Saturday, January 19, 2013

Come for the monuments, stay for the injera!

"..come for the monuments, stay for the injera!."

I borrowed this expression from a Washington D.C. native currently living in Paris who commented on recent New York Times op-ed article written by Dinaw Mengistu.  Dinaw's essay about Washington, D.C. drawing some parallels with Paris is an interesting piece which generated passionate discussion among many readers.  Even though Dinaw grew up in Chicago area, he knew Washington, D.C. where his Ethiopian relatives lived from visits of the city in his early youth and later by studying in the D.C. area colleges.  With a keen eye of a writer, he observed how his Ethiopian relatives and other immigrants struggled to survive & thrive in the city and wrote a novel about a Washington, D.C. neighborhood in transformation reflecting the intricate relationship between the new & old residents of the city.
As many people know by now his debut novel entitled "The Beautiful things the Heaven Bears" was a huge success for the young writer which earned him the National Book Award/Guardian's First Book Award and a good pay check from a publisher that sold millions of copies.  I met the young author and the agent from his publisher during one of the book tours the publisher arranged at various cities. The book event in D.C. at Politics & Prose bookstore was very successful in terms of turnout and in the way the book was received by those who have read it.  I actually helped the bookstore in promoting the event among Ethiopians and, I was delighted to see that a decent number of Ethiopians turned out for the book signing and talk event.

I was later informed that the publisher sent Dinaw to Paris, France with advance pay so that he could be away to focus in producing his second novel. After living in Paris for a couple of years, he has come back to U.S. to make another book tour for his second book. And this time, when I saw him again in one of his book tours along side his agent was his French wife and their new born baby.  Interestingly, in just a couple of years Dinaw now speaks in French fluently.
Since Dinaw won the MacArthur fellowship, he and his family have moved to the U.S. and as he has written in the New York Times essay they now live in Washington, D.C.

A recent visit by the in-laws from France and the role he played as a native guide to show Washington D.C. prompted Dinaw to write the essay.  In his conversation with the in-laws and in the essay Dinaw made an innocent attempt to compare the two capital cities he has come to love. Of course for most Parisiens and the French, comparing their "jewel" city to any city let alone Washington is an 'inexcusable' sin.  Among readers who have reacted to the essay some wrote taking spirited adversarial position. Others agreed with Dinaw seeing similar grandeur in both Paris and Washington, D.C. especially, in the structures (buildings, monuments, the wide boulevard type avenues and parks) in downtown built from a plan designed by the French Engineer Pierre L'Enfant.  Some others made a point that what make cities beautiful are not the buildings, the monuments, the boulevards ... etc. but its inhabitants ... how vibrant life kicks in full vigor - even late at night citing cities like New York or London even Kuala Lumpur.  I get their point.  I was blessed or fortunate to have seen some of the cities the commentators have written about.  For the record, I have not been to Kuala Lumpur or Tokyo and have not experienced the vibrancy of these cities.  But I recall the chaotic sensation of life-experience in Bombay, nonetheless the city and it's residents - full of vigor which I believe is typical of most of the major Asian cities.  Likewise, I love the big cities of Europe & North America too.  Whenever I visit New York, London, Toronto, Montreal or Paris I come back with such a good feeling that I can't wait to go back there again.  Even though I have always wanted to visit some of these cities more often, it was only to New York & Montreal that I have been able to go back and visit a number of times, primarily for reasons related to family members living there.

On the main issue of Paris-Washington, D.C. comparison Dinaw's essay in New York Times has raised, let me throw a 'unique' perspective of my own and as one-time member of "the Ethiopians in DC". First a disclosure: Like Dinaw, I was also born in Ethiopia. Dinaw left Ethiopia as a child.  I left Ethiopia when I was in my mid-twenties after college and after being a wage earner for some time.  I also lived in Washington D.C. not far from Logan Circle and experienced the life of Dinaw's characters from his book ("The Beautiful things the Heaven Bears").  Even though I did not live in Paris, I have lived in French speaking Geneva and have made several trips to Paris.  My perspective on Paris is from a tourist view-point while in contrast, I viewed Washington, D.C. then as my 'hometown', where I lived and worked; hence lacked that visitor perspective. The only two European cities I knew before I visited Paris were Rome with its relics from the past and Geneva with its clean streets and spectacular landscape surrounding it.  Compared with those two cities, Paris was breath-taking. I was awed by the amazing architecture of its buildings, its wide boulevards, the vibrancy of the city, especially around its train stations and major squares etc... I must say however, I did not find the Parisiens to be particularly welcoming.  As may be the case with most other major cities' residents, the Parisiens  appeared to be always in a rush and did not seem to care or did not have the time for someone they do not know.  I remember a worker at one of the retails shops in Gare-du-Nord scolding a mother of a child for not keeping the child from touching the wrapped bon-bons (candies).

When I visited Paris for the second time I stayed in some run-down looking hotel by Place de-Bastille and for some reasons, Paris's beauty faded on me and that night I wrote the poem you see below in Amharic (my native language).  I was surmising whether Paris has changed or it was me who has changed, or the specs I had were taken from me?  My third visit was after living for about ten years in North America and this time, I had my girlfriend with me for company.  During our three or four days stay in that city, we literally savored its beauty by visiting the landmarks and the city's neighborhoods more than ever; by walking aimlessly at its grand boulevards and by experiencing some local hangouts and restaurants.
In dissimilar ways, the trajectory from which I see Washington, D.C. is different as I first came to the city not as a visiting tourist awed by the city's monuments, public parks, and ... etc., but as someone who had chosen the city to be the new 'hometown'.  I came to D.C. to start my new American life afresh as many Ethiopians or immigrants who had come to the city before or after me did so.

