Why was Ethiopia so important to Italy
"An alarming number of people are proud of Mussolini, but nobody talks about Ethiopia"
The colonial legacy continues wherever history is suppressed: The writer Maaza Mengiste on the role of women in the fight against fascism and on false monuments.
From Silvia SüessMail to author (interview) and Florian Bachmann (photo)
WOZ: Maaza Mengiste, your two novels each revolve around historically decisive moments in Ethiopia: your new book, “The Shadow King”, is set in 1935, when fascist Italy conquered and colonized Ethiopia, your first work, “Under the eyes of the lion”, tells of the 1974 revolution when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown. Why did you choose these years?
Maaza Mengiste: I've always had an interest in the 1974 revolution as it affected the lives of many in my family. Like many other Ethiopians, my family left their country because of the revolution. But my parents never wanted to talk about what happened during the revolution. I had memories and grew up with a lot of questions that nobody answered. You were the motivation for my research.
What kind of questions were those?
I've always been interested in what history can tell us about ourselves. The questions were: How did I get here? How did I become who I am? And more generally: How did we become the people we are? Why is our present the way it is? For my books, I looked back into the history of Ethiopia to answer these questions.
And what did you find out?
I quickly realized that history and historiography are competitive terrain. We still think history is what is in a history book, that it is neutral and fact-based. We see the old college professor before us, a white, white-haired, old man. And because he looks the way he looks and because we are told that we can trust people who look like him because they are authorities, we believe what he is saying is true.
But history is a series of narratives, written by people with personal intentions and tendencies, they make mistakes, withhold things ... That is why history is always that which is left out, concealed and erased. As a writer, I wanted to look for all these different pieces of the puzzle and put them together into a whole.
What exactly did this research look like in “The Shadow King”, your new novel?
I spoke to survivors and descendants of contemporary witnesses and did research on site and in various archives. I realized very quickly that the archives had already been censored by the fascists: the articles in the newspapers from the 1930s, the telegrams, the photos that were taken back then - everything. In addition, the story in the archives is a story that was written by men for themselves. Women appear only as lovers or as cooking and cleaning helpers. We see war as something male - and yet women have always been involved. Women have always written about it, for centuries, millennia ... But their stories have continually erased.
In “The Shadow King” you tell of the women who fought as soldiers against the Italian fascists in 1935. They impressively describe how the protagonists Hirut and Aster, as women fighting, are exposed to violence from all sides.
The first thing the enemy does when invading foreign territory is to attack women. With the conquest of her body, the enemy is also conquered. In Ethiopia after 1935 no one spoke about what had happened, but you saw all the children who were half Italian. Like all soldiers, Hirut and Aster not only have to fear the enemy on the other side of the battlefield, but also the soldiers from their own troops. Because even as soldiers, they are treated as women and thus as second class. So they are also waging a fight against patriarchy - and it's always about their bodies.
In fact, there were many women soldiers in Ethiopia in 1935, but little is known about them.
To this day, Italians don't talk about fighting women and shooting at them - that wouldn't fit their self-image. Plus, it would be a shame they lost the war against women. I have not found any photos of women soldiers in any Italian archive. If pictures of them have not been passed down, how should one find out about them? The Italians did not want to photograph female fighters, but naked women - the African woman as a sexualized object, that is the image they passed down.
The power of photography plays an important role in your book: the protagonist Ettore is an Italian soldier who photographs the war and the murdered on behalf of the fascist general.
The camera is a weapon that is - not only, but also - extremely important in war: whoever has the camera decides which images remain in the collective memory. The camera has always been used against people who have been colonized. Europeans never took photos in Africa to show that people lived here too. It was always about emphasizing the otherness. By the way, it is still like this today: The European tourist takes photos of the African hut to show that, compared to his own house, it is not a good place to live. Or he surrounds himself with a group of colorfully dressed Masai to show that he is the normal in the midst of the different, the "strangers". It's always about creating that contrast. These photographs say absolutely nothing about the Africans, but only about the Europeans. They say, look, I am an adventurer and I am unique.
Basically it is still like during the colonial times when the Italians invaded Ethiopia and sent photos of Ethiopians home as trophies. Just like they would do with animal trophies shot on a safari.
