Blogger’s Note: In remembrance of & in commemorating the late Dr. Haddis Alemayehu’s 103rd birthday that was observed two weeks ago, I have posted here the biographical sketch that I had compiled from various sources & published in ‘Ethiopian Calendar with Biographies’ 2003E.C. (2010/11G.C.) edition.
Three years ago in the same week I had the honor of attending the 100th anniversary celebration of Dr. Haddis’s birthday at Howard University auditorium organized by Ato Assefa Gebremariam Tessema and family members of the resistance fighter, respected model civil servant & beloved writer of Amharic classic novel Fiqir Iske Meqabir. I remember very well that there were excellent presentation by Dr. Girma Abebe a former diplomat & colleague of Dr. Haddis Alemayehu who served at the Ethiopian mission to UN office in New York. I also remember the serious & valuable papers presented at the symposium by admirers of his literary works including Ato Assefa GMT, Tewodros Abebe, Dr. Alem Habtu, Liku Taye, Dr. Ahmed Moen, Samuel Alemayehu, Tegegne Mogus, and Dr. Taddele Gebrehiwot (on line). Most of these speeches & papers were in Amharic. I have some of the papers in my collection and it would have been wonderful to post them here as well. Unfortunately, since this blog do not display non-latin script fonts, even if I post them what you see would be unrecognizable gibberish. Anyone interested can contact me offline and I can send them as an attachment to e-mails. I have also provided a link to the audiorecordings of Wegayehu Negatu’s reading of the classic Amharic novel Fiqir Iske Meqabir which is a classic by itself. More in the near future about how this recording was smuggled out of Ethiopia Radio Service and ended up on YouTube.
Haddis Alemayehu 1902- 1996 E.C. (1909-2003)
Patriot of Italo-Ethiopian War, Diplomat-Minister and writer of classic Amharic novel
Haddis Alemayehu was a humble patriot who has served his country and enriched the lives of his fellow Ethiopians in diverse ways. Not only has he fought for his country at the frontline against Italian occupation, he has also defended Ethiopia’s interests through remarkable diplomacy after the war. He wrote the first masterpiece of Ethiopian literature Fiqir Iske Meqabir (“Love Unto Grave”). He also made efforts toward cultivating the minds of young Ethiopians through education when he was a top official of Ministry of Education.
Haddis Alemayehu was born on Tikimt 7, 1902 E.C. (15th October 1909 G.C) in the Indodam Kidane Mehret, a village not far from Debre Markos, capital of Gojam Province. He was the son of an Orthodox priest, Abba (Father) Alemayehu Solomon, and his wife Woizero Desta Alemu. Haddis embarked on religious education from a very young age. As he grew older, he studied at the renowned Gojjam monasteries of Debre Elias, Debre Worq, and Dima. Later, he moved to Addis Ababa and enrolled at the Swedish Mission, and then at Taffari Makonnen School for further studies. Upon graduation, he took up a post as a teacher.
In the 1930s, Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia and the young patriotic Haddis went to the war front to defend his country. He joined the freedom fighters under the leadership of Ras Imru Haile Selassie. Vigorously fighting the Italians on many fronts, he was caught by the Italians and sent to Italy where he was imprisoned along with Ras Imru. He stayed there for 7 years and 8 months. Although the fascist troops were defeated and thrown out of Ethiopia in 1941, Haddis did not return to Ethiopia until a year later. Since his return Haddis was assigned to a number of official posts. After brief stints In the Department of Press and Propaganda and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he became the Ethiopian consul in Jerusalem (1945-1946) where he stayed for about two years there. There he met and married Kibebe-Tsehay Belay, who had been brought up in Jerusalem.
Haddis then served as a delegate to the InternationalTelecommunications Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey (1946) & as First Secretary in the Ethiopian Mission in Washington, D.C. He attended the Assembly of the United Nations in its formative years as member of Ethiopia’s delegation and then served as ambassador to the United Nations (1946-1950). His next assignment was at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1950-1960), as a director general. Between the 1956-1960, Haddis servedas Ethiopia’s representative to the UN. Afterwards, in 1961 (1953 E.C.), he was appointed Vice-Minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Shortly after, he was transferred to the Ministry of Education where he was a top official. Although Haddis served at a Ministerial level, it was Emperor Haile-Selassie who was known officially as Minister of Education.
Haddis was back to diplomacy, when he was sent to London as the Ambassador to Britain in 1961. He stayed there until he was recalled to Ethiopia in 1966. After his recall, Haddis, who was not in good health, preferred not to reenter government service. Reluctantly, he agreed to become minister of planning and development, and later served as Senator (1968-1974).
