I write this blog as a response to the new production of a play due to run at the Young Vic, London, based on Ryszard Kapuściński’s famous book The Emperor, about the final days of the reign of Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia.
The book was turned into a play in the late 80s. Salman Rushdie personally recalled the reception of the play:
Some years later, a stage production of The Emperor, put on in London at the Royal Court Theatre (an English adaptation of one of those mentioned by Ren Weschler), led to one of the most surrealist political demonstrations I have ever seen. (And I say this as someone whose work has occasionally led to protest; I’m something of a connoisseur of the form.) Outside of the Royal Court Theatre, in Sloane Square, there was a protest that only Kapuscinski could have conjured up. Half of the demonstrators wore extremely expensive suits and carried rather well printed placards and were members of the old Ethiopian monarchist party, which objected to his portrayal of Haile Selassie, because, after all, he had been their emperor. The other half of the demonstration were people in knitted hats and dreadlocks who were Rastafarians and thought of Haile Selassie as God and objected to the blasphemy of Ryszard’s portrayal. So you had on the one hand ganja-smoking Rastas and on the other the cigar-smoking Ethiopians. And I thought, this book must be doing something right.
Good for Salman.
I wonder, though, what did he actually know of Haile Selassie I, or Ethiopia, or of Rastafari?
Or did that not matter?
Was the spectacle sufficient in that it was abstractly amusing for its gothic mix?
But knowledge of things African has never been needed to judge things African.
Kapuściński, the famous Polish war correspondent of the Cold War certainly had vast experience in and of the African continent. Yet his book on Haile Selassie I is largely a fiction. It is a work of art. And people treat it as an actual biography. Kapuściński was never entirely honest as to the nature and purpose of his book, although it is true that he wrote it more as a poem on courtiers than he did on the reign of the Emperor. Still, he never stopped the overwhelminging majority of readers from reading it as a factual biography of Haile Selassie I. It must have surprised many readers to learn of his positive assessment of His Majesty in his later years.
That being said, take the book’s infamous first “report” from an informant in the royal court: it is about the Emperor’s little dog, Lulu, who was allowed to piss on the feet of dignitaries.
The amount of times I have heard this story repeated as fact. It is FICTION. The only truth in the story is the existence of a dog called Lulu. Any amateur reader of Ethiopian society and culture would know that this would NEVER have happened. Just as unlikely as Queen Elizabeth II allowing her corgis to piss on the feet of dignitaries.
Yet the complex, dynamic, and CENTRAL part that Haile Selassie I played in Ethiopian, African and World History in the 20th century is reduced in the popular mindset to dog piss.
Well, that can’t stand. I want to bring it back to basics. I’m not interested in hagiographies of His Majesty, nor in “converting” people to the Rastafari faith.
All I want you to do is consider, for one moment, that investigating the life of a leader from 1916 (when Haile Selassie took on the title of Ras Tafari) to 1974 (his overthrow by the Derg) – almost 60 years of rule…
…the life of one who entered Ethiopia into the League of Nations in 1923, who addressed both the League and The United Nations, sought to abolish slavery AND PROVIDE MEANINGFUL REHABILITATION to the previously enslaved (unlike the European slaving powers), gave the African Diaspora supporters of Ethiopia a place of return to the continent, provided – on his own initiative – the first constitutions, a modern military, a general education system – for boys and girls, funded and built more mosques than any other Christian King I am aware of, launched legal battles against South Africa and more…
…one who also had to most definitely navigate with realpolitik the impossible waters of intra-Ethiopian political intrigues, intra-African imperial politics, inter-national imperial politics, cold war politics, inter-African postcolonial politics, the frictions and fractures of old and new political, tribal, religious and ethnic faultlines, etc etc…
…well, I want you just to consider that this life might be instructive of many of the things that make us human in every aspect, that’s all.
Perhaps the complexity of Haile Selassie I is the complexity of Ethiopia, is the complexity of Africa, is the complexity of the Third World, is the complexity of humanity.
Or is Haile Selassie I a pathological despot, Africa pathological despotism, the Third World a lost cause, humanity only for certain humans and not others?
One example of a different Ethiopia.
In 1943, 6000 Greek refugees, fleeing Nazism, crossed to Turkey and there, having made arrangements with the British government, were taken via the Sinai to Djibouti and also to Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. After the liberation of Greece, most returned home, but some remained.
Today, that crisis is reversed, and people, as we know, flee the other way, to an impoverished and crumbling Greece.
In 1943, Ethiopia had barely recovered from the appalling and savage occupation of fascist Italy. It remained in the war. Yet still, Ethiopia welcomed the Greeks.
What of this smells of dog piss?
How many more stories of all types and interpretations litter 1916-1974?
I want to salute the late and great Ras Seymour McLean who tirelessly worked to present a different image of Ethiopia and Africans, one more befitting of equitable engagement. Here’s a dramatisation of his works; watch it in parallel to the BBC2 TV production of The Emperor.
I am aware of the present-day myriad struggles in Ethiopia. Still unfinished after all these years. I know it is extremely complex. I claim no expert knowledge, just an amateur’s commitment to understand better. I write this only for the humanity that Ethiopia has blessed the world with. That is our Rastafari tradition.