Many claimed he hailed from the lineage of Abdella Taha, while others vehemently denied any such connection. Some asserted his Yemeni origins, though some struggled to pinpoint his exact homeland, comfortably terming him an Arab. He belonged to the vague category of Arabs hailing from various Arab nations—when questioned about specifics, they'd retort, "Does it truly matter?" The enigma of his origins persisted, much like the shroud of uncertainty around his lengthy stay in the unassuming town of Jijiga. Carbon dating attempts ranged from the era of Taha to that of the Mohammed Alis’.
While his past remained draped in mystery, his presence cast a distinct shadow. Intoxicated moments saw children pestering him, hurling names like "Ebro-Timbro." The cacophony of Aba Sere's vigilant dogs and the joyful shouts of children playing in the streets emerged as his adversaries. To his clientele, he was "Ibrahim Tella," a title that bore a semblance of formality. In his fractured Amharic, Ibrahim unfailingly responded with biting retorts, such as "offspring of harlots" or "Bint al Sherumuth"
Diverging from his teetotaler compatriots, Ibrahim was no stranger to the embrace of alcohol. His intense dalliance with liquor inflicted psychological wounds, relegating him to the outskirts of his community. His fondness for the local brew had effectively placed Ibrahim on a delicate fulcrum between the Christian and Muslim factions. He stood as a transition, a living bridge uniting two communities that shared few commonalities.
Ibrahim was an unwavering professional in matters of business. Donning his pullover, a garment that could easily be mistaken for a prisoner's jumpsuit, he would consistently be found meticulously measuring the symmetry of newly constructed house floors. If the task involved cementing and refining the flooring, he'd take the extra care of shaping it into an elegant Arab pattern. Guiding his coworkers to dig the floor to an ideal depth, he'd oversee the process, and upon satisfaction, meticulously refill it with a curated mixture of Gereb Asan, the distinct red clay soil procured from the nearby mountain range. The partially filled surface would finally be sealed with mortar. Allowing it three days to dry, he'd return to bestow a refined finish. It was during this phase that he'd employ his full range of oriental skills.
He'd extend strings, neatly rolled on one side, and anchor them to an iron nail, stretching them to the room's full length. After ensuring the tautness of the strings, he'd guide the assistant on the opposite end to mirror the measurements. Once assured of the precise dimensions, he'd affix the string ends to the floor. Balancing on cardboard scraps, he'd gently lift the strings and release them, allowing them to etch their signature onto the newly coated wet cement floor. This ritual was performed both vertically and horizontally, crafting intricate squares across the floor's expanse. Ibrahim's personal touch emerged in the form of loops adorning the angles of each square. This meticulous process was replicated in every wall corner and the floor's centre. Conquering the corners proved a challenge, as the barrier of the wall often claimed one ear of the loop.
Once the loops were immaculately executed, to his and his clients' deep contentment, Ibrahim would leisurely sit, gazing at the masterpiece he had birthed through his hands and imagination. With a cigarette poised between his fingers and a glass of Tella gently sipped, he'd relish the moment of creative fulfillment. Then, as if struck by a sudden bolt of inspiration, he'd etch his name in Arabic script onto a corner of the floor, accompanied by the date, also rendered in Arabic numerals. His autograph was always bestowed upon the freshly prepared and artfully decorated concrete floor. These inscriptions became his fingerprints, destined to linger indefinitely until a future moment of maintenance.
Life for Ibrahim Tella maintained its habitual cadence until an incident unfolded, sending shockwaves through the town. This marked the sole occasion when Ibro found himself at odds with the customs of the Christian community. The event revolved around the construction of a tomb for Fitawrari Mulugeta. The Fitawrari, struck down by Somali gunfire near the border town of Durwale, and his colleagues saw his body brought to rest at the town's cemetery, escorted by government dignitaries and grieving kin. Reflecting his esteemed stature, a decision was reached to hold an elaborate liturgical procession and inter him at the Saint Michel graveyard—the sole Christian burial ground in the town. The resting place within the church compound was a measure of one's proximity to the archangel Michael. Those in good graces with him (a translation that echoed favour from the priests due to tithes) found their eternal slumber inside the church premises. Those interred just beyond the outer wall fence bore a less fortunate status, while the least favoured lay on the outskirts of the graveyard.