In a typical manner, the newly arriving immigrants as well as a large segment of DC's long time native residents view their city through the prism of their neighborhoods, and view the historic parts of the city as places of work or ignore it as something to be enjoyed only by tourists. Some mindful city residents take time from their daily routines and visit parts if not all the historical landmarks on their own, or some others may do so when they give company to relatives or friends from other states/countries visiting them. But one can find a significant number of residents in D.C not ever making the tour of the monuments, the historical landmarks and/or taking advantage of the unique opportunity the city offers - the possibility of making tours of World-class museums of the Smithsonian Institution for free.

When most Ethiopians, or for that matter Hondureńos, Salvadoreńos, and other immigrants talk about their experience of the city, more often than not, the references involve certain distinct portions of the city.  Most of us lack the broader view of the city, as our life is confined to only certain parts of the city where we work and live. For Ethiopians, that is mostly in the North West part and to some extent in the North East, trekking rarely to the South East & the West part.  Large parts of the the South East or the South West D.C, even some parts of the North East are unknown to most of us.  Even those engaged in Cab driving business say that they rarely venture to the South East or even Benning St. in NE.

As I said earlier, I worked in Washington and lived in one of its vibrant neighborhoods. I actually moved from Suburban Maryland to Columbia Heights-Adams Morgan-Mount Pleasant area when flights from the city neighborhoods to the suburbs were the norm.  I was told that I must have been out of my mind to move to D.C. while the city had notorious reputation for being the murder capital of the nation.  After the city-life experience of Geneva where most of the things I needed for day-to-day living were available within a certain radius, I had a lot of difficulty getting used to the life experience of suburbia in College Park, Maryland.  My shopping experience for the most part, was confined to 7-11 and other convenience type stores. There were only very limited choice of eating establishments in my surrounding and most others were not accessible for someone like me, who did not drive.  Even though it was inconvenient to wait and take the Metro train or the Bus and then the Campus shuttle to go to  my classes, I was happy with my choice of moving to DC.  That choice was also contrary to the choices lots of other Ethiopians living in the city then were making.  Even though D.C. was and still is home to lots of Ethiopians then and now, most regarded the city as a starting point when they arrive first in the U.S - more like a spring board ...  Most would move on to the suburbs once they 're able to afford to buy cars or once they felt secure enough to move to other states.

Well, all of this was before the time Washington D.C.'s fortunes were transformed with its real-estate boom.  Unfortunately, some of us have fallen victim of the gentrification that followed the real estate boom which Dinaw has described in his book. The Ethiopians, the Salvadoreńos, Guatemaleńos, Hondureńos and native residents of DC who refused to move to the suburbs, having weathered through the difficult times of thick and thin happen to be the significant role players in the revitalization and re-development of these formerly economically depressed DC neighborhoods door by door, business establishment by business establishment.  It is time the DC tourism promotion officials recognized the contribution of these new comers in creating the vibrant neighborhoods we see today.  It sure is high-time to embrace the motto: Come for the monuments, stay for the injera
or the pupusa!


ፓሪስ ምነው እንደ መጀመሪያው አልሆንሽብኝ
የመጣሁበትን መንደሬን የምታስታውሽኝ
የሶስተኛ አለም ኑሮዬን፤
'ጌቶ'ዬን ተክልዬን የመሰልሽብኝ።

አለም ሁሉ የሚያወድስሽ
የከተሞች ቁንጮ እንዳልነበርሽ
ምነው እንዲህ የጠወለግሽ
እኮ ምን ገባ ያ ውበትሽ።

እንዲህ መዓዛሽ መክሰሙ
በዐይኔ ላይ መጨለሙ።

ወይስ እኔው ነኝ የተለወጥኩ
ውበት ማይበትን፤
መነጥሬን የተነጥቅኩ።
ጥበብ የማደንቅበትን፤
ጸጋን የተነፈግኩ።

ደግሞም ያንቺን ነዋሪዎች
ነገር ተመለከትኩ
ተኔዎቹ መንደረተኞች
ጋር አስተዛዘብኩ።
ክል ክል እያሉ መራወጣቸው
እንኳን ለኔው ቢጤ፤
የሰው አገር ሰው አዲስ መጤ
ለራሳቸው ጊዜ የማይበቃቸው።
"ሜትሮ ቡሎ ዶዶ" ነው
አሉኝ ኑሯቸው።

ታዲያ እንዴት ይፈረድባቸው
ቦታ ስጠይቃቸው
የለም አናውቀውም ቢሉ
እንደ ጎብኚዎችሽ ሁሉ
ውበትሽን ባያስተውሉ
በእጅ የያዙት ወርቅ 
እንደ መዳብ ይቆጠራል 
አይደል የኛዎቹ ኣበው የሚሉ፥፥

ፓሪስ 1993


At January 20, 2013 at 11:04 AM , Blogger Long and Foster Capitol Hill Agents said...

Beautifully written blog. Thank you for sharing your experience. I also LOVE the Amharic Poem.

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