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 to Israel.

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 based.

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 Wolleka.

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 me.

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 eye.)

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.

(The Israeli government, in two airlifts dubbed Operation Solomon and Operation Moses, brought hundreds of the refugees from Sudan to Israel.)

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 Israeli society.

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 exist.


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