Scenes from a marriage

Aida Edemariam on one woman’s life against the backdrop of Haile Selassie’s rise and fall

Not long ago my ­daughter was a bridesmaid in an Ethiopian wedding. The ceremony, which was held in Toronto, was Orthodox, and the festivities lasted several days. A stirring part of the reception featured the young couple surrounded by members of the congregation dressed in white muslin chanting and dancing to the throbbing beat of magnificent African drums. How moving to observe the rites of an Afro-Christian tradition reaching back seventeen hundred years.

The Bible contains many allusions to Ethiopia. Moses’s marriage to an Ethiopian woman named Zipporah (Numbers 12) was opposed by his sister Miriam, who was forthwith struck with leprosy. The Queen of Sheba travelled from her native Ethiopia to meet famous King Solomon (1 Kings 10). Their passionate affair produced Menelik, who went on to become emperor of Ethiopia, establishing a dynasty that reigned virtually uninterrupted until Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974. Still, today, a determined Eurocentric interpretation tends to suppress the Bible’s black African element.

Encountering Aida Edemariam’s absorbing biography of her Ethiopian grandmother is like discovering a missing book of the Bible: the imagery and landscapes, the individuals strictly defined by their Orthodox world, the anachronistic practices, and the ancient spiritual writings woven through are all reminiscent of the Holy Book. Of course The Wife’s Tale is much more contemporary. The life of Yetemegnu, whom we meet as a child bride, spans most of the twentieth century, paralleling the rise and fall of Haile Selassie, and stretches into the twenty-first. Notwithstanding its spiritual aspects, The Wife’s Tale is also a down-to-earth account of a long and challenging marriage.

Edemariam is a journalist for the Guardian newspaper, the biracial daughter of an Ethiopian father and Canadian mother. Her book is comprised of stories she coaxed from her grandmother, always pressing for more details. The pressure pays off in an engrossing psychological portrait of a woman of considerable charm and courage, whose riveting literary presence cannot be diminished by the crippling gender bias of her time and place.

Edemariam has immersed herself in the literature of the region; her encyclopedic knowledge of the political and cultural history is felt on every page, enriching the context for Yetemegnu’s life.  Occasionally, this rich background is summarized in a manner that provides both too little information and too much. And yet, as with true works of art, a flaw can sometime create an arresting effect: Edemarian’s accounts of saints and miracles and kings and battles produce a distinct language, a haunting music evocative of the qiné (spiritual poetry) for which the Ethiopian church is known.

Yetemegnu’s voice is integral to this music. Edemariam does not use quotations or punctuation that might make it stand out in any way. Yetemegnu is inseparable from the cultural fabric of her life.  Miraculously, the sweeping narrative never ­overwhelms her: Edemariam has only to utter the magic word, “she” and Yetemegnu manifests before our eyes.

She is born in the northern city of Gondar around 1916. When she is eight, her family marries her off to an ambitious deacon two decades her senior. Up until that time Yetemegnu has spent her days climbing trees and playing wedding with her friends. Indeed, her real-life ceremony strikes her as little more than a game. While she eats up the attention—she loves to dance and will always adore the spotlight—she does not fully grasp what is happening to her. She is only afraid to drink too much in case she wets the bed. Because Yetemegnu is too young to consummate the marriage, her husband, Tsega, leaves her with her grandmother, where she can remain a child, and heads to the capital, Addis Ababa, to seek a promotion.

Tsega is a compelling figure in his own right. He is born in the province of Gojjam in 1893. After his father catches him sketching pictures of devils as a boy Tsega is forever forbidden from picking up a pen, a restriction that he obeys, incredibly, for more than three decades. Even so, this limitation becomes an advantage as he masters the skill of memorization, learning all of the Psalms by heart. One passage of the book depicts Tsega as a young man leaving home to study with a famous scholar, scenes of which evoke Jesus and his disciples.

[H]e pulled his head through a rough sheepskin cape, picked up his leather book case, and left for a nearby village, where he had heard a respected teacher was working.
A handful of others had done the same, walking in through the valleys and the mountain passes, choosing mastery of poetry in Ge’ez, the church language, over homes that they often never saw again. For five years the sun rose to find them gathered around their teacher, listening to him describe stanza forms, explain particularly pleasing metaphors, recite useful examples.

