Hearts Like Birds.
Semere T. Habtemariam (2011). Hearts like birds. Elk Grove, CA: Negarit Media. 234pp, ISBN: 978-0-615-48427-3. $15.00 (Kindle Edition $7.95)
Review by Mekonnen Kassa, Seattle, WA.
In the interest of full disclosure, I came to know about Mr. Habtemariam, an Eritrean-American poet and author, while I was browsing an Eritrean website looking for the latest fascinating political news from the Horn of Africa. I came across his review of “Of Kings and Bandits” by Saleh “Gadi” Johar. He succeeded in arousing my curiosity and I had the pleasure of reading “Of Kings and Bandits.”
Later on I found out that Mr. Habtemariam himself was working on a book; and I immediately got my copy when his book “Hearts Like Birds” was published.
“Hearts Like Birds” is an absorbing literary fusion of history, culture, politics, religion, and folklore all rolled in to one book.
Skillfully put together stories of Christian and Islamic family life and communal traditions adore every page. And the pages serve as a magic carpet and transport the reader back in time to a life in Abyssinia during the bygone innocent era. The reader floats through the air of nostalgia and yearns for more at every turn of a page. The choice of words, the construction of sentences, and the simplicity of the story make reading this book effortless. The author’s ability to vividly depict situations is brilliant. At one point it felt like I smelled a roasting fresh coffee bean and had to look around my living room.
Passages from religious holy books and parables from wise, generous and compassionate Christian and Muslim elders of the community are sparsely sprinkled throughout the book. These proverbs and adages not only decorate the story but help the reader learn the rich history of our ancestors and respect their wisdom. I learned a lot about our history, for example, I did not know that Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, hosted and attended to the Christian Abyssinian emissaries visiting Medina. The Prophet had also prayed when the Abyssinian Christian king who welcomed and safeguarded the Muslim immigrants died.
The book is full of parables. The author cunningly uses them to impart knowledge and offer valuable advice: that fanatical and misguided martyrdom through Jihad is not compatible with the tenets of Islam now as it was not then when Jelal-al-Din wished for Paradise; that some may wish and push America to be daring and fearless not because they want it to live and prosper but to meet the fate of the “fearless and daring tiger.”
Without dwelling on it too long and making it melancholy, the author briefly mentions the contemporary history of Ethiopia and Eritrea including the cruelty and senseless murders and a false sense of superiority complex Eritreans harbor to their Southern neighbors in Ethiopia. He also shows what life was like as a refugee in the Sudan and Saudi Arabia, and as a newly resettled immigrant in America.
“Hearts Like Birds” is a beautifully written first book by an eloquent writer. The book is on par with other books I read by renowned writers including “Notes From the Hyenas Belly” by Nega Mazlekia, “The Texture of Dreams” by Fasil Yitbarek and “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” by Dinaw Mengestu.
After reading this book I can confidently and proudly claim that we are literally the children’s of both Islam and Christian ancestors who built their villages, intermarried and lived harmoniously together. In this post 9/11 era of “war on terror” and Al-Qaida, I strongly recommend reading this book to both average citizens like me and powerful policy makers from all faiths.