When we reached Harar, about 500km from the capital Addis Ababa, on that first trip, family I didn’t remember approached us shouting out guttural ululations.
I met you on my first trip back to Ethiopia, from where my family had emigrated during the dictatorship when I was two years old. It was 2003, and I was traveling to Harar, where my grandparents were born and my mother spent happy vacations as a girl. I was with my mother and my sister, hauling luggage full of clothes, gifts, one book, my Pentax K1000 manual camera, and not enough film. So I bought more from you.
A friend who’s a photographer later looked at my stack of black-and-white pictures and said the film looked off, was probably expired, or had maybe been exposed to too much heat. Either seemed likely, as it was sweltering that visit, and expiration dates are easily fudged in the long-standing tradition of “Tourist bela,” or “Eat the tourists.” This is to say, you sold me bad film in Harar, perhaps willing to risk cheating me out of these memories, but I realize you did me a favor.
I had nurtured such romantic visions of this journey, let them take shape as the plane passed over Egypt, with its shadowless desert and the Nile stretched out below. The river played, separating into two, coming together again (an eye), splitting apart and merging like knots on a plank of wood, like the history of two hesitant lovers dancing towards and away from each other. When we approached Addis Ababa, it was night, a full moon, a new sky. That’s how I think it went, at least. I’ve taken the trip so often since then that my memories of these flights blur together now. But there’s always the same progression: the desert, the river, nightfall, home.
We only met briefly, and I can’t remember the details; those days have since become diffuse around the edges. Were you one of the vendors who teased me about my language skills (and how I looked like I should know better)? Or one who offered advice about where to eat? Did you try to set me up with a son or cousin, or ask me what it was like over in America? Now I realize that all I have of you are these photographs. You are in none, but yet there you are.
The whites in the photos glow a bit more than they should. At times, the grays recede into some flattened dimension, like they’re painted onto the paper with no relief. The effect is to both highlight and hide what’s happening in the photograph. A gharry—a drawn cart, a taxi—looks as if it’s being pulled along by an electric white horse. A rock wall in front of an unassuming stucco house appears half-crumbling, half-lit. Somehow this feels okay—even true. I’d always been told about this city through the distorted lens of our diaspora, which casts it in the light of a wistful nostalgia. The terrors of the dictatorship were not as easily discussed, I imagine, as childhood summers in the enchanted city of Harar: haloed, ever-bright.
When we reached Harar on that first trip, family I didn’t remember approached us shouting out guttural ululations. We hugged and kissed in a dizzying dance until they turned away, faced the wall, fell to their knees and thanked the Lord that we, who had left during the country’s darkest days, were back again. We spent much of our time at the mesob, the dinner table. When we were not eating, we were sipping tea or coffee, served in tiny cups that could fit into the curve of my palm. We’d go house to house to visit relatives. We saw the old family home, and on the way, encountered a funeral tent where a relative realized he knew some of the mourners. We visited empty plots of land to imagine how things had once been, to understand what remained and what no longer was.
Is it familiar? someone asked me, half joking, half not. There is really no way to capture this experience in a photograph unless, perhaps, if it looks a little magical—slightly askew, or forgotten too long in the sun.■