In Addis Ababa, Tsega’s talent wins him an audience with the Princess Zewditu, who awards him the leadership of Ba’ata Mariam church, making him the most powerful church official in Gondar and Yetemegnu one of the most influential women. The pair eventually set up house in Gondar, where he begins to educate her in her new role. He is advised not to teach Yetemegnu to read (she is already too bright). She for her part sees Tsega as both father and husband, in that order. Tsega often cares for her when she is ill—she comes close to death several times—and after her many difficult pregnancies.

Yetemegnu’s parents were divorced. She was raised by her father, whom she describes, somewhat disdainfully, as a materialistic smooth talker. Her mother, on the other hand, she calls beautiful, generous, and kind. Is it possible that her father’s possession of slaves contributed to their estrangement? Edemariam may hint at this when she tells us that Yetemegnu’s mother was not impressed by his “military skirmishes” with the “prisoners of war who became (his) valuable slaves.” At any rate Yetemegnu understands from her mother’s experience what it means to be unhappily married. Her own husband, a highly respected priest, generally treats her with tenderness. But he is also insanely jealous. She is not permitted to go anywhere without him. Whenever he is overcome by his unreasonable emotions, he beats her with a stick. She leaves him more than once.

One day many years into the marriage, he raises his hand to strike her and she stares him down. After that she begins to assert her freedom, travelling to family functions unaccompanied, stepping out to visit the market, or even attend church on her own. Her neighbours greet her with warmth and respect. By now she has developed superior culinary skills. She is noted for her hospitality and generosity, qualities befitting her position as Aleqa Tsega’s wife.

The perverse facts of Yetemegnu’s early life constitute a predicament for the author. The text is sometimes ambiguous. Do Yetemegnu and Tsega begin living together when she is ten or twelve? Do they consummate the marriage at that time? It’s all quite disturbing—off-putting, even—to contemporary readers. And no doubt, it’s complicated for Edemariam as well. She clearly loves and respects her grandmother and desires to protect both her grandparents from judgment.

Edemariam is likewise reticent on the subject of slavery, which continued to flourish in Ethiopia into the twentieth century. Yetemegnu’s father obviously held slaves because when she is married off, a slave girl accompanies her to her new home. Slaves also help run Yetemegnu’s household. While this may not be the grotesque form of the institution associated with the Atlantic slave trade, it seems necessary to discuss this abhorrent aspect of the culture alongside the conversation about politics and faith. But Edemarian simply avoids providing context for certain awkward subjects, and those moments, while rare, unsettle the reader.

Despite a challenging marriage, the couple proves devoted to one another. Together they serve the men and women of Gondar and rebuild their church, Ba’ata Mariam. It is a prosperous period for the family and the country, with the new emperor introducing Ethiopia into the modern world by means of universal education and the printing press. But then in 1935 the Italians invade Ethiopia, and the emperor flees to Djibouti.

Yetemegnu’s life turns out to be an interesting lens through which to observe twentieth century Ethiopian politics. When the Italians take the city of Gondar, Tsega is asked to gather the priests for a meeting with Italian officials who make them swear allegiance to their king, Victor Emmanuel III. As is often the case, the conquerors begin to fear the people they have defeated. The next time Tsega is called before Italian officials, two priests are shot. The horror escalates with the Italians killing more than three hundred monks and intellectuals
in February of 1937.

When Gondar falls, Yetemegnu flees to her father’s village, another scene out of biblical times.

Eventually, early one morning, her husband and a cousin and a manservant lifted her, pregnant again, onto a mule. She stretched out her arms for the baby and waited as mules and donkeys were loaded with the older children, with clothes and cooking pots, with a hundredweight of the whitest teff, with forty kilos of dried spiced chilli and a generous measure of shirro. Her husband kissed each child goodbye. When they finally set off, a single manservant trotted alongside.

Edemariam draws many analogies between her grandmother and the Virgin Mary, especially in the excerpts from the classic Ethiopic text Legends of Our Lady Mary the Perpetual Virgin and Her Mother Hanna, interspersed throughout her book. As a grieving mother who has lost three of her eleven children, Yetemegnu identifies with Mary. And as a devout but illiterate woman, she studies the images of Mary on the walls of Ba’ata Mariam to develop an understanding of God’s word.

After the war a jealous colleague betrays Tsega and he is thrown in jail. When he dies, Yetemegnu commits her life to clearing his name. Her courage and determination cannot be defeated. The Wife’s Tale is also The Life of a Saint.