By Bethelhem T. Negash
Published: Thursday, May 26th, 2016
New York (TADIAS) — Early in the morning, as the city stirs and the hum of cars and trucks grows more persistent, Dr. Syoum Gebregziabher, 85, makes his slow and careful descent from his bedroom to the ground floor of his brownstone house in Harlem. He grabs the keys from the kitchen counter and heads out to move his car from where it has been parked for the night. He adjusts his reading glasses before he starts the engines, and begins the monotonous task of moving his car to the center of the road until the city sweepers clean the street. He looks at himself in the rearview mirror, and the man who once was the Mayor of Ethiopia’s historic city of Gonder stares back. The Mayor of Gonder didn’t have to bother with parking or driving.
“It is like a jump from the position of a king to that of a pauper,” Dr. Syoum says. An awkward smile plays at the corners of his mouth. He pauses, then continues, “People ask me why I called my book The Symphony of My Life. Well, it is to reflect on the ups and downs and the highest and lowest points of my life,” he says as he makes a motion of rising and falling with his hands.
Gonder has been called the ‘Camelot of Africa’ for it had served as the capital for the Ethiopian Empire during the reign of Emperor Fasilidas in the 17th century and the Begemder Province up until Emperor Tewodros II, who then moved the imperial capital to Magdala at his inauguration in 1855. Gonder holds the remains of several royal castles and enclosures that provide the city with a distinctive atmosphere. During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie Gonder was a semi-autonomous province, like Asmara and Addis Ababa, run under the municipality administration of mayors. However, the mayor of Gonder fell under the state’s Ministry of Interior and had to answer to the head office.
It was during a lunch break in 1972 that Dr. Syoum — who was then head of the Department of Public Administration and Associate Professor at the University College of Addis Ababa — heard an announcement of new government appointees by the Emperor. His name was on the list following the statement “Lord Mayor of Gonder.” He was dumbfounded. “I bolted out from Campo Asmara and went to the university to find out if indeed it was me,” he recalled.
Dr. Syoum has bittersweet memories of his years in power. In his book he recounts seeing his assignment as a challenge rather than a promotion. It is customary in Ethiopia to celebrate promotions, especially those to governmental offices and state postings. “The Emperor’s appointment was thought to improve the appointee’s destiny – a touch from the divine,” he recalls. Dr. Syoum felt differently. He saw it as “a leash” to keep him in check, but there was nothing Dr. Syoum could do to change the decree. He could neither challenge nor refuse the position. The Ethiopian constitution stated, “The personality of the Emperor is sacred and inviolable.”
“There were moments when I saw it as a form of banishment…. a misplacement,” he says while sipping hot tea one recent afternoon. “But the name was attractive: The Lord Mayor of Gonder.”
At the same time, in his memoir Syoum talks about his accomplishments and success as a mayor with great gusto. He writes, “I had skillfully and patiently, with calculated political risk, survived the intricacies of the centralized and absolute control of His Majesty’s government and succeeded to be popularly the accepted mayor who was able to show results in two turbulent years of Ethiopia.”
Dr. Syoum remembers what the Emperor told him upon his appointment as Mayor of Gonder: “When you know them, you will like them.” Syoum did come to like the city, the province and the people. He tried to recall the gifts he received from the people of Gonder during the farewell party they arranged in his honor. “The Gonder people, either they like you or they don’t. I was chosen.” His face brightens up with a smile, “They liked me.”
Dr. Syoum Gebregziabher. (Courtesy photo)
Growing up as the eldest son out of ten children from his father’s side and also the eldest out of the seven from his mother’s side, Syoum had the responsibility of being a good model to his extended family and relatives. This burden of duty incumbent upon the eldest son is reflected throughout his book. He describes how the role made him too wise and calculating for his age.
His father had always preached the importance of school in one’s life. Determined to make his eldest son a success, he sent him to the United States to study. Syoum recalls that upon returning to Eritrea, where his father was then living, he discovered that his father had published his picture in Eritrea’s Italian language newspaper. The caption read: Rientro di UN altro Laureato, or The return of the UN graduate.
As a child, Syoum didn’t get to spend the time he would have wished with his mother, father and siblings. After his father and mother were divorced, when he was just a few years old, he was sent from Dessie to Addis Ababa to live with a bachelor uncle who had studied in France and was working in the capital at a time when it was rapidly being modernized. His father thought that being surrounded by educated people would help and influence his eldest son. Dr. Syoum recalls himself becoming “a five-year-old boy with European dress and habits; I had become a misfit.”
“The European clothes I had brought from Addis and continued to wear alienated me from other children and caused problems. Children my age ridiculed me incessantly as a ferengi –[white person in the local saying]. I insisted on wearing regular Ethiopian clothes so as I could fit in, but my father was proud of my unique European dress and ignored my request.”
In his book, Dr. Syoum talks about how he he had confronted his mother, as an adult, because she had refused to rescue him by buying him traditional Ethiopian attire, which he had privately asked her for. “Her reluctance devastated me,” Syoum shared. “Later in life I reminded her that this was a crucial demand she should not have ignored.” His mother’s distance shaped and scarred him.
