Airing Their Grievances

In the battle at Israel Radio over the time allotted to Ethiopian-language shows, Amharic has beaten Tigrinya.

About six months ago, there was a furor at Israel Radio. Rahamim Elazar was finishing up his daily Amharic broadcast, and preparing to turn over the studio to Avraham Yardei, who broadcasts in Tigrinya (one of two major languages in Eritrea and the dominant one in some parts of Ethiopia). Elazar gathered up his papers and was about to say "good night" to his listeners when Yardei lashed out, in anger and frustration that had apparently been building up during 18 years of work at the station. "You never introduce me as the Tigrinya presenter," Yardei shouted. "You always end your broadcast with 'good night,' as if you aren't followed by Tigrinya."

Yardei was ostensibly avenging an offense to a language whose number of speakers, in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, is approximately equal to that of Hebrew speakers all over the world. He was specifically defending the honor of Tigrinya against Amharic, its arrogant big sister, which is frequently "knocked around" in these parts by another not-widely spoken language (yes, Hebrew). Indeed, the Hebrew language consigns Amharic to a group of more than a dozen different languages that between them share three hours of broadcasts daily on Reka, Israel Radio's foreign-language station.

Arguments like these had arisen before at the station, but this one played out live, in earshot of thousands of listeners, over an open mike. Subsequently, Yardei was called on the carpet.

According to Mahari Reuven, manager of the Israel Radio Amharic department, Amharic and Tigrinya are not like Yiddish and Hebrew - they are even closer. Plus, Tigrinya speakers all understand Amharic. Thus it seems that Tigrinya's 10 minutes of daily broadcast will soon disappear from Reka's broadcast schedule.

Reuven, 65, is tall and dressed on this particular day in a gray jacket, white shirt and jeans. A wreath of white hair encircles his shining bald crown. In Ethiopia, from which he immigrated 25 years ago, he was a science teacher. A year after he arrived, he joined the Amharic department at Israel Radio.

With about 23 million speakers, Amharic is the second-most-spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic, says Reuven, who wrote my name in Amharic in my notebook, where it remains, looking like an ancient inscription on a shard of clay. He points out the Amharic inscription on a cornice of the beautiful Israel Radio building in Jerusalem, which once belonged to the Ethiopian Church, but now grants that language a mere few hours a day of airtime from within its walls.

Reuven's Hebrew is good but hesitant. He says he keeps up with developments in Amharic by reading newspapers and listening to foreign radio broadcasts in the language. Hebrew has begun to make inroads into his native tongue: For example, "kupat holim" (HMO, in Hebrew) is the same in Amharic. Furthermore, technological terms and innovations, including even the word "computer" are "borrowed" from English. It's doubtful whether the listeners are interested in computers, since most of the older population cannot read and write; indeed, the radio is their only connection to what is happening in the world.

Reuven translates the news from the Hebrew heard on Israel Radio Reshet Bet. The broadcast opens with fast-paced music by electric guitars; a review of the press follows, then conversations with listeners and songs in Amharic.

After our meeting, Reuven is planning to interview the country's most senior Ethiopian spiritual leader, the chief kes. Will he ask him about the hospital in Ashkelon, which has been in the headlines lately because of a government decision (now suspended) to move a planned bomb-proof new emergency room, at significant additional expense, because ancient graves were found at the spot where construction had begun? The issue has constituted a serious point of friction between the residents of Ashkelon, some of whom are Ethiopian, and the hospital's medical staff, on one side, and the ultra-Orthodox establishment that demanded that the ER be moved, on the other. He tenses and moves uneasily on the bench in the Israel Radio garden. No, he thinks not; he will discuss the Passover holiday with the kes.

Most immigrants from Ethiopia, especially the older ones, observe religious traditions, including the Sabbath. Nevertheless, for younger listeners, Israel Radio has Amharic broadcasts on Shabbat as well, mostly of Ethiopian music. And Reuven, who defines himself as "traditional," sometimes broadcasts on Saturdays, traveling to the studio in his car. Why? He shrugs his shoulders. What choice does he have?

Reuven's wife is an English teacher; the couple has three children, all of whom were born in Ethiopia. The youngest son, who served in an elite commando unit in the army, does not speak Amharic well, but the older two have a good command of it. Reuven's daughter is an occupational therapist and his oldest son is studying medicine and is married to the daughter of former state prosecutor Eran Shendar.

What's it like, we ask. How is the relationship between the Reuven and Shendar families? Wonderful, Reuven declares. They are nice people.