Methods of dealing with Diaspora language: the nation state’s narratives and our own

Asmara and Adulis


Makda Embaie

My own work with translations led me to search for more traces of cultural heritage. It led me to Asmara, a city I had at different points of my childhood known as my father’s, my grandmother’s and as my own. I knew the doors as early morning excitement, of spending yet another day with a new found friend. I knew the city as a gateway for family members to tell me a story, a gateway to connect them to a site by a language that was carried by my family and in extension, this place where part of this year’s research took place.

The idea of belonging to a nation state is violent, because it forces you to relate to the narratives of a collective idea of what the common history is. This violence was present on a local and global level in my life, and this is what led me to try to find alternative ways of understanding what my identity is constructed of.

The state of Sweden allowed elementary students to take classes in their mother tongue for the first time in 1968. In 1991, during the nationalist party New Democracy’s rise in the Swedish parliament, a new law made the state only responsible to provide classes if there were more than five students eligible. My parents were the only ones with a child requesting these classes. We did not reach the requirements, being the only student with such a request.

When confronted by other Tigrinya speakers other than my parents, the layers of my language unfolded. My word for lentils that I had known as misir my whole life, revealed itself as birsin. This is only one small example of what happens when a language is only inherited from a family. My father migrated from Asmara in 1987, my mother from Addis Ababa in 1989. He lived during the occupation of Ethiopia, preventing him from speaking Tigrinya the majority of his life. Italian was encouraged. The national anthem of Ethiopia forced. My mother was born to a businessman and a multi-occupied woman that moved to Addis Ababa in their early twenties to expand on their laundry business. My mother’s first language is hence, Amharic.

My relationship and first hand source of Tigrinya, came from these two people, with very specific experiences of language and state. The fusion of Tigrinya, Amharic, Arabic, Italian, and English confronted me with the idea of having an identity that was not only connected to where I was born; Sweden, and where my parents has their roots; Eritrea. This disrupted my idea of being an “immigrant child” or a “fusion of two cultures” or being in the middle of “two worlds” and the simplistic binarity was disrupted. It visualized and concretized something urgent in me.

This research does not attempt to find an absolute truth, it is rather trying to extend the narrative in which cultural heritage is not only understood through the ideas of the nation-state for many more violent consequences than those mentioned above.
I enter into a city inhabited by Italian colonial nostalgia, unlike the city I knew as a child. A city with fascist traces and an urban plan which divides the city into “Italian” and “indigenous” areas, as if it was a division that had to do with ethnicity and not race. There are more than nine indigenous groups in the territory.

I had read about the ancient port city Adulis, that presumably belonged to the Axum Kingdom and after several excavations since the beginning of 1900’s, the dates have become uncertain and not in line with what has earlier been thought of the existence of the Axum Kingdom.

An alternative to the narrative in Asmera surfaced to what the 400 years of oppression from different imperialistic waves had left behind so me and Senait Tesfai went to see and speak to the archeologists on the site. One of the archeologists, Abraham Zerai Gebremariam, seen from a distance in the image above, could confirm, that the only certain confirmation is that we can never fully know what happened, but we can write and document what we see now so one sole line of narrative does not become dominant. In that moment, my role, as an artist became clear.

There needs to exist spaces for artistic expressions in the midst of the fascist and colonial narratives. We started to map out and negotiate with the decision makers in Asmara to see what spaces could be possible to intervene in. Within this potential space, I finally saw my own artistic practice finding a residence in cultural heritage that is being documented and cared for now, and that space could only be meaningful if it is shared.
To all of those children that ever felt shame for not knowing enough, there are archives waiting to be looked into, there are spaces that are waiting to be filled with something other than the idea that the only thing that gives meaning to an African city, is its resemblance to a European one.