Part of the joy of visiting a
country for the first time is that everything is new and exciting.
Part of the frustration of visiting a country for the first time is
discovering along the way what you would have done differently if
only you'd known, in advance, what you eventually learned.
In early 2000, I
spent three weeks exploring Ethiopia, and among the activities I
looked forward to with keen interest was a visit with the so-called
Falasha, the Ethiopian Jews who were, even then, rapidly migrating
Most had lived near
Gondar, the country's second-largest city, and the ground operator
I was working with had scheduled a visit to see the village of
Wolleka where I was told the local Falasha community was
As we approached, I
saw a roadside sign reading "Welcome to Felasha (sic) Village." It
was at this point that my guide informed me that there were no
Falasha in Falasha Village.
They had already
left, he said, but before going they had taught the new gentile
residents their unique techniques for making pottery. The residents
took me around, showing me the "synagogue hut" (an empty structure
with a Star of David above it) and mezuzahs pressed into the door
frames of some of the huts. They offered to sell me some pottery. I
subsequently wrote an article about the Faux Falasha of
The black Jews in
Ethiopia do not actually like being called Falasha, which means
"migrant," but prefer Beta Israel (House of Israel). I had asked my
guide then if we could also visit a village where Beta Israel
actually lived, and he said no, sorry, they were too far away. If
only I had made arrangements to visit that other village
beforehand, he said, he would have been happy to accommodate
When, a few months
ago, I received an invitation from Ethiopia Airlines and Green Land
Tours to revisit the country (see related story, "Advancement in Ethiopia: A tourism infrastructure
surges"), I saw a chance to make up for my missed
opportunity. I made arrangements for a car and driver in Gondar and
allowed plenty of time to reach the Beta Israel villages that were
a bit farther out.
When I met the
driver, I told him where I wanted to go and why. So sorry, the
driver said, but all the Falasha were now -- and these were his
words -- in "concentration camps," where they were waiting, pending
immigration to Israel.
I expressed my
disappointment, and the guide asked, "Would you like to meet a
woman in Wolleka who says she's Jewish?"
With nothing to
lose, I went back to the "Felasha Village" to meet her.
I asked the woman, Mariy
Negussie Mulat, 41, what the experience of being a Beta Israel in
Ethiopia was like, and how it might have differed under Emperor
Haile Selassie (before 1974), the Marxist "Derg" ruling council
(from 1974-1991) and the current government, which followed the
Derg. Upon hearing the translation of the question by the guide,
she vocalized a sharp intake of breath.
"We were created to
be a handicapped people," she said, my guide translating. "The
other Ethiopians don't like us because they believe we can cast the
evil eye. Whenever someone died from an accident, they said it was
because of a Jew." (The guide later told me that Gondar had changed
its market day to Saturday because Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath
and the Beta Israel would not come and cast the evil
She didn't remember
much of Haile Selassie, when Ethiopia was a largely feudal society
in which the poor farmed the land of the wealthy.
"When the Derg
redistributed land [after they deposed Haile Selassie], we farmed
on a plot that was shared by us and the owner," she said. "But we
had bad harvests for a few years in a row, so the land went back to
the owner. Our only way to survive was pottery. Our handicrafts are
a gift from God."
Mariy is an
accomplished ceramic artist, and she showed me newspaper clippings
about a visit she had made to the U.K. and Germany with an
Ethiopian cultural show.
She said the Derg
began to draft Beta Israel sons to fight against revolutionary
forces. To avoid the draft, many families in her village began the
150-mile walk to neighboring Sudan. Her parents joined a group of
those refugees and died en route. She became a cook for a local
official of the Derg.
government, in two airlifts dubbed Operation Solomon and Operation
Moses, brought hundreds of the refugees from Sudan to
I asked her why, if
Ethiopian society was prejudiced against Beta Israel, she didn't
want to emigrate to Israel herself. I wondered if it was because of
the well-documented difficulties Beta Israel have had blending into
She replied that
she owned her own house (a near-empty, two-room shack) and saw no
reason to leave it. She showed me a cabinet full of ceramic
sculptures she had made, images of lions with a Star of David on
their heads, little figures of Moses holding the 10 Commandments
and figures preparing traditional foods.
Before I left, she
said she wanted to show me something else. In case I had any
lingering doubts about her Jewishness, she held out a booklet
indicating membership in the Association of Beta Israel.
I bought some of
her pottery, including a trinity of King Solomon, the Queen of
Sheba and their supposed love-child, Melenik I, the first emperor
of Ethiopia, which now sits beside me as I type.
Ethiopia is a
nation of unexpected beauty and unique cultural artifacts, and I
believe that, in my lifetime, its appeal as a tourism attraction
will only grow. But my return visit to Wolleka underscored for me
how a tourism destination is defined not only by places, people and
attractions but also by time.
The Beta Israel are
fast becoming a footnote in Ethiopian history and Ethiopian
tourism, and when they are gone, Ethiopia will be a slightly
different place. Having had the opportunity to meet Mariy Negussie
Mulat last month was a bit like turning back the clock to a time
more than six years earlier, back before I was told she didn't