Ilir is my cousin. He told me the first time we met. He’s from Kosovo which makes him Albanian, so he’s got a lot of cousins. He called me at 9am in morning and told me today was his birthday. I decided to forego the office and stay in bed with injera-fed diarrhea. At noon he was going to pick me up. I asked him where we were going.
“Don’t you worry. It’s my birthday, and I have a ticket for you,” is all he said and hung up the phone.
Ilir is the son of a famous imam from Kosovo. A man who traveled all over the country convincing his fellow countrymen to forgive each other for clan-style grudges, to lay down the tradition of honor killings in the name of religious redemption. He’s proud to say his Muslim father was also a priest in the Eastern Orthodox church. So he’s been on both sides of the age old conflict between East and West. Some people believed him to be the perfect peacemaker, a portrait of tolerance and love in the Balkans. After he was considered for the Nobel peace prize he moved to Chicago and raised money to build the biggest mosque in town. He died before it was finished.
This is what his son who lives in Ethiopia told me one night over vodka.
Ilir set off to fight in the war at the age of 14, running frantically from place to place in the back of a pickup truck to defend his neighbors and tribe. Ilir was shot seven times during the ten years he spent as an adolescent soldier. The Serbian army eventually caught him, and he spent more than three years in prison where he was repeatedly tortured. The Serbs not only broke every bone in his body, but completely destroyed the framework of his mouth with their boots, sticks and batons. When Ilir was finally released, he had one tooth hanging below his upper lip.
“Come to Kosovo and I will show you my mansion. It’s full of cocaine,” he once told me.
His sister was a druglord in Madrid, and a rival gang of Balkan mafiosos gunned her down a couple years ago. Most of what Ilir told me, I accepted, writing it off as guns, drugs and violence from the depths of a war torn country. I didn’t question any of its validity. As long as we were drinking, the ghosts of war continued to hover over everything he said.
We were cousins because of my relation to Hollywood actress Eliza Dushku: the very name evokes the celebrity joy in the heart of every Albanian! Dushku’s father was from the same Albanian tribe as Ilir and he married my father’s cousin, a woman from the Mormon tribe, which happens to be my tribe. Our tribes were united under holy matrimony somewhere between Utah and Albania. We weren’t blood relatives, but family enough to cruise around Addis Ababa and get wasted whilst telling war stories.
He pulled up with a two seater mini, mini-van reminiscent of the ‘Kontradiction tour bus’ from my brother’s band in Germany: two seats up front and no seats in the back, just open space. A sliding door opens on each side of the diminutive vehicle, which measures not 3 meters long. I jumped in and immediately recalled Andrew’s kontrabajo and touring with Kontradiction through the hills of the Pfalz. There was a husky, blond Finn riding shotgun. Ilir swallowed the steeringwheel with his shoulders and flashed a toothless smile my way. Mino braced himself on the plastic floor and we took off down EU road towards the Tropical Gardens behind Elephant Walk café.
“The Finnish embassy is sponsoring a concert at the Gardens.”
“So who’s playing?”
“What kind of concert starts at noon on a Tuesday?”
“Dunno. We’ll see.”
Upon arrival groups of school children sat in the only shade offered in the afternoon heat. The door was closed and the event’s starting time meant nothing anymore. The children were all deaf. They smiled and looked at each other signing why and how the concert could be delayed. The entire deaf population of Addis Ababa and surrounding areas arrived in school buses to hear the world’s first deaf rapper, who happens to be from Finland and was playing the Ethiopian capital that afternoon.
The waiting dragged on, and hundreds of deaf students, deaf families, hearing parents with deaf children, and deaf parents with hearing children continued to arrive. Suddenly a Habesha in a suit walked up behind me, leaned in inconspicuously and said in a soft voice: “the Crown Prince is waiting.”
He was unmistakably talking to me. “Uh. The crown what?”
“The Crown Prince is here. He’s at present waiting in this car.” He pointed to a car parked across the street.
I looked down at Mino. He was tucked under the same parked bus that I was trying to use for shade. Mino wagged his tongue, nonchalantly panting in the heat. If Mino knew who the Crown Prince was, he didn’t show any sign.
