Yacob Wolde-Mariam on Sebhat
Veteran journalist Yacob Wolde-Mariam writes of his colleague and friend, Sebhat Gebre-Egziabiher and how his love of journalism and literature sustained him to the end.
I came across Sebhat Gebre-Egziabiher late in the 1960s. A group of five Ethiopian intellectuals under the leadership of the late Baalu Ghirma were then making frantic efforts towards founding and running a newly-established weekly magazine known as Addis Reporter on the basis of a press whose freedom, in their opinion, was unfettered – an attempt that fizzled out less than two years later when the original staff members were dismissed and when I was installed as its new editor. Anyway, the magazine died an unlamented death late in 1969.
I knew Sebhat then as a very talented writer who was very smart in his appearance and had, in fact, married the daughter of Yilma Deressa, one of Haile-Selassie’s outstanding ministers who had graduated from the London School of Economics. He was in complete contrast then to the latter-day Sebhat following the flight abroad of his wife with his child in the early days of the Dergue regime.
From 1974 onwards Sebhat had given one the impression that he was some sort of a Bohemian intellectual who didn’t care a hoot what people had thought how he had dressed and comported himself – or what he had drunk or chewed. I had thought that he was probably influenced by the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre during his not more than six-month stay in France and his extensive reading of French poets like Rimbaud, in particular the latter’s Les Fleurs du mal.
Between 1974 and 1991, he was an itinerant journalist who contributed superb articles to Yekatit magazine, a quarterly magazine that I was then editing. Judging by what he was writing then, Sebhat – who was all the time a non-political animal – had a rich knowledge of Ethiopian history, culture and tradition. (As far as I knew, he had no opinion on national or international politics.) His writings on Ethiopian Highland Humour were particularly gripping, entertaining and unforgettable. Sebhat had also a profound knowledge of the history of and intrigues in Ethiopian courts – his favourite man of distilled wisdom being Fitaurari Habte-Ghiorghis Dinagde, Menelik’s valiant defence minister.
What is more, he had a thorough knowledge of contemporary Ethiopian theatre, contributing many articles on some of our gifted actors. He had also contributed many articles on hazy Greek mythology to Addis Zemen. He was at one time cornered by the Dergue regime to translate Das Kapital, Marx’s chef-d’oeuvre, into Amharic – which was, indeed, a prodigious but tedious work for a creative writer like him to undertake.
Sebhat Gebre-Egziabiher is being remembered by the current generation as an outstanding writer – equally at home with his impeccable Amharic as with his faultless English diction. However, none of his literary works had seen the light of day in the pre-1991 years. Apparently he was born before his time by then penning reportedly pornographic books that were published, I was told, following the demise of the Dergue regime. Of course, whether our society is ripe for such a genre of decadent literature is a mute question.
It is a pity that Sebhat – a colleague of mine who had lived his own life in his own unique way, unmindful of what others had thought of him – was one of the loved ones we lost during the current Ethiopian year now breathing its last. As the English saying goes, those whom the angels love die young. May the soul of Sebhat rest in peace!
The article first appeared in the September 8 edition of The Reporter.