Uber driver; was it a fun night?
Me; started off so-
Unable to express Ethiopian nightlife, I smiled wanly. The female uber driver acknowledged my defeated slouch with an empathetic nod.
But non Ethiopian/Eritrean women could only emphatize with half of it.
I love Ethiopian music, I like to dance and I enjoy meeting new people. Atlanta alone is an attractive option- thriving urban center, good weather, diverse demographics but what really cemented my move was the thriving Ethiopian community. To put, Atl “Habesha” scene was tailor made for my roaring 20’s but it requires a hefty compromise. Point blank: Ethiopian nightlife is rife with a virulent form of male aggression.
My exposure to this display came at my first ESFNA festival in Atlanta- I was 18 and visiting from my home state of Arizona. I remember the unadulterated glee passing through my girlfriends as we trickled into the posh venue one by one. Partly because the suspense of getting all of us through the female bouncer had caused a panic–and partly because we were country bumpkins who only got the chance to eskista at community sponsored events twice a year. I imagined sauntering to the dance floor taking in the sumptuous décor. Instead it was a scene from the Walking Dead.
Collectively we were outraged, frightened and most of all embarrassed. That night one of my friends politely refused the advances of a Habesha man. A few hours into the night he sought her out on the packed dance floor, inebriated and ever more importuning. She rejected his sloppy pleas- he attempted to deck her. As this unraveled, my sister and I had acquiesced and accepted a drink from a jovial pair of Habesha men. After wrapping up what was then a substantive conversation but the kind that fades into memory on a fortnight, a round of shots appeared. My sister had initially refused the first drink multiple times- I looked to her for guidance, she was irritated. Pushing the shots at our face he said “ande demo yitalal”- culturally after giving someone a gursha you say “just one and we will fight” and the recipient will have to open up wide a 2nd You never refuse a gursha. To the groups delight, she shot them a burning look of disapproval and downed the shot-I followed her lead. The pairs friends swooped in greeting us with bottled water and introductory questions (where are you from/ there are habeshas in Arizona). I politely responded as my sister tiptoed to scan the packed floor for our dispersed crew. Drinks reappeared. Baffled, I avowedly refused to partake. My sister eyed the Habesha guy who had initially lured us in, he playfully shrugged. After going back and forth with my sister employing all manners of reasoning to take the drinks including the cultural significance of the trinity, their honor as hosts, the wastefulness of refusing the drink- my sister who was laughing at each behest, signaled for us to dip out. Then came the decried “fuck you American bich”. Instinctively we crossed our arms around each other and looked straight ahead.
Recounting the exchange that crushed what was a euphoric night:
My out-of-state Ethiopian girlfriend and I were squeezed in a booth with a group of Horner raised Habesha men. It was 4am and her last night in Atl, we wanted to ride the wave so we went to an after spot. The dry intro conversations poured and my friend participated with the excitable quirk of a Habesha who’s not from D.C. or Atlanta. She’s an attractive americanized girl engaging with men akin to her uncle. Randomly the conversation leered to the state of the bathrooms. I commented that I never venture into the bathrooms at Ethiopian venues because they were always in a state of despair. Everyone agreed, even contributing a nightmarish episode from their favored hooka spots. The night went on and the dispersed conversations hardened to one topic: our relationship status. I immediately detracted. Bursting their propositions with my best facial squint/shrug to convey *I couldnt really understand your Amharic so I’m just going to absentmindedly stare at my phone* My friend abandoning the novelty followed my lead.
After an embarrassing length of time passed, our neighbors got the vibe. Recoiling into themselves. I heard them laughing. We continued chatting amongst ourselves. Now they were pointing. We ignored them. I leaned in when I heard a reference to our mothers. My mother!! As the night was ending, I asked the waitress what they said about us. They were telling a new joinee to their booth that “those Clarkston girls” waitress signaled to us had remarked on the bathrooms. The punchline was that our mothers were the janitors.
It was a terrible comment. I explained to my unbothered friend that Clarkston is where all the Ethiopian refugees live. Most of the American raised first generation Habeshas/East Africans grew up there but are too embarrassed to claim the refugee enclave of a city- preferring instead to cite Atlanta or neighboring Decatur.
We didn’t grow up in Clarkston but his intent to debase us was undeniable.
I frequent American bars, got everclear wasted at frat soirees and I’ve cut through a not-so vacant dark alley. In all my encounters, I have never been so fixedly harassed as by my own people. It’s a mixture of two strains of male aggression; kitchen-sink physical aggression and the more insidious personalized jabs.