GHADA AMER, PETER’S LADIES, 2007, ACRYLIC, EMBROIDERY, AND GEL MEDIUM ON CANVAS, 36 x 42″. From Women by Women, a portfolio edited by Charlotte Strick in issue no. 199, winter 2011.
During a school break over the long rainy season, when I was fifteen, my father and I took a trip to Addis Ababa. On our way home, the bus stopped in Bedele, a town known for a popular beer of the same name, for a lunch break. We had an hour before the bus departed again, and I asked him to eat quickly because I wanted us to go for a walk near a row of hotels (brothels) a few minutes away from the restaurant. “Remember the prostitute I was ministering to?” I said. “She’s at one of those hotels now.”
I wanted him to help me find Elsa, a woman who used to work at a hotel across the street from our house. Like most of the women there, she was a waitress by day and a sex worker by night. The hotel belonged to a woman who also happened to own one of three TVs in my hometown. While it was a taboo for girls and women—unless one was an out-of-town professional—to go to the hotel itself, we were allowed to visit the lounge next door, where the TV was kept, to watch a game of soccer or a popular Sunday-afternoon program on national TV. The sex workers came over to the lounge occasionally to serve beverages. Several months before my father and I found ourselves in Bedele, I caught Elsa while leaving one of those events and invited her to our home to tell her about Jesus. She accepted my invitation.
Elsa must have been older than me by at least a decade, but she sat across the table shyly playing with her fingers, telling me the story of why she had left her family’s home. I poured the bottle of Fanta she brought me into two glasses and added water to make it last. Before she left, I gifted her my Bible, a precious possession I had obtained through correspondence with an organization in Jerusalem. It was a successful meeting, I thought, and we had kindled what was sure to be a lasting friendship.
She disappeared one morning not long after.
There were always comings and goings at the hotels; the women moved on after a few months in town. But I had expected Elsa to say goodbye and promise to write. I asked one of the boys who worked at the hotel what had happened to her, and he said she’d gone to Bedele.
“I want to follow up on her spiritual life,” I said to my father. “To see if she’s reading her Bible and praying.”
My father agreed to help me look for her. We finished lunch and went to the row of hotels. I was too embarrassed to go door-to-door asking if Elsa was there. It would have been suspicious, too: Why were a seemingly respectable father and daughter looking for a prostitute? Perhaps they are Elsa’s family, looking to apprehend her. Many of the sex workers were runaways who had fallen out with their families or were fed up with village life. (My sister and I were once served tea at a hotel in Bedele by a distant cousin who pretended not to know us. We pretended, too, in the interest of letting her keep her dignity, but also because we did not know what to say.) If my father and I had gone around asking for Elsa, no one would have told us where she was.
We walked in front of the hotels silently. I looked through each door, hoping to spot Elsa walk across the lobby carrying steamy cups of tea on a tray or sitting on some man’s lap. I would have run in immediately, to greet her and shame her into giving me a phone number or a mailing address. It would have been a futile exercise because, had she wanted to share her contact information, she would have done so when she moved.
But I had learned from the street boys I used to hang out with in front of our house that, through persistence, it was possible to make women respond to you. Normally, a girl of my age and stature would have had nothing to do with the street boys who sat outside all day heckling women. But I was allowed to talk to them for the purposes of telling them about Jesus Christ, who made it possible for me to enjoy the company of forbidden people. The boys were dismissive of my proselytizing—“Why would you give us this Good News for free?”—but when the Muslims of my hometown once undertook an unusual conversion campaign, offering each new convert 150 birr, many of the street boys accepted the offer. We remained friends, and they were my primary source on the goings-on inside the few hotels in my hometown.
Elsa was nowhere to be seen, though. The hope of ever seeing her again was fast receding.
“I’ll just pray for her,” I said to my father, who walked beside me silently.
There were two stories unfolding simultaneously. There was the Wax, the story of the lost lamb that I had more or less invented for my father because it was the only way he would allow me, and help me, to look for Elsa. Then there was the Gold, the story of my longing for a friendship with Elsa, a friendship independent of Jesus Christ—simply, a desire for her company.
Wax and Gold, or Sem-ena-Werk in Amharic, is an Ethiopian poetic form that has been used for centuries to deliver hidden messages (Gold)—secrets, criticisms of power, insults, vulgar humor, and more—by packing them inside the apparent message (Wax). The Ethiopian philosopher Messay Kebede calls it “the crowning achievement of erudition in the traditional society.”
In high school, we were taught how to locate the hibre-qal—the word or phrase that is hiding the Gold—before digging to uncover the real message of the poem. It was exciting to identify the hibre-qal and suddenly realize that a couplet that seemed to be about piles and piles of fish lying in the wilderness is actually a jab at a promiscuous woman.
Like every good thing, Wax and Gold has its dark sides. In the ultracommunal society in which I was raised, surveilling one another and disciplining our neighbors’ children were part of life, so we looked for privacy in pretention and for self-expression in double-talk. This meant that, in everyday communication, almost anything might be perceived as a kind of Wax and Gold. Sometimes an innocent compliment would seem suspicious because of the person giving it or the way it was expressed. And if I felt paranoid about something kind someone had said to me, I found myself vaguely thinking: Wax and Gold.