“The Crown Prince is here?”
“Actually by the way the Crown Prince is here,” he repeated.
“Let’s go over and talk to this Crown Prince.”
We walked over to a hatchback red Toyota Corolla with black trim, a car that did not exactly exude royalty. All the windows were down, and the Crown Prince sat in the front seat, his princess sat in the back seat. He was wearing a gray tweed suit and dark sunglasses.
“Tenayistalign, selam new? Enquanda dena meta.”
I shook his hand and promised that the wait would be minimized now that his royal presence has been made, and I smiled at the driver. I told Ilir that we had to get the Crown Prince into the show. We shall wait no longer, I said. Then I went to setting up the majestic arrival of the Crown Prince, grandson of Haile Selassie I, into a sign language concert for the deaf community, featuring the mad rapper Signmark.
“Please tell the Crown Prince to get ready,” I said.
We passed through a crowd of excited eyes, affectionately socializing with no regard to spoken language. At the entrance teenagers waited shoulder to shoulder while the Crown Prince’s driver cleared the way to get the 59-year old man and wife through the tiny door and into the compound. Not far behind, his entourage included me, my dog Mino and my toothless cousin. Suddenly the Imperial House of Ethiopia was also in the house, and we were the ad hoc farenji royal detail!
Only Japan’s royal lineage challenges the antiquity of the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia. The current royal family came to rule Ethiopia in 1270 AD when the Zagwe Dynasty was overthrown by Yekuno Amlak. Amlak (meaning god in Amharic) touted his royal blood ties to the kings of the Axumite Empire that ruled the lower part of the Red Sea between the 1st and 9th centuries AD. In fact, it was the Axumite King Ezana who made Christianity the state religion in 359 AD.
Those Axumite rulers of course are the descendents of the lovechild of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, known in Ethiopia as Queen Makeda. It all began 1000 years before Christ, the day Queen Makeda i.e. Sheba (who was 100% Ethiopian) gave birth to Menelek I, the prodigal son who then brought the Ark of the Covenant back to Ethiopia! (And left a forgery of the original in Solomon’s temple).
But let’s stay on track.
Rastafari godhead Haile Selassie I was Ethiopia’s last emperor (and the Crown Prince’s grandfather). When he ascended to the throne in 1930, he modified his royal title to: His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Elect of God, though not for the sake of brevity. But the 20th century was a difficult one for the sons of Solomon and the Tribe of Judah, and the royal family was soon ousted from power.
One year before the Derg —Ethiopia’s communist government— toppled the monarchy in 1974, Haile Selassie’s son, Amha Selassie, had a stroke and was evacuated to Switzerland. The following year, the Solomonic gang went into exile, and the Derg disposed of Haile Selassie I —believed to be poisoned. The Derg tried to put Amha Selassie on the throne, but the stubborn son never accepted his father’s dethronement. In 1975, the Derg abolished the monarchy altogether and imprisoned all remaining members of the Imperial House residing in Ethiopia.
Not until 1989, did Amha Selassie I accept the crown, albeit exiled in London. He and his empress later moved to Virginia where the Ethiopian Diaspora was growing rapidly. When the Derg was eventually replaced by the current government in 1991, the latter still refused the family’s calls for a monarchial restoration. Then the Emperor, son of Haile Selassie I, died in 1997 and finally returned to Ethiopia in a noble coffin. And that’s when the man standing before me, Zera Yacob Amha Selassie became the Crown Prince.
Mino walked over to sniff the Crown Prince’s shoes. Perhaps Mino can smell royalty and a whiff of dusty robes and jewel laden crowns. Mino followed his nose back to a time when the Ethiopian Emperor rode a stately horse under elaborately decorated umbrellas with his rifle on one side, sword on the other. In fact, it was Haile Selassie’s uncle Menelek II, who repelled advancing Italian forces in 1896 in the mountains of Adwa, the first time an all-African army defeated a European colonial power. Menelek II donned lion’s skins and lead hunting expeditions into the mountains around Addis Ababa, the capital city he founded.