Death, it was understood, came in various gradations and not all warranted full funeral rites. The classification of the funeral service hinged on the gravity of the departed's sins. The liturgy's purpose was to "release" the deceased from the Devil's grasp. Yet, those who had taken their own lives existed beyond the ecclesiastical jurisdiction, rendering them less eligible for proper funeral rituals and burial spots. A separate cemetery existed for the town's Catholics, though the number of those interred there never exceeded the tally of one's fingers. To many in Jijiga, the Catholic burial ground seemed abandoned. Situated on the far northeastern fringes of the town, the only evidence of its nature as a cemetery was the presence of barbed wire fencing, unlike the stone outer walls surrounding the Orthodox graveyard. It served as a mausoleum for Italian soldiers who met their fate during World War II. Unlike the haphazard layout of Orthodox and Muslim burial sites, the Catholic graves adhered to an organized pattern.
Among the town's inhabitants, the Somalis, whose population eclipsed that of all other ethnic groups combined, had two cemeteries dedicated to them. These burial grounds bore the names of two prominent Sufi holy men—Sheik Ali Gurre (Ali the left-handed) and Sheik Sherif. These cemeteries occupied the western and southern entrances of the town and featured a modest temple between them.
Ibrahim approached his task with the utmost care, refraining from smoking while within the confines of the graveyard—an act he did reluctantly but out of respect for his Christian clientele. Furthermore, he consciously avoided any indulgence in liquor during daylight hours, and once evening descended, he made his way home as quietly as a Yemeni cat. The project assigned to him was to be completed prior to the 40th Memorial Day—an interval believed to mark the lingering of the departed spirit for 40 days before its eventual departure to its eternal abode. This tradition found its parallel in the 40 days that followed the resurrection of Jesus Christ, lending the belief its basis. Yet, this 40-day timeline posed a formidable challenge to the project's completion.
Compounding the difficulty, the supervisor overseeing the task was none other than the embodiment of the Fitawrari himself. The project's essence involved constructing a mausoleum atop the very grave, and in fact, above the remains of the Fitawrari. However, the timeframe proved far too narrow for such an ambitious endeavour. Regardless, Ibrahim undertook the feat by putting in extra hours, extending his work into the night. Progress remained steady, and the gravestone stood prepared to be inaugurated on the 40th day since the passing of Fitawrari Mulugeta.
On the eve of the ceremonial occasion, Ibrahim Tella added his final touch to the creation, with his assistant etching the epitaph of the Fitawrari onto the freshly molded concrete tablet. This time, he directed his stonemasons and laborers to inscribe his own name in the corner of the tomb, using an exceptionally small font that bore a resemblance to an Algerian script. However, the conundrum he encountered on the following day had no connection to this engraving. In the days that followed, the town's myriad minds, both great and small, scrutinized the predicament that unfolded on that fateful day. Explanations varied: some ascribed it to exhaustion, while others pointed to the lack of adequate illumination. (Using a torch or a hurricane lamp in a graveyard was considered not only suicidal but also homicidal, seen as handing a blade to the myriad genies hovering over the deceased Christians.) Regardless of the reasoning, an error had occurred, and it was attributed to poor Ibrahim.
A grievous error had been committed, one that defied any swift correction. The mistake lay squarely in the inscriptions etched onto the tablet. The distinguished title of "Fitawrari" underwent an unfortunate transformation, now appearing as "fitu-Tawero" "MuluGeta" morphed into "MeriGeta" and "Tewledu" was muddled into "Tebedu" As dawn broke and the entire epitaph was revealed, the text told a scandalous tale—one of MeriGeta's intimate escapades, his subsequent loss of sight, and his eventual demise triggered by those very escapades.
MeriGeta found himself taken aback by this twisted narrative. He was caught in a dilemma, unable to put a halt to his prayer service yet equally incapable of forging ahead. Gazing at his own name inscribed in the most profane manner imaginable, and seemingly mocking him right before his eyes, required the kind of patience associated with an elephant—an attribute that, as rumours had it, MeriGeta sorely lacked. What had begun as a resonant and fervent prayer soon dwindled to mere mumbles, then devolved into whispers, and ultimately dissolved into an indistinct “hmmmmmm."
The revelation that Meri-Geta, a revered figure within the church, had been labeled as gay sent shockwaves through him. The weight of this accusation was not just his burden alone; it cast a stain on the entire town and stood as a stark paradox. Here was a man who had diligently safeguarded his purity, abstaining from any contamination of his body and preserving his sexual integrity, only to find himself accused by none other than a mere monumental mason. The damning script of this accusation was etched squarely onto a meticulously crafted cement tablet. Could a more grievous misfortune befall a person of his stature? It was a disheartening twist of fate. A man who had devoted his body, soul, and mind to serving the Angel now confronted the devil himself—not within the sanctity of the holiest place, but rather on the devil's own territory.
His thoughts drifted back to his childhood, when he had been a humble shepherd. Sixty years may have passed since then, but the memories were etched as vividly as if they had transpired only yesterday, especially during this June.
