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Silence is My Mother Tongue (2018) Sulaiman Addonia (version en anglais)
How many roads must a man walk down Before he’s called a man?[1]
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Silence is My Mother Tongue (2018)
Sulaiman Addonia

I laughingly told my friends that I risked being disavowed by my people for this article. This is probably why silence is the best mother tongue. It is a feeling I also had when I read Sebhat Gebre-Egziabher, Tedbabe Tilahun, a line of authors qualified as “audacious” because they told so well of truths and probably did it too well for the comfort of some.

Silence is my mother tongue takes place in a refugee camp in the 80s where people find themselves fleeing the massacres perpetrated by the Derg in Eritrea during the independence war (1961-1991). All members of society, all possible and imaginable experiences share this space in the middle of the desert. In a setting dwelling on the darkness and the light of each heart, we discover Jamal: a previous employee of the mythical Cinema Impero in Asmara, Saba and her “ other self ”, her brother Hagos: children of the countryside, former officials, the midwife, Natsnet (freedom): the prostitute and so many others. A nuanced universe, without caricature, restoring the humanity of each character to perfection. Their psychological complexity is very evocative and it is difficult not to put yourself in the each character’s shoes.

Most of the world’s problems come from linguistic errors and simple misunderstandings.[2]

The story begins with the trial of Saba. The mixture of absurdity and social violence gives an additional dimension to silence. It is the hypocrisy, the « unwritten law of silence, of family honour, of solidarity among the dispossessed and the kinship of inter-family marriages kept the camp plodding ahead on this path of purity, like a stream flowing between rocks and mountains, all the dirt receding at its depth » [3].

We slowly discover the world around and also the world within each person. The pace of the narration is masterfully timed. After the initial shock, some want to reconstruct the world they have left behind, others dream of  new horizons. Within that spectrum  (however wide) they all, in their own way, seek dignity at all costs. The questions that emerge about identity, tradition, patriarchy are just and valid, even well beyond the walls of the camp.

« History in Tigrigna, translated Russian novels in Amharic, poetry in Arabic »[4]

Eritrea is recreated in the camp: Tigrigna, Arabic, Italian are spoken, ga’at is cooked, coffe grilled, incense burned. The author does not explain what  a gabi is, a mogogo, shiro etc.
This is one of the aspects that I liked the most. After all, a reader on the African continent (or elsewhere) is expected to know what a croissant is. The West appears and disappears, observed with hope and sarcasm.
Language is a recurring theme, not so much as  a claim to identity but as an ability to express oneself. The beauty of diversity is faced with the silence imposed by society and the traumatized silence of those who no longer know what or how to say.

Contradictions, doubts are also reborn. Who are we? Does this country exist only in our imagination? Sulaiman Addonia has the talent to create dialogue, to illustrate with poetry. There is the brutality of reality, the magic of innocence and friendships, the nascent dreams and love.

« As if real women are born from the ribs of men, and imaginary ones from their fantastical brains »[5]

I didn’t tell you, this book is funny, hilarious. I also laughed when I imagined the suffocation that many passages could cause. The freedom of certain characters overturns all social codes and customs (on gender, love …) and that, in my opinion, is a good thing. I do not say this out of rebellion but for the sake of accuracy and coherence with ourselves. I remember a question asked to Sebhat G / Egziabher about his two controversial books. He had been “asked” if these were not ultimately errors in an otherwise appreciable body of work. He had replied, with his usual phlegm “My brother, I didn’t write anything that you didn’t do”, I still laugh about it.

[1] Blowing in the wind (1964) Cooke Sam
[2] The Forty Rules of Love (2009), Shafak Elif, Penguin Books
[3]  Silence is My Mother Tongue (2018), Addonia Sulaiman, Indigo Press
[4] Silence is My Mother Tongue (2018), Addonia Sulaiman, Indigo Press
[5]  Silence is My Mother Tongue (2018), Addonia Sulaiman, Indigo Press

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