Lent Reflection 3: Abraham
Amos Disasa and his father Jerman shared essays inspired by our Lent 2012 theme “Reintroducing You” during our mid-week lunch gatherings at The Spot on Blanding. Each week Amos and his father, inspired by a common theme and connected by one very long journey, read one essay. The genesis of the project can be explored here. The archive of essays is here.
Amos’ essay on Abraham
In the garage at my parent's house in Laurens a lonely red toolbox that once appeared much bigger than it does now, sits unremarkably on the cement floor against a brick wall. It has remained there untouched, as a memorial to the myth of Abraham Bogale since he slipped back to Ethiopia many years ago. Abraham was trained as a mechanic and the tools represent his garage. In their own right, the tools are not remarkable, although they are well made in the way that tools once were before they were designed to be thrown away when they ceased to work. But, it is remarkable that the toolbox was never moved from its perch. In a home of four curious boys that had a tendency to make mischief out of the seemingly mundane, this is extraordinary. I am certain that the toolbox was unmoved because at the time of his departure, when the tools mysteriously appeared at our home, none of us was yet strong enough to lift it. On the frequent occasions when our mischief necessitated a repair, it was made clear to us by our father, that we were not to use any of Abraham's tools. Initially, this seemed reasonable as our reverence of Abraham extended to his toolbox. But as the years passed, and it seemed clear to us that Abraham was not coming back for his wife or his toolbox, Ababa's stubborness seemed misguided. But still, we did not dare to touch it.
In every family there are mythical figures that refuse to be forgotten. Time passes, seasons change, new relationships are formed, but the memory of these mythological heroes or villains only seems to grow stronger especially after they cease to be present in the body. What is strange about Abraham Bogale is that I do not remember his arrival or his departure. I cannot tell you how long, exactly, he was with us. We tell time in our family by recalling which apartment complex we lived in at the time of a particular event or season. Abraham's presence extended across two apartments. He came from my father's village in Ethiopia as a single man. He was trained as a mechanic at Midlands Tech but I don't remember him working on any cars except for our own. Instead of working on cars, he drove one as a taxi driver. This only served to increase our fascination for Abraham as his taxi-cab came with a cb radio, which is now nostalgic but was then an extraordinary piece of equipment.
Abraham visited us often enough to not require a call in advance. When he came, he often carried with him a bucket of freshly fried chicken from KFC. Fried chicken was a delicacy in our family, reserved for special celebrations. Abraham did not demand a good reason to deliver fried chicken. He knew we loved it, that we would squeal and high five each other at the sight of him standing at the door with a silly grin and a bucket of chicken in his arms. For four boys who had grown accustomed to eating wheat bread not white, drinking orange juice not Sunkist, and tricking up the grape nuts cereal that remained our only option for breakfast with obnoxious spoonfulls of raw sugar, the bucket of chicken was a gift from the Gods. When Abraham got married in Orangeburg to an equally hospitable American, he made sure that the wedding reception buffet included a platter of fried chicken.
My love for fried chicken, tool boxes, and the kind of laughter that seizes your gut is attributable to Abraham Bogale. The immigrant experience can be lonely. You leave your home, your people, your culture, for a world that is entirely different. Abraham is and was the only extended family that I have ever known. He was the closest thing to a big brother that I had. Still today, we laugh about his taxi, the tools, and the fried chicken. We laugh about his laugh, that was infectious and persistent. As I look back, I wonder how he managed to live here for so long. His best friend was a friend of his father, his delight was bringing buckets of fried chicken to young boys, his home was somewhere else.
When my son grows up I will tell him about his name. For now, though, his simple mind is not suited for the complicated story of Abraham Bogale. My memory of Abraham is my memory of Ethiopia and my connection to home. I cannot disturb the toolbox because it might disturb the bond between my story and my country. He was not perfect, but each time my parents call Aye-braham by his given name Abraham, I recall the first Abraham I knew and pray that my son would learn to laugh from his gut, and that he would also, one day, have a home to return to.
