“Chasing the elusive past”: Hiwot Teffera’s Tower in the Sky

“You will find them at bus stations pretending to read newspapers, telling the time, scratching the tips of their noses. In a cafe, they order either tea or coffee. They whisper among themselves. They look shabby – girls with Afros, netelas, and sneakers, and boys with worn out jeans and sneakers.”

  • A State official’s description of the members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP)

In 1974, the regime of the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown in a revolution. Left-wing student movements played a significant part in the revolution, primarily through the vehicle of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (the EPRP). However, soon after the revolution, the military junta – the Derg – seized power. When the EPRP condemned the Derg as standing in the way of a true people’s democracy, the stage was set for a bloody conflict. After an ill-fated attempt by the EPRP to assassinate Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1976, the military government unleashed a full-scale war against the EPRP. Thousands of cadres were imprisoned, tortured, executed, and disappeared, in a campaign known as the “Red Terror.”

Hiwot Teffera was a young woman who, as an 18-year-old student, was recruited into the ranks of the EPRP. Tower in the Sky is her memoir of the time: it takes the reader through the heady campus politics of the Addis Ababa of 1974, the euphoria accompanying the initial overthrow of Haile Selassie, the EPRP’s dream of building a free and egalitarian society (the eponymous “Tower in the Sky”), its gradual descent into doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism in the teeth of the assault by the Derg, carrying on revolutionary activities under intense repression, and finally, after several miraculous escapes, the author’s own capture, torture, and nine-year-long imprisonment by the military junta. Reading this book reminded me, at times, of Ibrahim Abdelmeguid’s Clouds Over Alexandria, a fictionalised account of the Egyptian student movement of 1973, which suffered a similar fate; the difference, of course, is that Tower in the Sky is a true story.

Getachew Maru

For a significant part of the book, the protagonist is not only Hiwot herself, but also Getachew Maru, a student-leader of the EPRP, who recruits Hiwot into the party through the means of a Marxist reading circle, mentors her, and eventually becomes her lover. Tower in the Sky is, in some ways, the story of Getachew Maru, and the story of Getachew Maru is the story of the doomed Ethiopian Revolution, and indeed, of all doomed left-wing revolutions. From the beginning, Hiwot portrays Maru as open-minded and free-willed, qualities that are of great use in the initial days of the revolution, but start to become increasingly inconvenient to the EPRP’s politburo as the conflict with the Derg intensifies. Maru’s public disagreement with the EPRP’s policy of urban warfare against the Derg proves to be the last straw: he is taken into custody, interrogated, and finally shot dead, in circumstances that are never fully revealed. Like the great Salvadoran revolutionary poet, Roque Dalton, Maru dies not at the hands of the tyrannical regime that he is fighting, but by his own comrades.

This is a familiar, and familiarly saddening story: of an initially idealistic revolutionary Party that reifies into increasingly authoritarian structures, engages in a series of missteps and mistakes that only lead to further authoritarianism (a vicious circle), and eventually turns on its own. What makes Tower in the Sky particularly poignant, however, is that all of this shatters a very real love between two very real people – Hiwot and Getachew. The intensity of Hiwot’s feelings – undimmed through the years – are evident from her choice of epigraph to the book, which are lines from Khalil Gibran:

If in the twilight of memory we should
meet once more, we shall speak again
together and you shall sing to me a deeper song.
And if our hands should meet in another
dream we shall build another tower in the sky.

This tearing melancholy drapes the pages of Tower in the Sky, turning events, numbers, statistics into the rhythms of joy and pain. We laugh with Hiwot when she describes how the student revolutionaries – the “Revos” – consider romance a frivolous pursuit (and initially, Getachew is not exempt from this), leading couples on the university campus to find sanctuary beside the magnificently-named “kissing pool”; we share her initial heady rush of joining the EPRP and being integrated into its underground activities; we smile conspiratorially when she reveals how she never found Lenin as interesting as Marx, but didn’t dare say it to Getachew (who would, ironically, lose his life to the Leninist logic of democratic centralism); we nod in recognition when she writes that Getachew “put an edge on my sensibility”; we hold our breath through the long slow-burn that is their romance, interrupted by the EPRP sending them to different parts of the country for revolutionary work, and by the surveillance and repression of the Derg (“… our love was as underground as the organisation we belonged to”); and the brutal – and untimely – snapping of their relationship with Getachew’s murder comes as a numbing shock, a disbelief that is hard to shake off even after you put the book down. So clear, sharp, and real is the Getachew of Tower in the Sky, that his loss feels personal.

Hiwot Teffera

The poignancy of Tower in the Sky is sharpened by Hiwot’s clear-eyed self-awareness of her own intellectual and emotional trajectory. At the height of the revolutionary movement, she writes about how her “wandering soul finally found an abode”, and how the struggle was “my present, my future, my life.” At the heart of this is her loyalty to the Party – on more than one occasion, she compares her love for Getachew with her love for the Party. But what is striking is that even on Getachew’s expulsion – and eventual murder – Hiwot’s faith in the Party, although shaken, remains intact. More than once she asks herself if it is even possible for the Party to make a mistake; she lays bare before the reader her own rationalisations (“it’s not the Party, just a clique within it”), and her own refusal to acknowledge a fact that would bring her own world-view crumbling down around her.

It is only in the solitude and loneliness of prison – as she hears daily news of the executions and massacres of comrades, thanks to the Party’s missteps – that Hiwot’s faith in both the Party and doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism breaks. “But my mind connived against my cherished Party,” she writes, in one of the most haunting passages of the book, “and slowly I tore up the sacred veil draping my eyes: without illusions, myths, and sacred taboos surrounding it, to my horror, it became just an ordinary bunch of people trying to find their way in the dark.” Notably, however, this does not lead her to disown or condemn her own past: Hiwot remains kind to her earlier self, understanding the dream of the tower in the sky, and to a past that she retains respect and admiration for, but she is now able to look at the Party “without nostalgia or regrets.” It is a truly remarkably personal journey.

There are parts of this book that read like a thriller: before her eventual incarceration, Hiwot cheats death and capture multiple times: on some occasions through her presence of mind (pretending to be a recently-bereaved wife to avoid detention), and sometimes through sheer luck (avoiding a patrol by a matter of minutes). False identities, fake papers, disguises, police informers, love and loyalty under the most extreme of circumstances, prison life – the book has it all. There are moments of pathos, but also, moments of humour (the old woman-prisoner who sits underneath the volleyball net while the prisoners play, refuses to move, and pricks the ball every time it lands on her, is an image that will never leave me).

But in the end, history, as Auden says, can say alas, but can neither help nor pardon. The generation of the 1970s is often called the Golden Generation, and the Lost Generation, and in the pages of this book, you can see why: the cast of characters that wander onto the stage (and wander off it) are remarkable individuals – fiercely intelligent, empathetic, and caring, with most of them sacrificing everything (including, ultimately, their lives) for that elusive “tower in the sky.” And at the end of this book, you are left with a feeling of emptiness and a sense of futility, for how these lives were wasted. As Hiwot describes the feeling of the exile:

“Wherever they lived, many of them became eternal strangers to the world and to themselves. Devoid of dreams and ideals, they lost meaning in the present or the future. They kept chasing the elusive past.”

Tower in the Sky is not only about a crucial moment in modern Ethiopian history, but it is one of the most beautiful accounts that you will ever read of love, loss, and revolution. Strongly recommended.


1 Comment

Filed under African Writing, Ethiopia

One response to ““Chasing the elusive past”: Hiwot Teffera’s Tower in the Sky

  1. Pingback: 2022: The Year in Books | anenduringromantic

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