During the first two years of the Dergue regime, Haddis served as a member of the “advisory body” that had been created to replace the dissolved parliament. However he declined Dergue’s offer to become prime minister, thus removing himself from any meaningful role in government. Besides his official responsibilities, he was known for writing great Amharic literary works such as ‘YeAbeshana YeWedehuala Gabicha (1948 E.C.) “Teret, Teret YeMeseret (1948E.C.) etc. Haddis Alemayehu became a prominent author when he wrote his most famous novel Fiqir Iske Meqabir (Love Unto Grave) in 1958 E.C which has become a classic Amharic novel and which deals with love across the social class divide of feudal Ethiopia. He also wrote Wonjelegnaw Dagna (The Guilty Judge) in 1974 E.C. and other works. Haddis Alemayehu was awarded the Haile Selassie Trust Prize Medal, and the Gold Mercury Medal for his contribution to Ethiopian literature. He also received an honorary Doctorate degree from Addis Ababa University. On Saturday, Hidar 26, 1996 E.C. (6th December 2003) Haddis Alemayehu passed away in Addis Ababa, and was buried at Holy Trinity Cathedral. He was 94 years old. Haddis Alemayehu left a legacy of a solid work and an immense contribution that spans over six decades.
This biographical sketch is compiled from various sources most notably from the following: Remembering Haddis Alemayehu. [By] Arefe in Addis Journal – http://arefe.wordpress.com/2008/10/17/remembering-haddis-alemayehu/ (accessed 08/21/2009) Hadis Alemayehu: A patriot, diplomat and father of modern Ethiopian literature. 6/14/2002. http://www.esai.org/myESAi/viewtopic-t-289.html (accessed 08/21/2009)
Haddis Alemayehu’s Versatile Personality
By Fitsum G.
Just a few weeks ago, the late Haddis Alemayehu’s 95th birthday was observed, posthumously. Academics, scholars, lecturers, authors as well as literary critics were among the people who partook in the occasion that almost coincided with the first commemoration of his death. During the tribute, his works as teacher, diplomat, thinker and author were more or less discussed, placed in an Ethiopian context. Evaluated from the point of view of the person’s exceptionally long life and his precious contribution in the spheres of Ethiopian politics, literature, culture and education, as a whole.
Certainly, Haddis Alemayehu is a household name to the educated. But his name is also well known among those who even without having had the chance to go to school, had nevertheless got the occasion to listen to the radio narration of his famous masterpiece: Fikir Eske Mekabir (Love Until the Grave). (This classic tragedy is currently being narrated nationwide on Radio Ethiopia). In fact, this narration is being broadcast for the third time, as it had been aired the first time, during the Derg regime, when it was recorded for the popular radio program called “Kemetsahifit Alem”, (The World of Books) by the renowned Artist Wegayehu Nigatu. (I remember the author’s admiration for Wegayehu, the narrator, for ‘giving life to the characters in the story’. Haddis payed tribute to the exceptional artistic skills of the narrator.) The novel was again on air when the author celebrated his 85th birthday, while the current must be a tribute to the author’s passing away. A deserved tribute.
Although ‘Fikir Eske Mekabir’ is the most celebrated of the books written by Dr. Haddis, he has written two other long novels after this, as part of a trilogy covering different generations of Ethiopian life. ‘Yelmizhat’, (Nightmare) and ‘Wonjelegnaw Dagna’, (The Criminal Judge) also reflect Ethiopian society, witnessing to the exceptional pen of the author, not only as a creator and narrator of stories with vivid and palatable language, but also intensity, lucidity and honesty that you rarely encounter in Amharic books. They testify to the author’s exceptional qualities as a keen observer of mores and costumes, with extraordinary skills of externalizing and interpreting them, placed in a certain Ethiopian time frame.
Beside these novels, Haddis has also written plays and essays based on Ethiopian socio-political realities, mirroring Ethiopian life with pondered suggestions of how to effect changes. That is where Haddis poses as a real thinker. In these dissertations, the writer has tried to share with his compatriots his vision of a new and developed Ethiopia. These rotated around how to transform Ethiopian society, based on a valid and compatible educational policy and an updated system of government, (two specific areas in which he was closely involved in his public service). Haddis has also written a sort of autobiographical essay (Tizita) recollecting the ordeal he underwent while surviving in exile in Fascist Italy, describing the hardship his generation had to pass through.
