by Edmund P. Murray
Crown Publishers, 1973
from $1.98 for hardcover
Reviewed by John Coyne (Addis Ababa 1962–64)
THE TOWN OF KULUBI lies south of Dire Dawa in the Oromia Area of Ethiopia. It is famous for its church, St. Gabriel, which is the site of a massive twice-yearly pilgrimages, on July 26 and December 28, that draws thousands to this mountain town. The present church was erected in 1962 by Emperor Haile Selassie, replacing one built by his father, Ras Makonnen. That church had been erected to celebrate the Ethiopian victory in the Battle of Adwa.
Some PCVs — not many my guess — have been on this brutal pilgrimage when they were in-country, and one American, not a PCV, Edmund P. Murray, wrote a novel about Kulubi, published in 1973 by Crown.
Murray, who at various times in his career was a media adviser to the Iranian military during the Islamic revolution (1978–79) when the Shah fell, and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, and also worked as a journalist and contract CIA agent in Iran, Europe and the Middle East, as well as many places in Africa, including Ethiopia, where he was an adviser to the Ministry of Information for seven years. His personal story, I think, is much more interesting than his novel, which I first read in 1973, shortly after its publication. So, let’s begin with the author, not his novel.
I interviewed Edmund Murray on January 31, 2007. He was back in the U.S., retired, and living in New Jersey. He had been in Ethiopia, he told me, from July 1965 to September 1971, and then again from December 1971 to February 1972. He was one of five advisers to the Ethiopian government financed by USAID and under contract with RTV International. The head of their team was Dr. Sydney Head. My guess is that they were all CIA agents.
Murray said he got to Ethiopia, the source of his future novel, by chance, and that is an intriguing story for all of us who were PCVs in-country and wondering about other Americans in Addis Ababa, thinking “who are they and what are they doing here?”
Murray told me he had been working as a journalist in Washington, D.C., writing about labor issues, when one day in 1964 he spotted a help wanted advertisement in Editor & Publisher magazine that intrigued him. It was a job for a journalist to work in Africa. “I was always interested in Africa, so I answered the ad,” he told me. It was only when he was hired, and when he was boarding a plane for Addis Ababa, that he was approached and told his real job wasn’t quite the one he applied for in the ad. “I was informed that I had been hired by the CIA. I felt like I was being shanghaied. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Hard to believe that account? Yes, I would say so.
Murray continued to explain why he even went to Ethiopia. “I didn’t have a choice. My wife and I had both quit our jobs in Washington. We had no place to live. Even though we went with misgivings, we went. Luckily, the journalism job was real, but I didn’t expect the other side.” The other side was spying on Ethiopia for the CIA.
Murray was hired on a two-year contract. He would stay in Addis Ababa seven years. “I liked Ethiopia a lot,” he simply stated, explaining himself. His job in Addis was not so much journalism, but working for Haile Selassie’s government. “As we know, the media was controlled by the government. I worked with the Minister of Information; we did reports for Selassie. I got on well with the Emperor. He even gave me a medal.”
While receiving a medal for his fine work, he was also reporting to the CIA what he knew about the Empire. “I did have to keep my ears and eyes open,” Murray admitted. “Although there was no real apparent danger, you never knew.”
Besides working for the Ethiopian government, and spying for the CIA, Edmund was also writing his novel about Ethiopia, Kulubi.
When he finished it, he decided it was time to leave the Horn of Africa.
“I had an Ethiopian friend who told me that if anyone stays in Ethiopia for seven years, then they never want to leave. It was seven years, but I felt it was time for me to leave.” Three years after Murray left Addis, the “creeping coup” took place and the Emperor was overthrown. “Haile Selassie was killed, as were 50 people who I knew very well,” Murray recalled. “Also killed was my good friend who told me I would never leave Ethiopia.” Murray never returned to Ethiopia. When the regime changed, and the Derg was defeated he might have, but it was too late. He died in October of 2007, less than a year after I interviewed him about his Ethiopian novel.