Engaged in playful antics with the girl from his neighbourhood, a carefree afternoon took an unexpected turn when she proposed they play "husband and wife." With a makeshift coffee-making ritual, she enacted the role of a wife, while he, as the "husband," sat regally on a stone, sipping imaginary coffee. Ingeniously, she employed corks as make-believe cups and soil as a coffee substitute. To complete the charade, she fashioned a nuptial bed out of leaves and grasses. At that time, she was seven and he was eight, an innocent childhood moment that would reverberate with a different kind of life many years down the line.
Their childlike slumber, innocently entwined, mimicking husband and wife, was abruptly interrupted. A neighbour, returning from the market, chanced upon the scene and was taken aback. In disbelief, she muttered "Beseme Abe" under her breath, voicing her astonishment. "What are you kids doing?" she inquired, both bemused and concerned. The young boy, devoid of any subterfuge and embodying the pure innocence of youth, informed the lady that he was simply sleeping with his wife.
The intrusion of a newly arrived mourner, the deceased's cousin, punctuated by mournful wails, shattered the narrative woven within his mind. This poignant scene at the graveyard drew him out of his reveries, snapping him back to the present moment.
Regaining his composure, he recognized that he was still at the helm of the 'Qidase' though what lay before him was no longer the sacred text he intended to lead. Instead, an unanticipated spectacle greeted everyone's gaze, concealed only by a gossamer-thin Netela. Shock rippled through the deceased's family and the town alike. On this particular day, Ibrahim had joined the gathered assembly to partake in the festivities, alongside other invited guests and the deceased's relatives. His attention darted about, subtly calculating the potential clientele among those present. Dressed in his finest attire, a khaki suit, he impatiently awaited the commencement of the festivities. In an unexpected twist, however, all eyes suddenly converged on him. A sea of about 200 penetrating gazes felt as potent as a thousand drills piercing iron, let alone a mere mortal body of flesh. Yet, the intensity of that collective gaze catapulted Ibrahim back through time, transporting him to his days within the walls of his religious Medressa school in Yemen.
"Ibrahim, you spawn of Shaitan, stop licking your fingers and squatting there!" admonished the Medressa Imam, his white satin robe fluttering with his stern words, as he pointed an accusatory finger at the young child cowering in the corner. "Recite the ninety-nine names of Allah!" the Imam's command rang out once more. Lost in uncertainty, Ibrahim cast a desperate glance towards the teacher, seeking guidance. "Use your fingers... bin Al Jeni," the Imam's rebuke came, laden with frustration. Beside Ibrahim, a fellow young boy turned discreetly and indicated his finger joints, mouthing the words Alhamdulillah, Subhanallah, Astaghfirullah... Ibrahim carefully followed the silent cues of his friend's lips, reciting along—until suddenly, he halted. Gently placing his wooden slate and inky pen to the side, his gaze turned skyward.
He snapped back to reality, murmuring, "A'udhu billahi min ash-shaytan ir-rajim." Twice, he rubbed his eyes, half-expecting a trick of vision. The eyes and turban of Meri-Geta appeared eerily identical to those of his Medressa Imam from long ago. He glanced left and right, seeking reassurance from the assembled onlookers, but no assistance came forth. A sense of panic gripped Ibrahim, a childhood apprehension resurfacing—tinged with humour and laughter. It was a fear intertwined with the challenge of encountering those speaking unfamiliar languages.
Truthfully, Ibrahim bore no responsibility for the unfolding situation. He had no connection to the predicament. In fact, Ibrahim lacked the knowledge of how to write in Amharic, rendering him entirely innocent. The crux of his errors lay in his decision to enlist his tavern companion, whose prowess in the Amharic alphabet was less than stellar. The family of the deceased acted swiftly, covering the flawed epitaph with a second 'Netela' while the Qidase continued with a frenzied energy for the remaining hours. Meri-Geta was torn between embarrassment and turmoil. Overcoming his initial mortification, he found it hard to regain his composure for the rest of the day. The desire to rectify the mistakes tugged at him—how long could a tomb remain veiled by a netela? Yet, the notion of a mason sullying his honourable name vexed him. He couldn't bear the idea of a non-christian tarnishing the sanctity of the city of the dead.
"The devil must have possessed Ibrahim Tella's body for this to occur,"Meri-Geta muttered, attempting to counter the curse through his own phrase, "EkDeke Saitan" a near equivalent of Ibrahim's Arabic expression. In his desperation, Meri-Geta scanned the surroundings, seeking a bore water he could instantaneously transform into "Holy" water, similar to the biblical water-to-wine miracle. Eteye Beletu, carrying a container of Tebel water, caught his attention from a distance. With her sharp wit, she maneuvered closer to the centre of the ritual proceedings.
