By Siobhan Benet
Tuesday, May 22, 2001
In war-torn Eritrea, poetry is embedded in the soul, in the history, in the very rhythms of daily life, and Saba Kidane is a poet, as well as a mother, ex-soldier, journalist and activist, who speaks of devastations, deprivations and awesome hope.
Make way, please
Step aside, make room.
Wisdom of the ages
Spread the words.
And part the seas--Saba Kidane
Make way for internationally acclaimed Eritrean poet Saba Kidane, recently denied a U.S. visitor's visa.
This spring, Kidane was denied permission to enter the United States and was unable to join Eritrea's other premiere women poets, Ararat Iyob and Nigitsi Girmai, for a reading of their work that has captured the emerging equality, freedom and possibilities of women in Eritrea, itself an emerging democracy in the Horn of Africa. These women poets fought side by side with men in the decades-long crucible of war and are now the symbol of the nation's commitment to equality.
She, and her U.S. supporters, however, remain determined to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles and let her voice be heard in the United States.
Kidane was to read her poetry at Arts International in New York in March as part of the People's Poetry Gathering and National Poetry Month. Kidane, a single mother in the capital of Asmara, is an activist whose weapon is the word and the pen. Former director for Eritrean youth radio, Kidane's powerful new voice, and those of other women poets, were shaped by warfare and upheaval.
Instead of giving a live reading, 25-year-old Kidane delighted the audience with her videotaped recitation in her native tongue of Tagrinya. A charismatic reader, she captivated the audience, even the ones who spoke English only. Somehow, with her smiles and gestures, she conveyed her soaring spirit and indomitable will.
Saba Kidane stands on a small stage, addressing the crowd. As she recites her poetry, her body gently sways as her face becomes more and more animated. Kidane is a performer whose passion has attracted a worldwide following, drawn as much by her performance ability as by the searing truths embedded in the words she pens and speaks. Kidane is a powerful symbol in a country that desperately needs the energy, activism and enthusiasm of its youth.
Kidane was denied admission to the United States despite invitations from five U.S. institutions and a visa secured by Bob Holman, a poet and professor at Bard College in New York.
Several speakers at the poetry gathering said that African artists generally have more difficulty obtaining U.S. guest visas than artists from other continents.
U.S. consular officials say they fear the African artists, some without extensive family ties, will stay on as illegal immigrants. They also asserted they were reluctant to issue visas for Eritrean artists in particular because the United States was concerned about contributing to a "brain drain"; that the new country, just emerging from war, desperately needed its artists, writers, thinkers.
Kidane tried to demonstrate that she was committed to establishing the newspaper she had just received a license to found in Eritrea and asserted that she had no intention of leaving her young children for a life in the United States.
However, as an unmarried young woman she did not fit the profile of the preferred visa applicant: a married man with a family.
"We are distressed that Saba Kidane could not participate in the poetry reading cabaret," said Noreen Tommassi, head of Arts International and Women's Voices of Africa. "It has been our experience that African artists are frequently denied entry into the U.S. We are working with the White House to ensure the free movement of African artists across the borders.
"We hope to bring Ms. Kidane to the United States in the very near future."
Eritrea, a former Italian colony, has been at war for almost four decades. For 30 years, it waged a war of independence from Ethiopia, the second colonial power, only gaining its freedom in 1991. Independence was short-lived. Eritrea and Ethiopia then fought a border war that ended in 2000; thousands of lives were lost. Only now is the country emerging from sustained violence and disruptions that have changed forever the role of women.
At age 13, Kidane dropped out of school to train as a soldier. Although she spent little time on the battlefield, the experience changed her forever. Returning to school in 1995, she began writing poetry that reflected the lives of young people around her--their lack of freedom to emigrate and their daily confrontation with post-war horrors.
Kidane's performance of her poetry at a conference in Asmara in January 2000, called "Against All Odds: African Languages and Literature in the 21st Century," catapulted her into the international literary spotlight. The crowd laughed and cried out, echoing the pain suffered by millions of women who survived the war with Ethiopia.
Her poetry speaks of women who have seen their children and husbands die and their grandmothers raped by Ethiopian soldiers, of women who have survived detention camps, and of hunger and the loss of homes and communities. It was this performance that the New York audience watched via videotape.
She quickly came to the attention of writers like N'gugi Wa Thiongo, a Nigerian writer, Holman of Bard University and Charles Cantaloupo, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and translator of the works of Eritrea's poet laureate, Reesom Haile.
"In Eritrea, poetry has a long history as an art that uplifts the morale of a people suffering at the hands of the colonizers," said Ambassador Ahmed Tahir Baduri, the permanent representative of Eritrea to the United Nations.
Kidane joins the ranks of many male poets, until very recently the only voices of Eritrean poetry. But decades of war, famine and emigration have shaken the male foundations and bastions of poetry and the rest of society.
In the trenches, women and men became equals. When soldiers came home, and people saw that they treated women better, it encouraged the government to turn the more enlightened attitudes into new policy. Women who fought side by side with men during the war have since become ambassadors, doctors and teachers. And poets.
"Before the revolution, a woman speaking out in public was considered an embarrassment to men," said Checole Kassahun, publisher of Red Sea Press that specializes in literature from Africa. "It simply wasn't acceptable for women to consider themselves 'equal' to men."
Twenty years ago, if an Eritrean man beat his wife, the woman had no legal recourse. Now spousal abuse is illegal. So is female genital mutilation.
Eritreans value their hard-won independence. Rather than forever mourning the loss of over one million citizens to emigration and war, the country has come together to forge social change unseen in most countries.
"Eritreans across the world are on alert. And young people are at the forefront of this movement," said fellow poet and reader Ararat Iyob. "Eritrean expatriates are meeting, discussing, marching for peace, and bearing the burdens of the deported. Art and poetry are flourishing in this atmosphere because of the history and the traditions that undergird our culture."
Another of Kidane's fellow readers at the New York event, Nigitsi Girmai, an Eritrean expatriate who now lives in New York, read a poem about losing her husband, a soldier, to the war with Ethiopia. By the age of 24 she had lost her husband and borne a child on the battlefield. Girmai has lived in New York City, with her two children, for the past 17 years.
"It's been very hard," Girmai said. "I struggled. I went to college and raised my children. Writing poetry helped me to see that my struggle was real and helped me see that I could face life on my own."
Young women like Saba Kidane represent new possibilities for women in Eritrea. Young Eritreans in the United States will learn about her and their community will work very hard to bring her here, Girmai said.
"Kidane is a poet with a gift. And in Eritrea we honor our poets and our poetry. And we honor the struggle for freedom."
Blink and then go away.
If blinking had a voice,
What would it say?
Don't blink?--Saba Kidane
Siobhan Benet is a writer in New York.
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