A skillful retelling of the trauma of revolution and the terror it brought
Present in Addis when the coup deposed Haile Salassie, an RPCV finds a new novel spanning the period to be compelling and realistic
Reviewed by Janet [Danzl] Lee (Endeber 74–76)
Thursday, September 12, 1974, the first day of the Ethiopian year found me in the capital city of Addis Ababa when the announcement blared from radio and television alike that H.I.M. Haile Sellasie was overthrown. After having settled into my village, Endeber, as a new Peace Corps Volunteer, I was making some last minute preparations for school to start in a few weeks. There were so many unknowns at the time because of the political climate. Would school really start? The students went on strike the year before. Would we try to fit three semesters into two? Who would be the new director of the school? The students had petitioned for the removal of the last one. What grade would I be assigned?
The news of the takeover spread like wildfire; we could hear chants of jubilation from the windows. Although we were advised by the Peace Corps office to stay put, naturally, we took to the streets as well, walking up toward the Piazza on Churchill Blvd. There were throngs of young men chanting, marching, raising staffs in the air. “Haile Sellasie, the thief” was shouted out in Amharic. Just three weeks prior, I had waited outside of a church and stood in awe with others as the Emperor exited after prayers and entered his limousine in full regalia. Even though tensions had been building, the coup was still a startling turn of events. Nonetheless, I felt completely safe, and in fact, I never felt more invisible. There were no beggars seeking alms; no shoeshine boys offering to shine my tennis shoes; no street boys selling gum or lottery tickets or souvenirs. Somehow we managed to drive by the palace only to see more young men congregating and tanks bedecked in bunches of flowers.
Back in my village, school eventually started and I was assigned seventh grade English. Life was peaceful and somewhat routine. If it were not for the BBC and the Voice of America, I would not have been aware of the bloodbath that was occurring. I was a world away, although in the same country. Therefore it was with some anticipation as well as trepidation that I read Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. In recent years my Ethiopian contemporaries have related stories of their escape overland in fear of their lives during this tumultuous time. This book rings true and on more than one occasion gave me chills.
The story opens with Hailu, a doctor at a leading hospital, pulling a bullet out of the back of a student protester all the while worrying about his own son, Dawit, also a student activist, and his dying wife who is suffering greatly in a nearby ward. Maaza, to refer to her in the traditional Ethiopian manner, skillfully interweaves the personal conflict of Hailu and his family (father against son, brother against brother) and the turmoil in the beautiful country that he loves. She accurately describes the military presence on every street corner, every major building, and checkpoints leading into and out of the city. The nightly curfew curtailed the activities of the student protesters as well as the social and business life of all others.
Using different narrative voices, Maaza tells the story of a family being torn apart and a country in complete disarray. Her portrayal of Haile Sellasie is sympathetic, at times almost deferential. Notably absent is any mention of exiled leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, the brutal leader of the Derg, the military committee that was responsible for the ouster and the ultimate death of Haile Sellasie. In no way does this detract from the novel; in fact it places the emphasis on the victims rather than the perpetrators. There are sufficient composite characters that describe the brutality of the leaders of that period of time.
Although Hailu’s immediate family is the focal point of the story, the lives of various characters intertwine. Dawit finds an ally in Sara, his brother Yonas’ wife, who helps him properly dispose of bodies of student protestors while she herself deals with her belief in a God who would take two babies from her womb and allow her only living child to suffer in a horrific accident. Mickey, Mikias at birth, Dawit’s best friend enlists in the army because unlike Dawit, he was not a child of means. He is sent to Wello, his homeland where as a child he witnessed the death of his father as he collapsed behind another man’s plow. Through letters Mickey describes the horror and death as a result of the great famine, further enflaming the emotions and conviction of Dawit to the cause. Mickey is called to return to Addis Ababa to guard the imprisoned deposed leader and later is forced to commit unspeakable deeds at the command of his crazed military leaders. Minor characters, such as the neighboring houseboys, portray the randomness of evil.
There is a reconciliation of sorts at the end of the novel, but thus begins the great migration of the Ethiopian Diaspora fleeing the “Red Terror” as it has become known. The stories are too painful even now for most of that generation to tell.
Over thirty-five years after I left my adopted home, I found myself once again in a small café on Churchill Blvd. Addis had changed dramatically, but still memories of that day of the Coup in 1974 flood my mind as my friend recounts his role as a student revolutionary. He reminds me so much of the young Dawit. Like Dawit, he was good at recruiting fellow activists. Like Dawit, he refused to carry a gun but used words and ideas as weapons. “Who is afraid of death?” he recalls, was their revolutionary chant. They certainly were not afraid. As we sip tea and coffee he laments that the youth of Ethiopia today do not understand the significance of that time period nor do they comprehend the struggles of that generation. I, too, fear that most Americans have no idea of the bravery and idealism that took place in this remote mountainous region on the other side of the world. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze masterfully tells a tale that needs to be told.