Carrying Sharban bore water in a repurposed Coca-Cola bottle, she realized its age—two days old—and the fact that the town's water supply was under Ibrahim’s cousin ownership, rendering it doubly precarious. "One mistake was enough for today; two would be perilous," Eteye Beletu cogitated. Her resourcefulness guided her to the handful of Tebel (holy) water she kept in a slightly damaged Fanta bottle in her other hand. However, uncertainty clouded her, leading her to sidle behind Meri-Geta, where she discreetly queried him about the water's effectiveness and potency. The interruption of his liturgy and what she saw as her own "ignorance" slightly perturbed Meri-Geta, and he gestured towards the bottled water with his chin. Unable to present her case, she extended the bottled water to him. Her gaze fixed on him, observing closely as he administered the water onto the grave tablet.
Nothing visibly changed, yet all eyes remained fixed on Meri-Geta. While there was no apparent transformation, a spell had been cast—the tablet lost its allure for the unwary. At least, that was Meri-Geta's intention. Like traversing a forest daily, where each tree becomes forgettable, or the ground one walks upon, the scene would fade from memory. Such was his wish—to negate the tablet's impact. But it wasn't the outcome he received. Later that day, seated at the forefront of the festivities, Meri-Geta suddenly inquired, "Who is that Arab known for crafting Christian tombs?" He posed the question, still incensed by the earlier incident. Undoubtedly aware of Ibrahim's name, Meri-Geta had often sought his assistance in prioritizing burials for skilled workers.
"It is Ibrahim-Tella, Meri-Geta," the widow of the deceased stated, her final words followed by a subtle "Mtsee," a gesture of sympathy meant to mask the underlying sexual innuendo. This undertone was a disgraceful reminder of her lost husband and the embrace that was now irrevocably beyond her reach. Meri-Geta swallowed the last remnants of his drink, his gaze fixated on the floor as he idly traced patterns with his rod. "As of today, I'd prefer not to see any mason around our church," Meri-Geta declared, his tone akin to a standing decree as he turned towards the Gebez-Aleqa. In his fervour, he seemed to have overlooked the historical fact that the cemetery and the church had once belonged to the indigenous muslims before his arrival. Being a non-native of Jijiga, he was often referred to as a "longtime resident of Jijiga." Following his proclamation, he delved into a tale he had heard from his godfather when he was a shepherd back in Soqota. It recounted the events during Gragn Mohammed's era, when Muslims desecrated places of worship, including what they called "holy cemeteries." While some were puzzled by the concept of a "holy" cemetery, Girma, the church's deacon, appeared troubled. He had been warned against traversing the cemetery to avoid the company of devils.
"Mmm, how can a grave be deemed holy if it's a dwelling of devils? This must surely be a 'Qene,' concealing a hidden message," Girma pondered, unwilling to leave such confusion unresolved. He sought Meri-Geta's insights, urging him to elaborate on the matter. Irritated by the query, Meri-Geta requested the hostess to refill his empty glass. Despite his annoyance, he couldn't outright dismiss the deacon's inquiry but chose to respond with a counter question instead.
"What's come over this boy—what devil's grip has him?" Meri-Geta retorted, steering away from a direct response. "Tell me, Girma, why are we all so wary of entering the holy of holies?" Girma blinked his bulging eyes twice—his answer needing no further articulation. The assembly found satisfaction in this response, and Meri-Geta continued. However, the flow of the conversation was disrupted by the hostess, who posed a query. "How do they defile it, Meri-Geta?" the lady inquired with a hint of curiosity. Her question steered the discussion towards the heart of the matter. "They defile it by desecrating our holy places, sleeping with our women inside the church. Yes, leaders corrupt them in sacred spaces, while their followers pollute them in the sanctuaries," Memru responded, a note of gratitude in his heart for the lady who had guided the conversation back on track. Simultaneously, he clenched his teeth, considering ways to reprimand the insolent deacon.
One option was to relieve Girma of his duties for the upcoming Sundays, though that posed a risk as his distinctive alto voice could not be easily replaced. After contemplation, Meri-Geta resolved to exclude Girma from the next Senbete, the communal feast. During such festivities, the deacon's expertise wouldn't be critical, and his absence would go unnoticed.
"Abes Geberku," the lady exclaimed, her words reigniting the very issue Meri-Geta had raised earlier. Eager to keep the momentum going, Meri-Geta responded, "Yes, that's what the grandfathers of these mason did," attempting to stoke the conversation.