Be that as it may, in all Haddis’s works, his patriotic personality and experience emerge markedly. Haddis begins writing at an early age, while still at school, showing talent, imagination and skills. His creation has always been critical of the system in vigour, and dreams of changes. Expressing his mind not only with sincerity, but also great courage, he seems not to bother about whom he could irritate, (most importantly the powerful advocates of the system, the beneficiaries of the system), and perhaps fall into trouble. Even if the then monarch did not feel involved in the problems raised, (as he too considered himself as an agent of advancement, with a clear vision, trying to change the retrograde society then in vogue), there were nevertheless others in the Imperial Court or adjacent who might have misunderstood the ideas of Haddis and worked to efface him, along with his ideas. In fact, many were surprised to see that the emperor himself acknowledged the excellence of his work, by awarding him with his maximum award for literature for ‘Fikir Eske Mekabir’. Haddis was also awarded the ‘Golden Mercury’ for literature, beside a lifetime achievement Doctorate Degree from Addis Ababa University (along with Dr. Kebede Michael, the other celebrated Ethiopian literary giant every body recalls with fondness).
Many agree that Fikir Eske Mekabir is more than a novel. Seriously critical of the whole socio-political, legal and customary system of traditional Ethiopia, it meticulously goes through all the various social mores (family, marriage, mourning, duels, tenancy, celebrations, feasts, religion, superstitions…) in a clear perspective of change, then unimaginable. Haddis highlights the sort of injustice that reigned in the land tenure system, the hierarchies that thrived with the philosophy and social background behind them. The book even dwells on tax imposition, the corvee etc by the various landlords and chieftains on the poor tenants, all part and parcel of a firmly established system that hailed from ancestors.
What is even more alarming was his criticism of the Ethiopian clergy, a taboo. He calls on such venerated establishment as the Church to expose the negative facets at various junctures in the narration. And for such courage and lucidity, along with a truly fascinating suspense-filled love story, between a member of the nobility and one of the wretched, the novel received acclamation as the best ever in its genre.
Haddis Alemayehu and Fikir Eske Mekabir are hence, in many ways, inseparable and unforgettable. If any one wants to talk about Haddis, one cannot exclude Fikir Eske Mekabir and vice-versa. But as Haddis has written seven other books as well, it is astonishing that the impact of this adored tragic love story has ended up diminishing the importance and validity of the others. However, given the timing and originality of the other works, they should have had more attention, like for instance the book on ‘education’, on ‘why is Ethiopia not liberated from dire poverty’, or ‘what kind of government does Ethiopia need?’
In these works, a number of visionary proposals have been made, while going deep in the analysis of the facts on the ground, supported by the author’s rich experience and exposure to other cultures/systems. His exposure to education sector, his high position in government and his posting as diplomatic envoy had enriched his intellect, creating the occasions to ponder at length.
Describing his life and thoughts, career and achievements, the academics who participated at the celebrations of the author’s posthumous birthday, paid tribute to the modest personality Haddis was endowed with. They said throughout his long life, Haddis Alemayehu had lived a very active and productive life. Born in the former Governerate-General of Gojjiam, (today the Amhara National Regional State) in a small village called Endodam Kidane Mihret in 1909, the young Haddis was brought up in a relatively well off family, blessed with all the attention a child of his age would need, including the exceptional attention of a grand father, (as his father was away in the far south on a mission). He was conferred with high level traditional education, (in Ge’ez, the origin of Amharic language, and clerical education, kenie, poetry, zemarie, hymns, etc) that was to be the background and launching pad to an outstanding literary personality. Until his early adolescence, he learned everything that was available at that level in that area, and growing bigger, his educational ambition grew correspondingly, eventually leading him to Addis. Here, he was fortunate enough to attend a Swedish Mission and then the illustrious Tafari Makonnen School.
In these two modern institutions, much of his early mind was shaped. His passion for literature was evident. In fact, it was here that he wrote his first play where the Emperor himself, along with his entire entourage came to watch, showering him with admiration. He later served as a teacher, and when the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia disrupted every beginning of the positive activities in the country, Haddis’s educational life and career likewise had to suffer an abrupt halt. Like many of his friends and colleagues, he as well had to join the then Resistance Movement, symbol of Ethiopians’ fight for independence and sovereignty. Every one had to combat against the Fascist occupation of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s troops. It was in this struggle that the young Haddis was subjected to cruel deportation into an island in southern Italy, along with two of his peers, Ras Imiru Haile Selassie and Lij Yilma Deressa, both of whom were close relatives of the Emperor, and destined to be protagonists in the post-occupation Ethiopian political scenario.
