January 10, 2011

I am SO beka…!

Anyone who is Ethiopia-bound, now or in the future, heed my warning: if you learn only one phrase in Amharic, make it ishii, beka! Literal translation “Ok, enough!” Pragmatic translation “No, seriously, I’m FULL!” Now, you might think a more useful phrase would be something like “Where’s the bathroom?” or “I’m thirsty,” or “I’m sick.” But I went weeks without knowing those phrases, and did just fine (charades and Pictionary are among the better preparatory measures one should take prior to departing for a country in which one doesn’t speak the language; one who possess the dual qualities of being well-versed in the art of pantomime and having no shame/qualms about looking ridiculous in a crowd of strangers can go a long way, I assure you, particularly in a place like Ethiopia, where people will bend over backwards to accommodate you). No, the phrase that you need to get by in Ethiopia is ishii, beka! You see, in Ethiopian culture, there is an almost unfathomable practice of hospitality toward guests—not only guests in a home, but guests in a school, even simply guests in the country—and as such, if you have any interactions with any Ethiopians at all, you will almost certainly be invited—in a non-negotiable sort of way—for a coffee ceremony and dinner. On a regular basis.

Now, dinner at an Ethiopian’s house is a truly special experience. While some people are more casual, the whole process is typically quite elaborate, beautiful, anf humbling—at least from an outsider’s perspective. After a warm reception with ladies shaking right hands and kissing opposite cheeks three times (think cliché classy Italian—where I suspect this tradition began), and men shaking right hands while bumping right shoulders in a sort of half-hug, the guest is ushered to the table. A pitcher and basin are brought out, and the host pours water over the guest’s hands as s/he washes them (in some cases, the host will actually wash the guest’s hands). Then comes the food. So much food…SO much food.

For those who have not had the pleasure of indulging in an Ethiopian meal (there are Ethiopian restaurants in almost every major US city—seriously go try some!), it’s a truly beautiful communal sort of experience, and even the food itself is indicative of this. Food is served on a large (and I mean LARGE—sometimes a yard in diameter) platter, covered in one or more pieces of injera laid flat. Injera is a sort of thin pancake made out of fermented teff flour—the best description of it that I’ve come across is a giant sour dough crepe—that actually pretty accurately describes it. Various highly aromatic, exotically seasoned wots (stews) are spooned in separate piles atop the injera, almost mimicking bright splotches of color on a painter’s palate—and equally enticing; you can hardly wait to delve in and make a taste-painting in your mouth. After the food is presented, rolls of injera are passed around, and you are quickly ordered to be, be! (eat, eat!). In the US our traditional eating habbits are somewhat alienated—our separate plates alienate us from each other, our utensils alienate us from our food. In Ethiopia, this is not the case. Food is consumed without utensils—a piece of injera is torn off, dipped in some wot, then rolled neatly into a bite-sized spiral of goodness (all done with the right hand, incidentally, as the taboo of eating with the left hand is still widely practiced, though exceptions can be made for farenji such as myself). People reach across the table for the far-away wots, lean against each other as they laugh and eat, tear off pieces of injera on their side and pass them around if they see another side is running low on injera. It is even customary to roll a piece of injera with wot, and feed eachother—directly from one person’s hand into another person’s mouth. With this level of intimacy and connection with food, it is nearly impossible not to feel the intense bond of human connection to those with whom you share a meal.

But in addition to this human connection, is the food. So, so, SO much food. Even though the initial quantities of injera and wot typically far exceed what one could comfortably consume, it is customary to continue serving more and more—so just as you think you have managed the incredible feat of finishing, the host slips away and reappears with more—at some points it literally seems endless. And this is where the magical phrase “ishii, beka!” comes in handy. The only way to end this seemingly endless stream of food is to say “ishi, beka.” Of course one “ishii, beka” is hardly going to be enough—Ethiopian hospitality is far too generous for that, plus, it is customary to feign fullness so as not to impose on your host, so your first (few) ishi-beka’s will be met by (several) insistant “be, be!”’s (eat, eat!). but, if you persevere, and hold strong, several utterances of this phrase, should be enough to render the meal complete. Without this magic phrase, the food will not stop, I assure you, and a very beautiful meal will turn into a very painful evening (and those of you who know me and my eating habits should know that if I say it’s too much food, it’s too much food!!!)

So, take it from me—if you ever have the opportunity to visit this fine country and partake in a home-cooked meal, by all means DO it, but do not, under any circumstances, refrain from utilizing “ishi, beka!” unless you intend to eat your bodyweight in injera. Seriously, you’ve been warned.

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