In our last conversation, I also asked him where he had lived in Addis and he recalled, “We lived first in a house off the Jimma Road, then near the University, but for most of our stay we lived in an old chika bet next to the British Embassy. Also, for about six months, we moved down to Dire Dawa when I started working on Kulubi.”
Kulubi was Murray’s second novel. The Passion Players, set in Texas, was first (1968), then The Peregrine Spy, set in Iran during the Islamic revolution was published in 2004.
Now about the book
Kulubi tells the story of a wide variety of men and women, ranging from devout pilgrims to curious tourists, from a penniless peasant to Emperor Haile Selassie. Oh, there is also mention of several PCVs on this sacred pilgrimage.
The main characters include an Ethiopian journalist, Tesfaye Tessema, an American couple, Harry and Julie Comfort, and an artist, Baria Medhane Alem. All of them, plus tens of thousands of others, have undertaken the journey to the famed “miracle” church of the Archangel Gabriel at Kulubi, which is (if you haven’t been there) a small mountains village above Harar and Dire Dawa.
In many ways, the novel is a modern Canterbury Tales. It takes this pilgrimage to introduce a set of characters from America and Ethiopia, and tell their intertwined tales. It is a “talky” novel and not much happens until the end.
I am not sure the novel would hold much interest for readers who haven’t been to Ethiopia, who don’t come to the story with an understanding of what goes on in country. Murray assumes that the reader is prepared for the nuances of Ethiopia, not only the political situation, but the tribal, and the social motif of the society.
For example, within the novel there is the Emperor himself seeking support from the masses — this is set in 1969 — the Crown Prince is trying to identify his role in life, a mad peasant is trying to lead his ox to the church, a famous madam and her friend who is waiting for a chance to betray her, and a half dozen other “characters,” all of whom are familiar to faranjoch who once had the good fortune to live in the land of thirteen months of sunshine and tried to make sense of the place and our role in it.
The focus of the novel is the couple, Harry and Julie Comfort, two quintessential Ugly Americans, with a liberal slant: rich, oblivious, and self-centered. Harry Comfort is struggling with his beliefs in God and seeking answers on this journey; his shill and demanding wife Julie is unhappy in her marriage and carrying on a dangerous liaison with Tesfaye Tessema, a brilliant journalist caught between his desire for his country’s modernization and his reverence for the old Amharic culture, who is sitting in the backseat of a Land Rover on this journey. Also in the back seat is Baria Medane Alem. We are given no reason to believe the claim that Baria is a good friend. In fact, I can’t figure out why she is in the vehicle, let alone the novel.
As the pilgrims cross the country from the Highlands to Kulubi, they encounter hundreds of others coming to fulfill their silent — their vow to Saint Gabriel— including the aforementioned mad peasant with his ox, and Haile Selassie himself who is trying to hold his Empire together as he pushes it forward modernization.
Add to these pilgrims of disparate backgrounds, conflicting values and dissimilar goals, you have a mix of personalities and events all culminating at Saint Gabriel and the feast of Kulubi.
It is a long novel, over 500 pages, and the pace is slow and even tortuous throughout, especially parts 1, “The Road to Kulubi,” and 2, “Let Us Crucify Our Minds.” The pace does pick up in part 3 and suspense is built and resolved as we learn of the various fates awaiting the characters.
It is not a book for everyone, but it is for those of us trying to understand the country, told from a man who clearly loved Ethiopia. But perhaps Murray said it best about what Ethiopia needs in his dedication of the novel. He writes:
The book is dedicated to all the Ethiopian authors who might have written it if such books could be published in their beautiful, sad country.
That is what we are seeing today, not only books by Ethiopians about their country, but also films, music and art.
It’s a new day. Ethiopians don’t need faranjoch to tell their own story.
John Coyne is co-founder (with Marian Haley Beil [Debre Berhan 1962–64]) of the newsletter Peace Corps Writers and Readers and now the blog http://peacecorpsworldwide.org. He has published 26 novels, non-fiction and collections on a variety of topics. Long Ago and Far Away is his novel partially set in Ethiopia.
End of Issue 24 — July 2016