Now and then Tezeta
Tezeta is a poetic, pan-Ethiopic sentiment that is both palpable and elusive. It could mean nostalgia, memories, a dense enveloping feeling, a yearning (and inability) to recall the past—perhaps even to grasp the future. Tezeta is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a monopoly of Ethiopians. The Russians, too, are intimate with it, as were Adam and Eve.
Humans have generally excelled at re-creating moods; some, of course, more than others. For Ethiopians, tezeta is a pastime of choice. When all else failed, one cuddled tezeta to de-sensitize oneself to the menacing past. Ethiopians mostly lived in the past. No wonder big meals provided the venue for such activities and are often tinged with inexplicable sadness as well as shots of merriment.
Tezeta at times transitioned into the collective, the heroic. This took reconstructing a hedge around a gloriously presumed past where, for example, Ethiopian rule extended across the Gulf of Aden into Yemen. Some effortlessly revised the reach to Madagascar. Yet others resurrected the lore of a near-celestial kingdom of yore that peered into King Solomon's chambers. The revisions, however, are not necessarily tenable; to keep the pain and the fear—even the foreboding—at bay is what mattered most.
Yearnings at times summoned otherworldly beings to the witness stand in order to affirm the Edenic quality of the Land and its near-angelic inhabitants. To recover the ‘glory days’ remains a standing dream for Ethiopian rulers from Emperor Tewodros (d. 1868) to current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. A comforting and seductive idea, but no better or worse than sprinkling holy water to nurse one out of torpor.
Thus emerged tezeta as a musical genre all its own. Don’t hand them strong drink; strong drink wears off too soon. Hand them a ዋሽንት washint, a ማሲንቆ masinqo or a ክራር krar. Before you say ኢትዮጵያ ትቅደም Ethiopia Tiqdam eyes have glazed over and turned misty. That is tezeta for you.
In terms of articulating tezeta, few have plumbed the depths as did poet-playwright Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin in his poem ውሸታም weshetam, retitled and translated here as Tezeta.
Bereft of a pulsating heart
Tezeta is heavenly without a doubt
She feels not a pinch of infirmity
For her warmth is by divinity
No, not warmth known to the human race
Hers is complete, full of grace—
Seraphs cherubs paddle wings of praise
They descend riding fire-drawn carriage
To envelop her in celestial light plumage
In one accord they lift her off with tender care
Up and up they go past the Seven Heavens rare
No, tezeta is not subject to pain
She’s beyond earthy train
By passionate love not enchanted
Clothed in Holy Spirit, she’s holy minded
She has no need for red blood flame
She is chaste, ever without blame
With holy angels she soars on wings
She’s ethereal, untouched by mortal feelings
Yes, she is excellent, she is perfect—
Alas, she’s no Man, she has no pulse to match
Truth is, she’s too elusive to catch.
“ውሸታም”፣ እሳት ወይ አበባ፣ 1966 ዓ.ም.፣ ገጽ 168—169 | ርእሱን “ትዝታ” ያሰኘሁት፣ እንግሊዝኛ አፍ መፍቻው ለሆነ የተሻለ ትርጒም ስለሚሰጥ እና ቅኔው ስለ ትዝታ ስለሆነ ነው። ግጥሙ ባለ ሃያ ሰባት መስመር ግጥም ነው። “ትዝታ’ኮ ለካ” ሦስት ጊዜ ተጠቅሷል፤ ከስድስት መስመሮች በስተቀር በሃያ አንዱ “እሷ” የሚላት ትዝታን ነው።
NOTE: The original title “ውሸታም” weshetam (liar or elusive) is substituted with “ትዝታ” tezeta for the simple reason that it occurs directly or indirectly in every line of the poem but six. As Gabriel Marquez once put it, “…translation is always re-creation in another language.” “Man” ሰው sau in the second last line refers to both male and female (Genesis 1:27). እግዚአብሔርም ሰውን በመልኩ ፈጠረ፤ በእግዚአብሔር መልክ ፈጠረው፤ ወንድና ሴት አድርጎ ፈጠራቸው። (ዘፍጥረት ፩፣፳፯) Top drawing: Masinqo player (adapted from R. Kane, 1950)
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