This contrast between “normal” and “foreign” can also be found in Swiss museums: on the one hand there is the National Museum and the historical museums, which tell Swiss history as a story of civilization and development, and on the other hand there are the ethnological museums, where that Life of the "wild, strange peoples" is shown, which, unlike us, would hardly have developed. Did you visit the museums when you lived in Zurich for six months?
I went to the National Museum and was totally fascinated. The museum shows how Switzerland was created, it is a collective memory that is told and through which a Swiss identity is constructed. Right at the beginning of the exhibition, you learn that Switzerland has saved more money than any other European country. Curious about what was obliterated in this national narrative, I started looking at the dates. And I asked myself: where was Switzerland, for example, while the European countries invaded Africa? Why is that not part of the history of this country?
For a long time Switzerland took the position that it did not have a colonial past because it did not have its own colonies. Research has only been available for a few years, which shows that Switzerland does have a colonial heritage.
Italy, too, has long refused to deal with its colonial past. It was not until 1996 that official Italy admitted that it was using mustard gas in Ethiopia!
You spent a long time in Rome for your research. How did you experience dealing with the colonial legacy in Italy?
An alarming number of people are proud of Mussolini, but nobody talks about Ethiopia. Not the rights, because the fascists had finally lost the war and had to surrender the colonies. Not the others because they are ashamed of what has done terrible to Italy. The soldiers at the time came back from the war and didn't talk about what they had done. During my research, I found that Italy had set up concentration camps in Ethiopia, Somalia and Libya where hundreds of thousands of children, women and the elderly were killed. Nobody talks about it. On the contrary, in Italy they say: “We weren't as bad as the French and the English. We also built roads. " But these streets don't make any sense! Because they don't go from one village to another, but from one military camp to the next. Not even the streets are of any use.
Again, it is about what is left out of the narratives.
Exactly. Another example: After the revolution in Ethiopia of 1974, the regime killed people and simply left the bodies on the streets as a warning to the opponents. When I told this to an Italian friend, he said that Mussolini did this all the time in the 1930s to intimidate the anti-fascists. But you don't talk about it because you don't want to believe that something so bad was done in Italy itself - not in Africa, for example. And against your own people. It doesn't fit the narrative of Italy.
But we need to be reminded of this. We need these lessons from the past! We mustn't make ourselves comfortable and think that we have all this behind us and that we are better and less violent than before. We haven't learned our lesson yet because we've forgotten so much.
At the moment, however, much is breaking up that has been concealed and suppressed for centuries. This can be seen, for example, in the discussions about monuments in honor of controversial personalities that many people want to get rid of.
For example in Milan around the statue of Indro Montanelli: he was a journalist and a fascist. In the 1930s he bought a twelve-year-old Ethiopian girl, and in the 1960s he said in an interview that it was not rape because it was an African and not an Italian. Because as an African she is like a little animal. So. That's why people want to overthrow this statue. I was asked by Italian journalists what to do.
And what did you answer?
I said: 'Overthrow this monument! Instead, put up a statue in honor of an anti-fascist or a woman. But not from someone who supported fascism. " In a discussion someone asked me how you could still know the story if you took the statues away. I asked back: "How many statues of Hitler are there in Germany?" You don't need monuments to understand history! And to be completely honest: If so, why not erect monuments in honor of people who fought against slavery and the slave trade?
In 2012, a monument to General Rodolfo Graziani was erected in the Italian village of Affile. He was responsible for the mustard gas use in Ethiopia and has killed thousands of people.
Yes he was a Nazi! In Ethiopia he is called "The Butcher". He also raged in Libya. I was so shocked that a monument was built for him. Fortunately, there were major protests against it.
The monument was later declared illegal, and the responsible mayor and two fellow activists were sentenced to prison terms in 2017.
But here it is again, the story told from a male, white perspective. And this perspective is always one of strength, power, superiority. When a man has made a career and is at the very top, it no longer matters how many lives he has destroyed. People just look where it is: right at the top.
The Black Lives Matter movement is also about interpretative sovereignty and about expanding the narrative perspective: People of Color finally want to be heard.
If you can rule the history of a country, you can rule the country. We see that in the USA, where Donald Trump is campaigning with it. The narrative is: Blacks are lazy and stupid and Asians infect us with viruses. People believe it. And then Trump's slogan “Make America great again”. For many people, America was never “great”. It arouses nostalgia for something that never existed. That scares me. And yet we live in hopeful times: The Black Lives Matter protests feel different. I think one reason is because people have been spending so much time in their homes and thinking because of the coronavirus. They came to the conclusion that the world must be a better place when they go outside. People said to themselves: let's start with the things that kill us the most. For example the police brutality. If we can change something here, we can change the system and society.
