestandable that Rebecca's trip was not limited to a revisit to her childhood fortress and the family's home but also her desire to reconnect to the image of Ethiopia that her parents had instilled in her. The subsequent chapters deal with her visit to the old Ethiopia of Axum, Lalibela and Lake Tana monastries. Again, Rebecca raises issues of the survival of old Ethiopia and what Ethiopianness really mean. For a person raised outside Ethiopia and returning 25 years later, Rebecca offers a new perspective to these questions. Further, in a clever way, Rebecca, forces Ethiopians to more questions through the engineer, an unforgettable character who comes in and out of her story. The engineer is a widely known figure in Ethiopia who has no place for politics but driven by idealism blames the educated Ethiopians as not only a victims but also the instruments for enabling the conditions of brutality that form the basis for this book of Rebecca Haile.

'Held at a Distance', therefore, is a book that will force Ethiopians to ask numerous questions that they have forgotten to ask. For that alone, Rebecca's book should be considered a success.

Reviewed by Samuel Kinde - March 2007.

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