by Tahir Shah
Note: I checked this book out of the Spokane Public Library.
The traveler: The author is descended from Afghan nobility and has peculiar credentials for undertaking an H.- Rider- Haggard-like quest: his father and grandfather both went in search of the legendary King Solomon’s Mines. Now it is the author’s turn. He follows ancient clues to a land where gold is close to the surface and the illegal gold mining trade is still booming. Ethiopia. Or as Solomon would have known it: Abyssinia.
The guide: Along the way he acquires a “fixer”, Samson the taxi-driver who serves as translator and guide. Samson is a devout Christian and therefore familiar with the tantalizing Bible stories of gold coming out of “Opher”. As an Ethiopian, even though the present anti-royal regime suppresses the teaching of history, Samson knows the royal legend. How King Solomon and Queen Makeda (of Sheba) conceived a child, and how this child, Menelik 1, started the dynasty which used to rule his country.
The relationship between Samson and Tahir Shah is similar to that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. There are cultural misunderstandings and religious ones (Shah is a non-practicing Muslim), that are compounded when Bahru joins the group. He is a wild and reckless driver from Somalia; often drunk, frequently superstitious. He tries to hit meandering sheep with his Jeep to relieve the monotony of the road, and when he feels that “his luck has run out”, he flat refuses to drive anymore. Samson, meanwhile, sees the Devil everywhere. Samson’s proudest moment is when he and Shah pretend to be missionaries in order to gain access to a haunted mountain range known as Sheba’s Breasts.
- Shah himself is surprised to find that while he thinks of Ethiopia as a vast desert populated with starving people (think Live Aid, 1985), much of the country is green and lush. Maize and teff seem to grow in abundance.
- Ethiopia runs on the Gregorian calendar, and their year has 13 months. They are seven years behind the Julian calendar (used by the West). Unsold calendars from 2015 will be shipped to Ethiopia where it is currently 2008. The calendars will then sit in storage for seven years, until it becomes 2015 in Ethiopia and they can be sold there. Wild!
- Many Ethiopians are as poor as we think, possessing nothing more than some old clothes, a tin shack, a pot and a bucket, yet rich seams of gold run through their country. Seams as close to the surface as one yard down.
- Rural Ethiopians are very superstitious. In the villages they believe that if you don’t feed the wild hyenas, they will come and eat your children. There is one man in Harar whose sole job is feeding these hyenas fresh beef every night. He gets as many as 60 customers! And when Shah asks how Solomon might have transported his gold from the mines to his home country, he is frequently told “with his army of jinn (genies), of course.”
Shah travels all over the country, and meets all sorts of people: Gold miners, prostitutes, monks in a mountaintop monastery that don’t allow women–not even female animals. He meets the last remaining Beta Israeli (Jew) in Gondar, goes into a Muslim sanctuary normally forbidden to tourists, and chases the Devil with his faithful Christian servant Samson. He even gets a peep at the place where the Arc of the Covenant is stored. Ethiopians believe the Arc was brought to their country from Jerusalem along with large gold crosses and ancient crowns.
He learns that people of Amharic descent are thought to be kind and generous, like the jailor who launders his prisoner’s clothes and cooks them special meals. That women from Tirgray are thought exceptionally beautiful. He already knows that charity is a central pillar of Islam, as exemplified by the camel train leader who weeps at his camel’s death then gives some of the meat to beggars. Still, the Ethiopian people have something very special about them.
What Isn’t Mentioned
The book I read for this blog on Eritrea mentions the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selaisse, and how he was buried upside down beneath his lavatory bowl by the victorious (and vicious) dictator Mengistu. (Haile Selaisse was no saint, either.) This book doesn’t mention the sore spot of Eritrea’s defection, but does mention the difficulty Ethiopians are having in getting Haile Selaisse buried properly.
The difficulty? The Ras Tafarians have decided that the Emperor is God, and since God can’t die, they won’t contribute any money for a re-burial/funeral.
Well-written, thoughtful, and culturally-sensitive. Five stars in a desert tent at night, as part of a camel train ferrying salt blocks for sale!
PS–the movie King Solomon’s Mines was apparently filmed in Ruanda.