There were protests in Switzerland too, were you there?
Yes, and it was wonderful. The move in Zurich went from the chic Bahnhofstrasse to Langstrasse. It was impressive to see how people with a migration background came out of their shops to clap and hit the pots when we shouted “Black lives matter”. All the people from the most diverse communities who have been here for years and don't feel noticed. This moment made them visible and let them know that they are not alone.
In Switzerland, a discussion about the controversial old name for the chocolate kiss has just flared up again. Did you hear the debate?
Oh yes, and I am surprised that people are dying to keep that name. Why? What difference does it make to them if you stopped saying the word? Someone said that this name was a tradition, that is how it was always said. But there are so many things that are tradition and that are wrong. Traditions are also changing. The argument is often made that things that were created according to a standard of the past cannot be judged with today's standards. But the question is: whose standards were needed in the past? And anyway, why does someone want to eat a black person's head? What should be attractive about it? The name of this candy comes from a time when black people were bought and sold like food, like animals. It comes from a time when black people were treated as if they weren't people, but statues, trophies. The debate is so tiring. Keep your chocolate and change the name. I don't know how big and heated the debate is ...
... pretty heated ...
... but if the Swiss absolutely want to keep this name as a Swiss tradition: What does that say about Switzerland and their idea of “race”? And what does this word tell us about Switzerland's entanglement with colonialism? The word is a relic from a racist, colonial era. I think the fear of those defending the Word is that if we have to change this, how far will it go? But it has to start somewhere. Some things are easier to change than others. And this change of name seems to be a relatively simple matter.
Author and professor
Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa in 1971. After the outbreak of the revolution, her family left Ethiopia in 1975. Mengiste lived in Nigeria, Kenya and finally in the USA. Today she is visiting professor for creative writing at the City University of New York and at Princeton University. She writes regularly for the New York Times, The Guardian and Lettre International.
At the invitation of the Zurich Literature House and the PWG Foundation, she last lived for six months as Writer in Residence in Zurich until the end of June.
"The Shadow King"
Haile Selassie listens to Verdi
Ethiopia, 1935: After the death of her parents, the girl Hirut joins the household of Aster as a free worker and her husband Kidane, who serves as an officer in the army of Haile Selassie. Here Hirut is exposed to the sexual assaults of the landlord, but also Aster's jealous outbursts of violence. When Kidane and his men go to war against the fascists, armed with ancient rifles and hardly more than three bullets per weapon, Aster founds a women's troop and goes with the men - at first to the annoyance of Kidane, who doesn't want the women with them. But finally he realizes that he can use her well in battle.
In her new novel, "The Shadow King", which is only available in English, Maaza Mengiste tells the story of these women soldiers and the violence they experience in the daily struggle for survival. She links this narrative thread with that of the soldier Ettore, a Jewish Italian who is documenting the war in Ethiopia on behalf of the general and who meets Hirut.The third thread is told from the perspective of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Abyssinia: the temporarily disempowered ruler watches his country being conquered and repeatedly listens to Giuseppe Verdi's opera “Aida”. The abducted Ethiopian king's daughter Aida falls in love with her Egyptian hostage-taker.
"I asked myself: How can this girl fall in love with her enemy, cheat on her own people and then die with this man?" The author says in an interview. Maaza Mengiste is convinced that the Italians who invaded Ethiopia in 1935 knew the opera: "And I wondered how that shaped their understanding of what is possible in war." Since she wanted to describe the reception of this opera from the point of view of an Ethiopian, she invented that Haile Selassie heard it.
Her novel “Under the Eyes of the Lion” (2013) was partly told from the perspective of Haile Selassie, long after his return to power: arrested and betrayed by his own people, he watches the revolution break out in 1974 until he is eventually murdered. Mengiste relentlessly describes the brutality of the revolution, how neighbors spy on each other, families are torn apart and friends kill each other.
Maaza Mengiste: "The Shadow King". Novel. Canongate Books. Edinburgh 2019. 438 pages. 37 francs.
Maaza Mengiste: «Under the eyes of the lion». Novel. From the American by Andreas Jandl. Wunderhorn publishing house. Heidelberg 2013. 315 pages. 20 francs (e-book).
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