“He always commends me for my role in my daughter’s life. He tells me he wishes he had a mother like me and this really encourages me,” Says Linda Haile speaking about Dr. Syoum. Linda is his daughter-in-law who is married to his dentist son, Dr. Yohannes Syoum. “I love the way he treats his wife. I think this all has to do with the fact that he grew up without a mother.”
Dr. Syoum’s colleague and longtime friend, Dr. Yemane Demissie, adds that Dr. Syoum’s symphonic life is a result of belonging to an era in which seismic technological, social, cultural and political transformations were taking place. “Whether navigating Italian Occupied Ethiopia as a child in the 1930s, the segregated American South in the 1940s and 1950s as a young man, the highly politicized world of labor unions and universities of imperial Ethiopia as an adult, or the violent partition of Ethiopia and Eritrea as a mature individual, he adapts with much agility and wisdom,” Demissie says.
His father’s continuous support and his own tenacity and perseverance drove Syoum to pursue education at home and abroad. There were times when he considered becoming a priest to take advantage of further schooling, for the Italian regime rule didn’t allow locals to acquire schooling more than the fifth grade unless they were in the process of becoming a priest in Catholic church schools. When Haile Selassie came to power and opportunities widened, Syoum continued his secondary school studies. With the help of Dr. Talbot, Chief Editor and Journalist for the Ethiopian Herald, he won a scholarship to college in the United States and graduated from Monmouth College with a degree in History, and later pursued additional graduate studies at other universities. At the time, however, George Washington University had rejected his application as Blacks were not allowed to enroll.
Dr. Syoum shared that the refusal for enrollment taught him a lesson about how to frame other application letters and forms. He now wrote, he recalls, “I am a black, Ethiopian boy from Africa, and I intend to practice law in my own country. Can you give me this opportunity?” Several universities accepted him. He chose the University of Michigan.
There Syoum met his American future wife Juanita B. Green, a postgraduate in Middle Eastern Studies. She was 20 years old, open-minded and confident. Syoum “was impressed with her candor, sincerity and simplicity” and writes “We seemed to have a mutual attraction, both physical and mental. I fell for her.” Juanita remained in his mind as he made his way to Ethiopia after graduation and started working in Addis. All the other girls he dated at home couldn’t displace her in his heart. “I kept idealizing Juanita and continued writing frequently.” At last she agreed to marry him. They were betrothed in a simple ceremony in 1953 and honeymooned in Cairo.
While Mayor Syoum was battling inspectors and dealing with the municipality of Gonder, a movement was underway to dethrone the Emperor and abolish the feudal system. The Derg regime ousted Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The new regime executed, imprisoned and tortured opponents without a trial or a hearing. In his book, Syoum writes that he was oblivious of the true nature of the revolution and the Derg regime. He was by now an organization and management consultant for the Ministry of Public Works. He worked with his team to abolish urban landlordism and feudalism by setting up a local self-governance system. He met and talked with Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the chairman of the Derge regime.
“I witnessed a revolution eating its own revolutionaries, as the saying goes,” he says years later. The revolution in Ethiopia was spinning out of control and anyone who could evade the situation did so. Syoum describes the days of terror in his memoir. “Ethiopia nationalized banks, insurance companies and key industrial facilities owned by local and foreign private capital, restricting their sphere of activities in trade and industry by establishing state control over them.”
Syoum began seeking positions abroad. His goal was clear: as long as a new country would accept him and his family, he would work at any level of the economy. “It was an unsavory position and yet a realistic one.”
With the help of a friend working at the Organization of African Unity (now African Union) Syoum managed to get an exist visa from the immigration authorities in Ethiopia and headed to Lusaka, Zambia. From there he made his way to New York to start his life afresh.
It was November of 1978 and Christmas was around the corner when Syoum boarded the plane with a heavy heart. He was almost 60-years-old, a husband and a father of four. He recalls putting his hands in his pocket to make sure that the $200 dollars he bought from the black market were still there, his entire income and property folded in two currency notes. Gone were his four townhouses that were nationalized. The lands he had acquired over the years no longer were his.
The small country house in Nazreth that he and Juanita had sweated to build with the help of her parents was also in doubt.
The flight from Lusaka to New York was long and it gave him plenty of time to contemplate the symphony of his life.
“Nobody wants to help you when you are at your lowest,” he recalls. With a gesture of his hands he tries to emphasis the meaning of his saying, “Nobody.”
He found himself jobless, homeless and depending on his in-laws to sustain his wife and his four children. “It was a hard time; being a refugee and unemployed in the United States was the lowest point of my life.”
He nods his head back and forth as he said this wistfully. “I remember receiving a hundred dollar bill from a friend of mine, he gave me the money and told me to buy gifts for my family since it was the Christmas season.” He blinks his eyes for a second and pauses to collect his thoughts.
“But life has been kind to me and to my family,” he continues, recovering. He stretched his hands to show his accomplishments and his children’s by indicating the display of the family photos and awards all around him. He may have to park his own car, but his family has survived and prospered. It was an unexpected struggle, but he has been the model eldest son his father wanted.
You can learn more about Dr. Syoum Gebregziabher’s book ‘Symphony of My Life’ at Amazon.com.
About the Author:
Bethelhem T. Negash, who graduated this year from Columbia University School of Journalism, is a writer based in New York City.