Long after my high school years, after I had moved to the U.S., I began thinking about those two layers and how they also reinforce a kind of binary thinking—everything being sorted into Wax and Gold. When I made up the story of the sex worker who needed saving, I was aware of only one layer of Gold that I was trying to hide from my father. It didn’t occur to me until a decade later that it was possible to hide more than one secret.
My father and I went back to the bus empty-handed. For the rest of the trip—about eighty kilometers—I kept replaying in my head the afternoon Elsa had come to our house, an afternoon made possible mainly by our particular Protestant brand of Jesus Christ. I say “mainly” because I cannot imagine even most other Protestants in my hometown, including the preachers, going near a prostitute. Even though our Jesus did open the door to a world in which one could befriend prostitutes and street boys and remain free of blame, it took some daring to walk through that door.
A preacher visiting our church from Addis Ababa a few years earlier had spoken tenderly about the time he had ministered to a prostitute: he hugged her, he said, caressed her, played with her hair, and told her about being born again. He told it like a success story, encouraging the rest of us to be as bold in our ministry. Even as a teen, I knew enough to regard that man as a liar with ulterior motives. But I did not think that I wanted to have sex with Elsa, because: how could I? Neither of us had a penis.
I was certain that I wanted to touch Elsa’s face more than anything else, that I wanted to hold her tightly, and perhaps share a bed with her. But that desire couldn’t have been sexual, because some of my closest friends and I sometimes kissed each other’s faces and necks until we were hot and red, and some of us slept together holding each other tightly, with legs intertwined. The border between friendship and romance was not so rigid where I grew up. I remember thinking once during a sleepover with one of my closest friends in high school that sleeping as if we were one body was not enough, that I wished there were a way for me to enter her. And that if I entered her that night somehow, it still would not have been sex. These things were common features of intense friendships, the sort that many people I knew, including adults, enjoyed.
When I couldn’t find Elsa that day in Bedele, I was deeply hurt. I felt that her sudden departure from my hometown had something to do with me. A few days after we hung out at my house, I went to the TV lounge next to the hotel where she worked, a spring in my step. I leaned over the low wall separating the two properties and asked for her. It was dusk, the music in the hotel bar was louder than in the daytime, and patrons were beginning to trickle in. Elsa came out wearing big hoop earrings. “What are you doing here?” she asked, with a look of concern, which broke my heart a little. There was no TV program being shown next door, so I told her that I just wanted to say hello. I don’t remember the rest of our conversation. It was the last time I ever saw her.
A few months before she came to my house, Elsa had seen me shouting across the street at a family friend who sat on the veranda of the hotel reading a newspaper. I wanted to tell him that I had dibs on the newspaper after he was done with it. Elsa said later that she became curious about me that day, thinking it odd for a teenage girl to be so desperate for a newspaper. She asked some of her patrons—men who knew my family—about me, and they told her I was smart. So one afternoon, on my way back from school, she smiled and waved at me, and I began paying attention to her. She was not the most popular employee at that establishment: there was another woman who charged everyone four times the going rate and whom many young men broke the bank to sleep with. I began watching Elsa more intently and making excuses to get closer to that hotel, visiting the TV lounge as often as possible. I noticed that she had a certain melancholy about her, and I decided it was me who was going to make her feel better.
On the bus with my father, I was anxious about alarming him with my own melancholy, so I told myself that I must think of something reassuring to say, perhaps something about the need to save all those prostitutes for Jesus. I ended up telling him Elsa’s story instead—what she told me about why she ran away from home in Addis Ababa and chose this life.
Her parents were upset when she fell in love with a Sudanese man—he was too dark-skinned for their taste. They forbade her from seeing him, and she lost contact with him soon after. Then she found out from a neighbor that she was adopted. She was devastated, both at the news and at her parents’ decision to keep it from her. The resentment over this discovery increased all other resentments, especially the one over the loss of her Sudanese boyfriend. She felt that her parents forced her breakup not because they had her best interests at heart but because they wanted to own her forever. She left and never looked back.
“What’s wrong with a Sudanese boyfriend?” said my father. “As long as he is a good man.”
That made me smile. But I knew my father’s tolerance had its limits. Even my tolerance had its limits, although I did not know this at the time.
About a decade later, in my mid-twenties and living in America, I came to terms with the real real story, the second layer of Gold that was hiding from even me: that I had wanted more from Elsa than what I had with many of my close friends. I wanted to kiss her entire body, not just her face. I wanted to get inside her by any means necessary, not as a temporary game, but as part of an attempt to merge with her, so that I didn’t have to be sick with longing when she wasn’t around.
I place part of the blame for my obliviousness on my Amharic teachers. The emphasis on Wax and Gold, a binary, created the idea that there could be only one layer of Wax scaffolding, one layer of Gold, and a sense that that single layer of Gold is the only and most important truth. If other layers of Gold existed, they would have to be of lower quality—so why were they even important?
Loving Elsa was an important layer for me, and thinking about her still warms my heart twenty-three years after our brief encounter. I have never known a better cure for my apathy than loving someone else.
Mihret Sibhat was born and raised in a small town in western Ethiopia before moving to California when she was seventeen. A graduate of the University of Minnesota’s M.F.A. program, her debut novel, The History of a Difficult Child, was published this year.
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