Markos Hanna- Exemplary son
Judith Linder, an American national, came to Ethiopia in 1960 and married a musician, Abubaker Ashakih. She first worked for the Business College of the Haile Selassie University, and later transferred to the Ministry of Post, Telegraph and Telecommunications until her 1978 exodus from the revolutionary regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. In this extract from Judith’s memoir, “Gift of Incense, A story of love and Revolution in Ethiopia”, published by Red Sea Press, she hails the peerless intelligence and moral ingenuity of her exceptional friend and boss, Markos Hanna. This lengthy essay, which I found it to be rarity, is her personal portrait of the man who first served as an Attaché in the Ethiopian Embassy in Greece and later a Director General of the ministry of Post and Telecommunication.And certainly in Ato Markos, the man who was said to be Emperor Haile Selassie’s illegitimate and unacknowledged son, the author has found a source of both fascination and mystery. She illuminates a picture of the complicated fabric made up the history of the royal family.Here it goes.
Markos Hanna was an unusual person. We had become acquainted through my job at the post office in 1966, where he was Director General and my immediate boss. After Abubaker and I were married in 1968, he often invited me to visit him on Mondays, our night off. Abubaker agreed when Markos asked him for lessons on oud. In 1977 his wife was living full time in Athens and looking after their son who was a student there, safely out of the path of revolution. Markos’ apartment was perhaps a bit to quiet for him. The music helped fill the emptiness on nights between our weekly visit. We always knew Markos would have luscious fresh pastry from the best shop in town as treat for us later in the evening, and that our conversations would be more important to him than the lessons. He had studied in Egypt and always spoke Arabic with Abubaker.
In 1969 Marcos’ brother had brought Abubaker a new oud, beautifully crafted in Syria, inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl and with twelve ebony tunings pegs. Now, Marcos practiced scales on Abubaker’s old instrument. He spoke about his yearning to coax the songs of his youth in Egypt from the strings of the ancient instrument, if only the residual spirit and dexterity of Abubaker’s playing could be made to guide his own fingers.Marcos had the heart and love for the music.However, not everyone has a musician’s ear and his progress was very limited.
Beyond music, Markos had many artistic sensibilities and was an excellent choice as Director General of the Imperial Ethiopian Ministry of Post, Telegraph and Telecommunications. He was in charge of issuing all the postage stamps for the government. He took pride in the beauty of each new stamp. The stamps were colorful, of first quality, and valuable to collectors who swarmed the post office lobby on the first day of issue. I was doubly fascinated to be part of the production since my grandmother had been a stamp collector for years and I had grown up hearing about first day covers and “blocks of four” while thumbing through her albums.
Ato Marcos gave me the priviledge of peeking at the designs on the days when he convened with the Minister and heads of various departments for ther final choice.I was always thrilled to meet artists when they delivered ther work to our offices, and i became acquainted with several of them during my two-year contract.
At Markos introduced me to the famous Afewerk Tekle, the emperor’s protege, who was commissioned more often than any other artist and never entered the contests.Abdella Kekia was a frequent contest winner. I learned later that he was a friend of Abubaker’s.He was the architect who designed plans for our proposed house in Nazret in 1974.Theodros Fikru, who designed the “30th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” stamp, also painted the Botticelli copy of “Venus” for the bandstand in our orginal nightclub.
Ato Markos had been an Attaché in the Ethiopian Embassy in Greece, where he met his Greek wife, before coming to the post office. He was a handsome man, perhaps thirty-five years old at the time, with huge, dark, heavily lidded eyes under heavy eyebrows in a longish face of cinnamon complexion. He wore his black wavy hair just below his ears, European style. He dressed in elegant, fashionable, handsome French suits. He rose to greet me and moved purposefully, shoulders erect, to welcome me to a chair in front of his desk when I replied to the job advertisement in the newspaper. His smile was open and his manner direct but gracious. He was suave, worldly, in control and at ease.
We spoke French as well as English during my job interview. I learned he was fluent in Arabic as in Amharic. Most of my work at the ministry was for him as he prepared the paperwork soliciting bid proposals from Courvoisier, or De La Rue, and other European stamp printers, which I then typed. He expected the work to be faultless but was courteous in his injunctions. His manner was always impeccable and respectful and his compliments were sincere when my work pleased him.
Markos’ intriguing background was one of the first subjects underlings at the post office imparted to me, albeit well out of his hearing. They said he was the illegitimate son, the love child, of the emperor. They said he had been welcome at the palace, coming and going as he please until recently, and that unspecified powers inside the palace were trying to distance him from the emperor’s favor since the deaths of his two older sons, Prince Makonnen and Prince Sahle Selassie. A complicated fabric made up the history of the family. Both princes were supposed to have been woman chasers and at least one of them was shot by a disgruntled husband. The other was reputed to have been a drug addict who also died under veiled circumstances. Whisperers implied that the only these two were the sons of the emperor, not the crown prince, Asfa wossen and that crown would have gone to one of them. Perhaps this was the basis of Ato Marko’s ejection from the palace. If he were to be accepted as true son of the emperor, the throne might pass to him rather than Asfa Wosen, a much older, chronically ill man. Perhaps that was why Markos had been bundled out of the country to a diplomatic post in Greece when he was younger, to keep his abilities out of Haile Selasie view.
Why didn’t the emperor believe the crown prince was his son, or want him to have the accession? More whispers, more suppositions, that Empress Menen, daughter of the king of Wollo, became pregnant by her brother in order to keep the throne in the family when the usurper, Teferi Makonen, later known as Haile Selassie, married her. This may never be in the history books but is what Ethiopian commonly gave as an explanation for the adamant refusal of the emperor to step down and leave the government to the crown prince.
If Ato Markos knew the truth of these rumors, as his mysterious smile and the innuendo of his mile suggested, he never told us. All we really knew was that he lived simply, most of the time in apartments, or a small duplex near the airport, and that he kept his Thunderbird covered with a tarp so it would be inconspicuous in these years of military rule. He lived frugally, according to what a salary at the post office would allow. Could there have been a secret foreign account settled on him by the emperor? He was a model of culture and a gentleman in every aspect of his comportment with co-workers and with friends in the execution of jobs, and his treatment of women.
He reminisced endearingly of his mother. “On the day of my baptism,” he said,” we were driving to the church on Entoto in the first car in Addis Ababa. It was the emperor’s.” then he handed us a photo of the emperor framed in silver and signed “To my Godson, Marcos. HIM Haile Selassie.” It sat on the most important site in the room. Had his mother educated him and groomed him for the possibility of future ruler? His conduct was blameless and exemplary. Would she have been able to influence the emperor to appoint him if the ailing Asfa Wosen died? What filled the dreams and memories of Marcos Hanna as he practiced the oud alone on a rainy evening? What were the intriguing secrets of this unusual man? Did he see himself at the palace in the presence of a father who spoke kindly to him, gave him coins on holidays along with a crowd of princes and princesses, and who watched him ride the ostriches and sit on the back of the tame symbolic lion, Mokria?