Jerman’s essay on Abraham
His late Muslim parents, his Muslim neighbors, and his Muslim relatives call him Ibrahim. His Ethiopian Orthodox neighbors and relatives and his Catholics and Protestant friends call him Abraham. My family refers to him as Abraham. I fondly call him Abraham. Since, in Ethiopia, very few people, including me, know the date of their birth, I am not aware Abraham knows when he was born. One thing I do know, however, is he was not born in a hospital. I do not think he has a passport with an authentic birth certificate. It is when you travel abroad that you need an official birth certificate. To do that, one has to go to Addis Ababa, the capital, only where passports are issued, go to the municipality, pay a large sum of money, provide an approximate date of birth, answer a few more questions related to the place of birth and current residence and then get his official passport to be able to apply for approval to travel abroad. That was what I think Abraham did to travel to the United States in the late 1980s.
Abraham is the oldest son for his parents and the only child for his mother. He is a son of a well-known local merchant whose Muslim background (thus religious requirements) and a trading instinct had taken him to faraway, neighboring places, including Kurmuk and Khartoum, Sudan; Jeddah and Mecca, Saudi Arabia; and Sana’a, Yemen. He may have traveled to other distant cities in the Muslim world. Merchants and faithful Muslims are known for their daring and risky travel experiences. The father, Obbo Bogale Hussein, spoke fluent Arabic in addition to a number of other Ethiopian languages.
Since it is common in the Islamic culture for a man to have more than one wife, it was not uncommon for Abraham to have several half brothers and sisters. They all grew up together in one compound. The siblings all revered Abraham as their oldest brother. Being the oldest, Abraham carried most of the weight of the home responsibilities, especially when the father was not at home. He had to step up his leadership roles and represent his father in making decisions and dispensing orders. The mother gave him advice but she expected him to stiffen up and fill the slots for his father. As a young child, he still had to care for domestic animals, ran errands for his parents and step mothers, learn his father’s trade (which included farming, trading, and negotiating business deals), and going to school while learning to obey parents.
Abraham and I were village neighbors. We grew up together though I was much older than he. The differing religious beliefs our homes followed never stood on our way to prevent us from becoming close friends. He was soft on Christian faith and I was unwilling to condemn Islam. Long before we learned the distinction between Christianity and Islam, we had anchored our roots on our common village bond. Our eventual move to a Presbyterian mission related schools some 50 miles away further strengthened our tolerance for each other’s faith. Abraham developed friendship with hundreds of mission school students while he still kept the Muslim tradition of his home. At the mission school, he attended chapel with the students, worshiped in Protestant churches and developed a strong taste for Protestant hymns and music. Against the tradition of my Ethiopian Orthodox Church tradition and against my newly adopted Presbyterian Church principles, I, too, became increasingly tolerant of believers of other faiths. Commitment to excellence in education became our new goal. Abraham and my wife Nigatwa were classmates in the Presbyterian mission school in Dembi Dollo, where we all were equipped with values enduring and principles for our lives.
I watched Abraham as he successfully developed the art of living with all people peacefully and confidently. Whether he was among the minority or majority, Abraham attracted people to come together. The simple, pure care he gives to all around him defines the faith he holds. He married a Christian girl in Georgetown, SC, but he also kept his father’s tradition of taking care of the Bogale family in the Muslim tradition of his home. He honored young Amos and Raaji to serve as ushers at the wedding. Dressed up as never before, the boys served beautifully and with pride, once again understanding the depth of love Abraham held for them.
The wedding celebration reminded me of our village practice. At a wedding, at a celebration of child birth, and at a family grieving, differences among the Muslim tradition and Christian tradition cease to exist. The cause for celebration and the cause for grieving brought us all together. For our villagers, wedding is a holy act; it is a path to family formation. There is no family without a marriage. Therefore, they celebrate a wedding for at least 5 days before the wedding and 5 days after the wedding. They believe that a family cannot endure grieving alone. For nine days after funeral, the grieving family is comforted by spontaneous, physical and emotional presence of village members who console the family and help them overcome gradually the power of the grief and loss. They are so good at avoiding chances for loneliness. That is why they repeated the saying, “He who eats alone, dies alone.” If you do not share your sustenance now, you will have no one to be with you when you are experiencing near death illness and loneliness.
