You grow up in a place like that and you’re ready for war. But not for Canada. So at the end of the book when Nega talks about what happened when he finally immigrated to Canada, he had some adjusting to do. My favorite example of Canuck culture-shock comes when he reads a a newspaper clipping about a guy getting jail for torturing his cat. He’s not falling for that! He actually cuts out the story to show his friends he gets the joke. Jail? For a little good clean cat-torture! Very funny! He describes his shock when his killjoy Canuck friends told him it wasn’t a joke at all, and was in fact a very serious crime in the Canadian Criminal Code. Nega tries to be a good animal-rights greenie in his new squeamish homeland but it’s not easy–not when you’ve been raised Amhara-style.
You have to remember, we’re not talking child abuse, we’re talking “a time-honored aristocratic moral code.” Nega’s parents are upstanding Amhara settlers in the town of Jijiga out there in the Somali Desert and they see themselves as upholding Amhara standards in the boonies. So when little Nega is disobedient again, they call in the same two soldiers, who always seem to be hanging around hoping to pick up some change helping torture Junior. This time the soldiers hold the boy down while Mom, who’s already cleared all the furniture from the room, proceeds to give him a little of that ol’ tough love in the form of suffocating the little tyke:
“She sprinkled the herbs and powders on the blazing charcoal, waited a few moments, until the smoke was very dense, and then gave the soldiers the cue to throw the blanket over both the burner and my head. Enclosed in a dome, surrounded by flame and smoke, I felt that I was in Hell. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see.”
Naturally he goes insane again—all these disciplinary methods seem to bring on hallucinations caused by extreme pain—and imagines himself walking through flame on the floor of Hell for “generations” before he walks back into the normal world.
This is how you make soldiers. Sorry if that sounds mean, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. I’ve read about German methods of disciplining kids pre-1945, and they’re pretty grim, serious beatings handed out for just about anything. Not now, of course, but pre-Stalingrad they toughened those kids up on a daily basis.
I’ve seen it myself. Not me; I wasn’t hit much at all. Some relatives on my mother’s side say that’s what went wrong with me, I’ve heard, and maybe they’re right. But I grew up with a lot of kids who started out nice and soft and got toughened up because they were just plain beaten half to death every day. Once it was at my friend Calvin’s birthday party. His dad was this mean, seldom-seen Portugese asshole who happened to be home, unfortunately for everybody, and drinking. He didn’t like the noise we were making and chased Calvin all through the house while the rest of us pretended not to see anything, cornered him in the garage and beat the shit out of him with that belt. Happy tenth birthday. I thought the party was over but Calvin’s mom laughed it off and told me to sit down because we were going to have ice cream. And Calvin came back in sniffling—I was amazed he was still alive—and ate with us. It was just another night at that house, and later I found out that was SOP when Dad was ashore.
The point is Calvin grew up to be the toughest kid around, even though he was only about five-seven. Tried to teach me to fight a few times, but he believed in the full-contact approach, whereas me, as I’m happy to admit, I was always more theory than practice. Then there was my friend Brian, very smart kid, dad was a mechanic at JiffyLube, kept his arm limber by beating the shit out of his kid after work. Mom helped too. I used to wait out in the yard down by the creek listening to the thuds and the screaming. Brian got tough too, prison-tough, probably a shot-caller at Folsom by now. Which is too bad because he had the highest scores of anybody in those IQ tests they gave people at age seven. We both got in the MGM program but Brian was the school star. Smartest guy never to graduate from high school.
When you add a little trickle-down commie ideology to an upbringing like Nega’s, you get pure weapons-grade raw material for an African war. And that’s what happens when Nega goes to school—setting up schools is always a mistake for Shahs, emperors and such, brings them nothing but trouble—and finds out that one of his friends says calmly, “My father is a serf.” It’s the first time Nega learns what life is really like up in the Amhara highlands, where the “time-honored aristocratic code” means keeping families of defeated non-Amhara tribes like the Omoro in time-honored serfdom.
The most dangerous element in any third-world dictatorships are elite high-school kids and army officers. The first to revolt in Ethiopia in the 1970s were the students, and Nega was one of the first to go. He does something so brave and stupid I can’t believe he survived it: he joins the Somali rebel army in the Ogaden desert, despite the fact that he’s one of the hated Amhara occupiers.
He ends up with the usual reward of middle-class lefties from the wrong tribe, if they’re lucky: fleeing from his life from his comrades. This is one of the big lessons of the 20th century, one that really bummed out (or killed) a whoooooole lotta commies: blood is way thicker than ideology. Bad news for the Amhara in the ranks: “The [Somali] rebels had become less and less tolerant of non-Somalis…the other fighters were supplied with the newly-acquired AK-47s [but] we were only permitted to carry WW II-era rifles.” Nega has two career prospects: “We would either be killed by the Ethiopian Army…or be disposed of by the Somali rebels themselves…Death was inevitable and dishonorable, either way.”
He runs back to the lovin’ arms of his Amhara brethren. You can guess what happens next. Yup, they set about trying to kill him in a more urban commie-style, because by this time the Derg, the secretive officers’ clique that deposed and killed the emperor, has turned on itself and two nearly-identical socialist Amhara parties are at each others’ throats. Nega makes it to an elite school in the capital, Addis Ababa, but that turns out to be a dangerous place to be. A quick tip if you ever find yourself in a real revolution: aim low. Be a toilet cleaner or a cafeteria worker. They don’t get massacred quite as much. Never, ever go to an elite high school in the capital city. Nega eventually has to sleep in alleys because if he goes back to his dorm, da regime is gonna come for him. He describes what happens when those goons catch up with a comrade:
“One day I saw a young mathematics teacher being followed by three cadres in a Toyota Land Cruiser…They told him to…freeze in his tracks. The young man didn’t oblige, and started fiddling with a charm that was hanging from his necklace, while walking backwards…he managed to untie the small capsule [of poison] in time. He bit into it, infuriating the cadres, who tossed him in mid-air with a torrent of machine-gun fire. I hope the cyanide killed him first.”
The Meison, the faction on top at the moment, doesn’t take kindly to student troublemakers either. They stop by the dorms most nights to see if anybody’s grafitti’d the toilets, and stomp the dormies with rifle butts or make them clean the toilet with their tongues. That’s if they’re in a good mood; if not, “they took somebody for the road.” By 1978 the cadres are killing a hundred kids every night, and if their families can’t pay to reclaim the corpses within 24 hours, they’re tossed outside the city limits—some local bylaw, I guess, one of those weird laws that make the goofy news: “In Addis Ababa, it is illegal to dump a dissident student’s body within the city limits.” So they’re trucked to the outskirts to become a “feast for countless hyenas and vultures.”
Just imagine going from that world, where the jokes are really good and bloody, to Canada, where it’s illegal to hurt anybody’s feelings. Where it’s even illegal to torture a cat. Where you can get dragged into the torture chambers of the Ontario Provincial Cats Rights Commission and never be seen again.
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