When the Fascist forces were finally driven out of Ethiopia, after five years, Haddis was still in prison in Panza and Lipari islands, in Italy, and it was with the efforts of the Emperor that he and his two friends were freed before joining the new Ethiopian establishment. Soon, Haddis was to be recruited in the Ministry of Information and later on in the Foreign Ministry, serving at progressively higher and higher positions. In the diplomatic world, Haddis is recalled for his remarkable contributions, including the bringing about the seat of the Economic Commission for Africa to Addis, (despite the resistance of several hierarchies of the Ethiopian government who hated the closeness of foreigners in their land). He also served as Ethiopian ambassador in the US and Britain, served as Consul and First Secretary in Israel (where he met and married his spouse, Wro Kibebe-Tsehai Belay), and Washington DC, as a long time Ethiopian envoy and representative (where he conceived Fikir Eske Mekabir). Back in Ethiopia, among others, he served as Governor of his original home region, Gojjam, and Minister of Posts, and State Minister of Foreign Affairs in Aklilu Habte Wolde’s cabinet, before retiring as Senator.
During his decades long services, Haddis was always praised for his humbleness, integrity and sincerity, posing as an epitome for others. Overall, his modesty and far sight were unsurpassed. And he always longed for better administration, for changes that could bring Ethiopia into the modern era. But he did not opt for the total uprooting of the Ethiopian traditional culture, because he envisioned a system that could accommodate both, the modern and traditional with a balance of the positive from each. He thought Ethiopians should not be thought only Western culture, but first and foremost theirs, and then proceed to the modern one, to the extent compatible. Ethiopians should not see themselves from the stand point of the West, he argued. That was a mistake. They should rather prospect internal solutions for their problems without negating the advances of science and technology. Education, he wrote in “Education and the Significance of Schools”, should be imparted to children very carefully, especially at the earliest stages, with compatibility of our values by stages: the family, schools, and the society at large. And in all his works, speeches and interviews, Haddis advocated openly innovative thoughts. He was a thinker, first and foremost. He cherished a free and united Ethiopia for eternity. Certainly, his works will remain a valid testimony to his mind, and Ethiopians will always remember him for that. And that is what academics such as Dr Fekade Azeze of AAU, Dr Yonas Admassu and Ato Asfaw Damte did underline during the memorabilia of Haddis.
The scholars pointed that the kind of attention given to our literary giants leaves a lot to be desired, let alone cherish the hope to value and encourage the smaller talents. We need to recognize and support our authors and writers, valuing our stories, our plays, our dramas. We need to give them the deserved place in our life, in our society, because they are not creations out of the blue, but a reflection of our society. They serve us as a mirror to observe and assess ourselves. As echos, as reflections, they measure our society, our growth, our development, shortcomings and strengths, level of education, maturity. Hence, they need focus and encouragement, support.
The excessive attention being given to foreign culture, music, films, books, art, paintings etc and our consuming, inhaling of these diminishes, if not denigrate, in the long run, our own values. It finally ends up by creating a sort of vacuum in our identity, engulfing us, overwhelming us. Identifying ourselves totally with alien cultures and mores, kills our own, swamping it. This is obviously something absolutely unacceptable. A people without identity, without culture would not be a people at all, and there can be no corresponding country without people. That is why the words of Professor Haile Gerima, director and producer of films are unforgettable: “We need to make our own films, we need to narrate our own stories, we need to value our own culture and identity, without denigrating that of others. Every one can live glorifying one’s identity, but without impacting negatively on others. There could be a spirit of interchangeability of culture, mutual tolerance and understanding, and not imposition of one on others. And in a society such as ours, where there are a plethora of ethnicities, cultures, languages and creeds, such mutual exchange and acceptance is fundamental for our need to build a common and solid country.” Haile’s words are indeed true.
Similarly, Haddis was a true Ethiopianist, and advocated for positive, forward looking change. He had lived long enough outside Ethiopia, especially in the advanced world, but was never tempted to barter his fundamental identity for an alien one. He just longed for the betterment of his land without denying his fundamental local culture and values. That is what can be considered as the legacy of Haddis Alemayehu, a true teacher, a thinker, a patriot, diplomat, administrator and literary giant all in one. Celebrating the works and ideas of Haddis, we need to look with one eye at the future of our current generation of writers, authors and literary talents, while with the other, work and try to change for the advancement of Ethiopian values, culture and tradition . Building monuments or just observing yearly anniversaries can not suffice to contribute to the growth of our home made authors or literature. To add to such efforts and contributions, as has done the late Haddis Alemayehu, to capitalize on them, can pave one extra step towards our cherished goal of societal development.