Meet the Israeli-Ethiopian Writers Breaking Molds and Bridging Cultures

Two writers explain the challenges facing their community, and how they're using literature to bring about change.

Avishag Sh'ar-Yeshuv

On the website of the Ashan Ve’amitz project, a colorful link catches your eye. “New! A special edition for the Israel Police, to get to know the rich culture of the members of the Ethiopian community.” The innocent reader who comes across the website in the present climate won’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Ashan Ve’amitz is the lifetime project of Daniel Belete, a member of the Ethiopian community, researcher of its culture and educator, and the product of cooperative work with producer Zur Glasner and editor Yair Haham. Apparently it is also the first serious literary work by a member of the community about the community. Belete collected stories and proverbs, created a conversation manual and another book that tries to bridge the differences in mentality between the cultures.

“There’s a familiar saying in Ethiopian culture to the effect that a song in one country sounds like weeping in another,” he explains. “This project began from what ultimately led to the demonstration in Rabin Square. I had experiences wherever I went. I was good at my studies and in spite of that the children didn’t want to study with me, I don’t know why. In the army I was a combat soldier and a good one, but because they didn’t interpret me correctly I was punished.

“At one of the meetings with the company commander I sat down to talk to him and couldn’t look at him because we were taught that when speaking to a person in authority you lower your head. He interpreted it as disrespect.”

Belete says that even during later stages in his life he suffered from a similar attitude, and after he once again encountered prejudice at the Wingate College where he studied, he decided to devote his time to bridging the gaps.

“I decided that if I want to be respected, people have to know me. I tried to demonstrate that veteran Israeli society has to learn about this community, and decided to write.”

Belete tells of traveling the length of breadth of the country, about collecting stories and becoming an authority in the field. “We as a community must do that – we must document and tell the story of the community, and I assumed the task. I did it with friends in order to rehabilitate the culture.”

Who are the stories meant for?

“My first target audience was Israeli society. My latest book explains what happens when Israeli culture encounters the mentality of the [Ethiopian] community. But the younger generation doesn’t understand its culture either. I also wanted to enrich the community’s bookshelf, so there will be cultural documentation.”

Belete is almost the sole example of a literary initiative originating with Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. Despite three decades of life in Israel, despite the members of the second generation who were born in Israel or members of the first generation who immigrated as young children, it’s very hard to find examples of promising writers who are members of the community, whose profession is writing prose, genuine source material.

One of the outstanding names is Germaw Mengistu, a doctoral student in communications and editor of a community newspaper. Four years ago he won first place in the Haaretz short story competition for “A Dream at the Price of Honor.” A few weeks ago he won again, this time in the Ofra Eligon short story competition, for the story “I am a modest reality, the partner of a big dream,” which consists entirely surrealistic reality, deliberate distortion and linguistic inventions.

Can his success, in his unique voice, be considered a promo for a process that is yet to come, a demand for the proper place in literature for members of the community?

“There are a few people engaged in literature, there aren’t many,” agrees Mengistu. “Literature has to be related to people’s lives and perhaps there’s no time for that, nor is literature a source of livelihood. There are many fields where efforts are being made, for example success in the academic world, but there’s a missing piece.”

Ethiopian-Israeli protesters block the Ayalon Freeway in Tel Aviv, May 3, 2015. (Tomer Appelbaum)

Namely?

“Connections, access to key positions. Maybe that’s one of the things that explains it. People acquire an education and perhaps there are others who want to write, but in the final analysis it’s hard to penetrate the clique where creative work finds expression. There’s a certain obstacle to realizing our potential, and in some ways it’s not being totally realized.”

Belete also observes the members of his community, and his conclusions are similar. “The community is preoccupied with daily survival,” he says. “In order to write you have to be free. Personally speaking, all the means at my disposal go to pay for writing. I come from a familial-cultural background with an involvement in culture, and that’s my source of inspiration. My feeling is that I can’t escape this heritage.”

And what about all the other talented writers, where are they?

“There are lots of young people who write and I see it on the social networks, but not all of them can devote all their time to writing. I was at the demonstration in Rabin Square, and felt that I was out of it when I saw the thousands of teenagers who demonstrated. I thought that we were the generation of leaders, and it turns out that the leaders of the community are members of the younger generation. Some of them will become artists and writers.”

If you see Mengistu as a pioneer preceding the wave that is yet to come, the story that he tells is interesting, enabling a glimpse at an unfamiliar mentality, at people and lifestyles from inside the community. A novel by him is likely to be reminiscent of the success of singer Ester Rada, whose musical career draws from the ethnic cultural background but attracts fans from far beyond the community.

Belete agrees: “There are cultural Ester Radas, they exist, but they grew up in the shadow of these incidents, the confrontation with the police for example, the hatred they developed toward government institutions. There is plenty of talent, but they’re busy with the daily grind, with opposition to the authorities. It can come when they feel equal, when they feel that people aren’t hostile to them.”

And Mengistu sums up: “These are labor pains, we’re in the midst of a process and I see the first signs of an elite in the community, both political and cultural. These are still rare and exceptional exhibits but perhaps with time we’ll see an increased presence of social leaders. The hope is that in the final analysis this will be a matter of routine.”