That’s the story of the fall of the Imperial House in Ethiopia. Today, the Crown Prince is the highest ranking member, lives in Addis Ababa and runs around town in a Toyota Corolla with a crooked bumper, rusty wheel wells and dented body: the consummate deterioration of Africa’s only monarchial family.
TALK TO THE HAND
Once we were inside the venue, the staff passed out purple, yellow and red t-shirts emblazoned with a handprint logo
and the words ‘Talk to the Hand – Signmark World Tour’. There was a huge space in front of the stage, and the Crown Prince retired to shady spot with a soda and looked princely, quietly waiting for Signmark and the barrage of noise of a sign language rap concert.
The music still hadn’t started, but I was enjoying the sunny, highland afternoon. I looked over to check on the Crown Prince, and he was gone. Over 2,000 deaf students filled the area and made a run on the t-shirt bag. Speechless chaos ensued, and the crowd suddenly chased down the guy with the plastic bag full of t-shirts. He ran and jumped over a few chairs and ducked under a cordoned-off tent. It was as if the Crown Prince’s departure had unleashed an impulse of desperation among Ethiopian children.
Once I learned to sign are you deaf? things went better and everybody needed to know why Mino ended up on their school fieldtrip. I couldn’t begin to explain that my cousin from Kosovo had tickets through his Finnish wife, who works for the UN…
Maria met Ilir in Kosovo while on a UN peacekeeping mission. She worked for his release from a Serbian prison camp. Two years later she moved to Ethiopia and brought her husband with her. Ilir still had one tooth when he arrived. Eating steak, chocolate and apples was out of the question. Later, under the UN’s generous dental care program, Ilir traveled back to Helsinki to fill his mouth with teeth again. I remember the day he came back to Addis with his new grill and all the pain and suffering caused by the war seemed subdued and vanquished, at least for the few moments we talked about his new teeth.
After a few words from the Finnish Foreign Minister, it was time to Talk to the Hand with Signmark. As the crowd became more and more anxious due to a three hour delay, signs of anxiety rolled through the deaf multitude until the music started. Common misperception says deaf people can’t hear anything when in fact hard hitting bass and high pitched trebles attack tiny eardrums and reverberate through ear canals into the netherside of the deaf man’s brain. It’s no wonder why deaf people love techno so much.
Signmark is 32 years old and was born in Helsinki, Finland. Born to deaf parents, he began signing Christmas carols with his hearing grandmother on the piano. By signing the carols, his deaf parents could participate and all three generations were united through music and Signmark’s unique ability to interpret and lay sign language over music.
Since Signmark was born into a signing family, an innate love for sign language and the art of expression has always fascinated him. It wasn’t until 2006, with the support of his family and friends, he put out the world’s first ever sign language rap DVD.
After almost winning the Eurovision Song Contest, he became the first deaf artist to ever sign with a major record label. He released his hot single Speakerbox in September 2009 and his first full length album in 2010. A world tour later, he and his mouthpiece, MC Brandon, simultaneously rhyme and sign music sending the message that “society should not treat the deaf as handicapped people, but as a linguistic minority with their own culture, community, history and heritage!”damn right we can’t hear, But I don’t care
we ain’t disabled here, I use sign language yeah
we got our own language yeah, Proud of that I am
we got our own culture yeah, I’m bi-cultured here
we got our own history yeah, I’m part of history
we got our own society, this is my community
At the end of every song all the hands go into the air shaking back and forth as a message of applause. In between songs, Signmark talks to the crowd and tells his story, the power of language and infinite possibilities of the mind. Perhaps I was one of few people annoyed by the actual volume of the music but I stayed until the end of the concert silently cheering with my hands for the Finnish superstar.
Once Signmark had left his mark, I searched for Ilir who had disappeared in the same fashion as the Crown Prince. I walked out, and his rented mini-van was gone. Maybe my cousin didn’t enjoy the deaf rapper as much as I did, and I had to find my own way home. The concert continued in the gardens, and Mino ran across the street to add his fragrance to a hubcap. We walked home, and I thought about distant relatives, royal bloodlines, the commonalities of language, and the future of my bowels in Africa.