Not a week has gone by in the past seven years that I haven’t been quizzed on my heritage, and because Eritrea is off the beaten track, it has never been a swift exchange, often mushrooming into a lesson on geography and socio-politics: at the Oscars, Tiffany Haddish shed some light on my misunderstood country. AFP
If the US actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish ever visits Abu Dhabi, I am going to ask her out for dinner – not in the hope of having some romantic connection with her or envisaging a slap-up, celebrity-inspired feast, but as a thank you to her for putting our home in north-eastern Africa on the map.
I always felt Eritrea deserved its own Bambi moment, and by that I mean an event of cultural relevance that would permanently change perceptions.
Before Bambi, people often thought of the agile deer as a somewhat aloof creature. But following the success of the 1942 animated film and its subsequent legacy, giving a deer a mean sideways glance is akin to scowling at a baby.
Haddish’s star appeal, combined with her arrival at this week’s Oscars in regal traditional Eritrean clothing as a tribute to her father’s heritage, has prompted people to start researching the country, which is just as well, because I am done with explaining it.
Not a week has gone by in the past seven years that I haven’t been quizzed on my heritage, and because Eritrea is off the beaten track, it has never been a swift exchange, often mushrooming into a lesson on geography and socio-politics. That’s if we even get past the pronunciation. For some reason – perhaps it was a bureaucratic error that stuck – whenever I have travelled throughout the region during my seven-year stint here, Eritrea has always been mispronounced. From Beirut to Casablanca, it has been given an extra syllable and called “Eri-te-ri-ya”.
Once that’s promptly corrected, it’s on to the location game. Depending on how much time I have, I provide the short version – “it’s on the coast of Ethiopia” – or if my inquisitor is helplessly marooned, then I will paint them a mental picture starting with the Horn of Africa, before zeroing in on the country.
I recall one evening while having dinner with friends at Al Wahda Mall, I had to use utensils – the fork was Ethiopia, the knife Eritrea and a couple of stained tea cups were made into Somalia and Sudan.
As a child migrant in Australia in the early 1990s, my personal knowledge of my mother country was scant at best – all I knew was the place was in ruins because of war and they probably had no decent television shows for kids.
So I did what kids do when bereft of ideas – I bent the truth. Because I wasn’t in the same school every four years when the World Cup rolled around, my nationality depended on which team was performing well in the football at the time. My friends at Kensington Primary School in 1990 thought I was from Cameroon (I even gracefully accepted their congratulations for “us” beating Argentina), while to those at Therry College, I was that dude from Nigeria.
With the advent of the internet and Google Maps, the gig was up by 2000 and I had to go on my endless explanation campaign once more. All of this would have been easier, if our cuisine hadn’t become so popular.
Now that we are in the midst of the “Haddish Effect”, here is hoping her rising stardom will land her a role in the sequel to Black Panther, then we can stop all that explaining and perhaps get a few children to tell their fellow students they are also Eritrean.