Thanks to an elderly member of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, who provided a partial financial assistance, Abraham graduated from Midlands Technical College with an associate degree in auto mechanics. By then he had already mastered the human qualities vital for business success. He genuinely demonstrated the art and ability of handling people and business. After all, he is a son of a successful merchant.
For Abraham, auto mechanic is a lucrative business that could add measures to his happiness. Abraham loved the humming of a motor, the softness of oil and grease, the curiosity of dismantling an engine and putting it back together, the life-transforming power of the wheels and the tools used to ensure the harmony among the various part of a functioning vehicle. Wheels! For him, all things revolve around wheels. We come from a tradition that knew nothing or very little about wheels. We know hauling, but not rolling. Rolling is a method of repeatedly messing in the mud and dirt. Anything that rolls collects more and more mud and dirt. Abraham thinks wheels listed among the eight wonders of the world. His goal was to go back to Ethiopia and establish his own auto mechanic station and teach others the love of wheels while making a living from the business. In the meantime, he needed to rely on something to help him get started on the journey towards his eventual goal.
He did not want to depart from wheels. To serve him as a bridge and to earn a living, he started driving a taxi. When my family moved from Columbia to Laurens, recognizing that the Disasa family was his family, he drove his taxi cab all the way from Columbia and later from Augusta, GA, to come and visit my family, especially the boys. Though he did not have a child of his own, he was a pro in winning the attention and love of children. He never came to our home empty-handed. Our boys knew him as the Kentucky Fried Chicken and French fries man. Each time he came, the eyes of the boys were pinned on the bucket of fried chicken, French fries, and biscuits he was holding as he shut the taxi door. The sight of the bucket served as a liberating force from their bondage under the inflexible arms of their parents. What I was reluctant to give them, Abraham generously provided. To them, he was the hero and I was the villain. While the boys noisily filled their tummies, Abraham checked the mechanical health of my Blue Donkey, my truly abused, blue 1990 Honda Civic, which I purchased from a previous owner only after Abraham had thoroughly checked it and recommended enthusiastically for me to buy it.
Obviously, my children loved Abraham. I could not tell fully the level of that love. I assumed it was only until they, hopefully, learned to hate fried chicken. It seems they still love fried chicken even when they do not get a bucket of it. While Sarah was pregnant, Amos gave me this book, Bruce Fieler’s ABRAHAM to read. Knowing the challenge was from him (not from someone else), and having had numerous times when he had given me a book with a stern, unambiguous look on his face (which told me, don’t take the book if you are not going to read it, and be sure to return it). I read the book carefully. Without any connection to the baby yet to be born, I kept thinking about the content of the book. But I was also sending a series of emails to Amos and Sarah, suggesting boys’ names that they could possibly consider. Abraham was not one of them. All along, they neither called nor responded to my emails. Later, when Sarah delivered their first born, Amos brought out in his arms a carefully-wrapped, handsome baby to the two sets of grandparents who were anxiously waiting in the Baptist Hospital waiting room. As he appeared, he emphatically declared, “This is Abraham Jerman Disasa.” It almost sounded like God talking to Abraham the patriarch to leave his home and go to the land he would show him. For the first time it clicked for me why Amos had forced me to read the book, ABRAHAM, and how his love for Abraham Bogale was much deeper than I had imagined.
Among the many, many lessons Abraham taught me are three that I keep in my mind and heart. They involve caring for a car, caring for self and others, and caring for business. He wasn’t laughing when he instructed me: (1) Check your oil always before engaging the gear (or as the warning goes in a social environment, “Be sure your brain is in gear before you engage your tongue”); (2) Never engage the gear before the engine is sufficiently warmed; and (3) Never refuse to accept a partial debt payment; you are a fool if you assume that a full payment later is better than a partial payment now. To that he also added an explanation, “Never send away what has come home; welcome what has come home and demand for the outstanding balance later.
On a more serious note, my long relationship with this Muslim brother of mine has helped me conclude that whether I call him Ibrahim or Abraham, or whether I trace the story back to Sarah or Hagar, or to Isaac or Ishmael, whether it is about the Jews or the Arabs, or Palestinians or Israelis, or Muslims or Christians, or Judaism or Islam, or Christianity—the common story is the same, that is, God loves us all and God sends us all. The message from the sender is also the same: OBEDIENCE.