"But Meri-Geta, those were Somalis, Ibrahim is an Arab," retorted the deceased's wife. For a fleeting moment, she found herself in agreement with Meri-Geta's perspective.
"What's become of your sharp mind, Woiziro Yeteme? I thought your Arab mason is a Muslim," Meri-Geta jabbed, singling out the lady for enlisting Ibrahim and inadvertently making her an accomplice to his humiliation. Woizero Yeteme's face reddened with a mixture of confusion and frustration. Operating with limited mental bandwidth, her thoughts struggled to piece together her involvement in this tangled situation. Then, like a belated revelation, her cognitive gears clicked into place, and she discerned the underlying implication.
In an instant, Meri-Geta transformed into a strategist, seizing the opportunity. With the cunning of a seasoned player, he entrapped the widowed lady within his discourse, ensuring that she remained bound by guilt until death parted her from her shame. "Humiliations are not and should not be private," he affirmed to himself. Thus, Woizero Yeteme bore the burden of her remorse, carrying the weight of humiliation until her passing.
For priests, few occasions equaled the grandeur of presiding over the deceased, at least that was the perception in the past. Such days granted officiating priests the power to govern their spiritual constituents. This was undoubtedly on Meri-Geta's mind when he considered Girma.
During the post-service festivities, Ibrahim was conspicuously absent. Like Meri-Geta, he was no stranger to shame, absorbing his share and choosing to steer clear of the celebration. His conscience rejected the severe humiliation he had endured, making the festivities unbearable. Dejected, he left the congregation early and retreated to his home. He didn't even detour to his customary tavern. Instead, he sought refuge in solitude, sleeping through the remainder of the day.
Ibrahim's concern didn't stem from the loss of business; rather, he was troubled by the inscription on the tablet. His meticulous nature refused to accept such errors, regardless of whether the content was blasphemous to his Arab sensibilities. The mistake had stirred a whirlwind in the Christian community, leaving him puzzled by their intense indignation. While he had casually used a profane term for the local mosque's Sheikh in the company of fellow Muslims, the Sheikh showed no reaction. But the Christian highlanders were different, and their priests commanded a dignified presence. They recoiled from verbal abuse to such an extent that they'd sooner search for a rope to hang themselves than endure it publicly. Ibrahim upheld a code of decency, known to pay his workers on time even in challenging times, even when clients hadn't settled their debts. His moral compass was unwavering, and that day, he hadn't accepted a single payment from the bereaved families.
The edict Meri-Geta had imparted to the Gebez Aleqa faded into the dusty air of Jijiga as a few notable individuals passed away in the following months. Yet, due to the trade of these deceased few, turning to Christian masonry was out of the question, as they were primarily carpenters. Implementing Meri-Geta's directive proved challenging, and people began to turn to Ibrahim for their tomb construction needs. In the interval until the dust settled, Ibrahim found himself preoccupied with crafting cemented floors in the burgeoning neighbourhoods of Jijiga, specifically in areas known as Menze Sefer. This new settlement vaguely resembled the Jewish settlement of Gaza.
Before he could fully recover from the shock of his previous ordeal, Ibrahim received another tomb commission. His return to business filled him with contentment, as he finally recognized his indispensable role within the town and the industry. He rallied his disbanded labor forces and started assembling his tools. Yet, to his astonishment, he discovered that his hammer was missing. Despite inquiring among his labourers, not a single one could recall when they last saw his prized tool. In truth, it was futile for Ibrahim to question his labor force, as their memories scarcely retained recent occurrences.
Feeling both frustrated and anxious, especially with the 40th-day deadline looming, Ibrahim sought out the town's soothsayer to locate his missing sledgehammer. This soothsayer was an Arab woman known as Umma Fatuma, with a conspicuous wart on her cheek. Her features were broad and plump for her age, and she spent her days rarely moving around, reserving her energy for the night when she sat beneath the shade of a large acacia tree in her compound. There, surrounded by her clients and a charcoal stove that intermittently emitted flames and incense-laden smoke, she unveiled hidden secrets of lost livestock and belongings.
For Ibrahim, the challenge wasn't rooted in a conflict of faith but in conflicting schedules. He'd much rather spend time with his friends than "endure" it with Umma. Eventually, he decided to make an urgent evening visit to Umma's quarters, paying all the necessary fees. He brought along a bundle of Chat, along with a kilo of incense as a gesture of goodwill. Umma's usher received the offerings, ushering Ibrahim to a seat near the roaring charcoal stove. This arrangement was less than ideal, as the stove's heat threatened to upset Ibrahim's stomach, already replete from Filter Tella.