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A story from the heart

With its stirring plot, profound themes and lushly imagined language, Lib weled Tarik was so much more than Africa’s first novel. Jack Fellman turns the pages of a literary work of art.
The novel as an art form was late in appearing on the African literary scene. The first novel in an African vernacular tongue was the 90-page Amharic work, Lib Weled Tarik (literally, a story produced from the heart or an imaginary tale), written by the Ethiopian, Afewerk Gebre Eyesus, and published in 1908 in Rome.
Afewerk was born on July 10th 1868 on the Zeghe Peninsula of Lake Tana. His family was related to Empress Taytu, wife of the Emperor Menelik, who early on noted the talents of his young relative. In 1887 Menelik sent the 19-year-old Afewerk to study in Italy, where he proved an exceptional student. In 1902 he was appointed Assistant in Amharic to Professor Francesco Gallina at the Oriental Institute of the University of Naples, and it was in this capacity, and with the professor’s active encouragement and support, that Afewerk produced his novel- Africa’s first.
A historical romance, Lib Weled Tarik is set at the time when Christianity had begun to spread in pagan Ethiopia, triggering a series of local religious wars. It is the story of a Christian family, in particular of a father and his twin children, Wahed and Tobbiya. Sold into pagan captivity, the father is ransomed through the generosity of a merchant who had taken a liking to his son, Wahed. The boy then goes in search of the merchant in order to pay his kindness, but fails to find him and himself falls into captivity.
A year passes and Wahed’s father, accompanied by his daughter Tobbiya, who is disguised as boy for safety’s sake, set out in search of Wahed. Father and daughter, however, also fall into captivity, but they are treated royally by the pagan king who helps them to find both Wahed and the merchant. At the end o the novel, Tobbiya’s true identity is revealed, the pagan king and his people convert to Christianity, he marries Tobbiya, and his cousin marries Wahed.
The plot of Lib Weled is simple enough. The action takes place in a limited setting and time span, and there are a limited number of characters, representing allegorical types more than clearly delineated individuals. (Tobbiya, for example is the general spoken version of the word ‘Ethiopia’ while Wahed means ‘unity’ referring to Monophysitic Christianity, the state religion of historical Abyssina.) The general tone of the novel is didactic and the tenor moralistic, as the boundless virtues of Christian Abyssinia are endlessly recounted.
However, Afewerk-ever the true artist-knows how to counterbalance his serious themes with injections of comic relief. A good example occurs, significantly, in the very middle of the work, when he introduces the pagan king’s jester and court dwarf and their humorous antics.
All told, the novel is a good story of adventure, suspense and, of course, romance. Perhaps more importantly, it filled an aesthetic-stylistic void that existed in Amharic, for Afwerk clearly showed, for the first time, the vast literary potential of the language. Indeed, he writes in a very rich and elegant vein, and one feels he is seeking to exploit the language’s inherent possibilities to the fullest. He also introduces a wealth of new words and meanings in the story, and later editions of ten include glossaries for the benefit of modern Amharic speakers.
In 1951, Luigi Fusella published a summary and partial translation of the main passages of Lib Weled Tarik in Italian, and in 1964 Tadesse Tamrat published a very free paraphrase-translation (with omissions) in English.
Usually, first works are pioneering and somewhat groping and tentative. By contrast, Africa is particularly, fortunate in that her first novel is one of real merit and a true work of art.
Selamta Volume 18, Number 3
July-Sept 2001

  1. sist
    January 26, 2013 at 4:27 am

    Thank you for this post, Arefe. Very informative. Was the book ever published as “Tobbiya”? I think we read it in high school as Tobbiya and wikipedia seems to imply that possible title as well. And is it still in print?

    • January 26, 2013 at 5:24 pm

      I think there are old and original copies of the book in some books shop in Addis. So if you are in Addis, if you could give them a try.

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