Finding Hama

If a tree falls in a forest and its wood is used to produce the paper for a book that eventually goes out of print, does anyone notice? "The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories," a collection of short stories describing the years known as Red Terror in Ethiopia, did catch the attention of Doron Tavory, the artistic director of Hazira Performance.Art, who is currently producing two of the stories in the form of short plays at Yaffa Schuster's Netela Theater. The book's author, Hama Tuma, an Ethiopian political activist living in exile, proved almost as difficult to track down as his first book of fiction.

The publishing company no longer exists, the Web site contact yields no response, and it turns out that Hama Tuma (which, loosely translated from Amharic, means "everything is okay") is not the author's real name. I started my search on the Internet; it ended with dinner at the Melenik restaurant in Paris. On the way I encountered several Ethiopian Web sites (unfortunately I cannot read Amharic); a defunct yet lively Webzine called Seleda; Ephrem Girma, a graphic designer in Washington, D.C., who was kind enough to help someone he had never met; and Ido Shaked, an Israeli theater director, who gave me some good advice. When I finally tracked Hama Tuma down, he had already moved on. In the end, it was the elusive writer himself who contacted me.

"You can call me Hama Tuma," said Iyasou Alemayehu. "I'm not very attached to my real name, I haven't used it for 30 years." A founding member of Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party, he was born in Addis Ababa in 1949. Expelled in his final year of law school for demonstrating against the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie, he left Ethiopia in 1969 to pursue a life of political activism - leaving behind not only his studies, family and home, but also his name. During his years of exile, clandestine organizational work and guerrilla warfare, he used many pseudonyms, perfecting the art of remaining invisible while never stopping his activist efforts.

After spending six months in a Sudanese jail, he was expelled to Algeria. It was here that Hama Tuma encountered racism for the first time, despite the progressive, revolutionary spirit of the numerous local left-wing groups. "It was the 1960s," he reminded me, a time when the world seemed to open up and change appeared imminent.

When the revolution came, the students, workers and teachers advocating democratic change in Ethiopia were not powerful enough to assume power. The military, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Derg (the communist military junta), took control. Early attempts to oppose the military regime gave rise to the Red Terror, an era when even mourning was forbidden by the government.

As for writing fiction, Hama Tuma said, "I stumbled into it." Journalism had always been an integral part of his political work. His writings about the reality in Ethiopia often take on a satirical edge reminiscent of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." It was in responding to a BBC announcement for a short story competition that Hama Tuma wrote "Vendetta" - a story that draws one into the heart of the conflict, focusing on the private dilemma of an individual trying to make a moral choice in a time of war, rife with betrayal and chaos. This story, which explores the emotional terrain of a country in crisis with sensitivity and piercing accuracy, marks the beginning of Hama Tuma's journey into fiction.

A way of life

The short stories compiled in "The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor" take place in a world where reality has become an absurd horror, dominated by arbitrary and relentless violence. It is in this reality that fiction, in one guise or another, becomes a way of life. While "Vendetta" and the other stories in the latter part of the book are written in a more traditional form, the first group of stories is closer to Hama Tuma's journalistic style: They consist of satiric courtroom scenes, depicted in an often mischievous tone. We are invited to join the nameless "unemployed" narrator, who - "having nothing better to do" - sits in on court cases. The stories' core consists of courtroom dialogue, a literary choice that facilitates the adaptation of these stories to the stage.

Exposing the weakness of a system where those in power employ the vocabulary of a political ideology devoid of meaning, to legitimize violence and oppression, Hama Tuma brilliantly turns the language on its abusers, making these stories a comic tour de force. "We know and we have eyes to see that Ethiopians don't smile since the Revolution," says the prosecutor, as he accuses a woman of having "criminal thoughts" because she was caught smiling. In another story the narrator sings the praises of "queuing," citing a magazine devoted to the subject, with editorials such as "Waiting for Godot Is Child's Play." Reading the stories, I laughed until I cried.

Speaking in a quiet voice, with its undercurrent of an imminent outbreak of laughter, Hama Tuma noted that the stories are all based on actual events, yet infused with lightness. The printer thrown in jail over the spelling error of mixing up the "k" and "d" in the rallying cry "Ethiopia tikdem" ("Ethiopia first"), thus making it tidkem ("weak"), was eventually released after seven years in jail. He was one of the more fortunate ones.

Hama Tuma: "Once you are thrown in jail you don't complain, if you do you remind them of your existence. So they forget you. If they notice you they will just say - take them out and shoot them with the others." Seeking the justice that cannot be found in the courts, the author puts an entire regime on trial in his stories.

Criticized by some for exposing Ethiopia's flaws and failings, lack of openness and lack of a democratic tradition, Hama Tuma urges self-reflection and change. Rejecting the current ethnic rivalries, he invoked their horrors in a plea for unity: "The Derg didn't care if you were Amara or Oromo, they never discriminated - they tortured everybody, they killed everybody." Marxist in origin, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party has "mellowed" over the years; today its members define themselves as Social Democrats. Committed to revealing and remembering the past - "like you say in Israel: Never again" - Hama Tuma stressed that he does not believe in seeking vengeance, rather, "there must be a process of reconciliation."

No one has published Hama Tuma's work in Addis Ababa, although he has also written in Amharic. Some have criticized him for not writing all his works in Amharic, yet English is in many respects a natural choice. Not only does it enable him to reach a wider audience, but he was educated in English, too. His early reading consisted of writers such as John Steinbeck, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky. He has published poetry, short stories and essays in English, and a novel in Amharic. But, he said, "I have not yet written the book I want to write."

My first encounter with Hama Tuma's stories was in Dory Parnes' Hebrew translation, soon to be published by Ahuzat Bayit. Out of print in English, the book and its characters are now brought to life on the stage by Israeli actors - immigrants from Ethiopia whose first language is Amharic, performing in Hebrew. In so doing, they reclaim a part of their own history. Hama Tuma and I talked about the strange and ancient connection between our two countries, the difficulties of translation and exile, the struggle against racism and oppression. When I commented that it is hard for one person to have an effect on the world, he interrupted me freely, as any friend would do: "But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try."