My Abebà

On the hill of Haz-Haz
lived a girl from Asmara.
Alas... beautiful Abebà,
poised and slender;
a flower that rhymes Abebà
like kohl rhymes round an eye!

So that the world may know:
while they were digging her grave,
cloaked in mystery and death,
she wove an aghelghel basket
and sent it empty of hmbascià bread.

On an indelible night,
they took her from me in handcuffs!


Every day I feel her absence
but in the dark she's everywhere.

She never wants to leave me -
so bring me the alghelghel of my Abebà
maybe it holds the answer,
the key to her handcuffs

that now bite into me.

There's only one inscription -

'a memento for my loved ones' -

on the alghelghel of my Abebà,
a flower who faded before she bloomed,
my friend in prison.

Translation notes

It was a real pleasure to translate this poignant, powerful poem by Ribka Sibhatu.

As you'll see, we reversed the syntax of the first couple of lines so they flowed better. 'Asmarina', someone who lives in Asmara, is an affectionate, diminutive term, which is why we translated it 'a girl from Asmara'.

Andre had been puzzled by 'bistre'; but Cristina Viti, a native Italian speaker, pointed out that it can also mean 'kolh', which made perfect sense in the context.

The first time that 'alghelghel' was used we decided to add 'basket' in order to avoid having a footnote; we did the same thing with 'hmbascià' bread. Subsequently, we just used the Eritrean terms without glossing them.

'Un'intensa notte', which Andre translated as 'an intense night' also carries a sense of intense as in a deep colour. We thought about translating this as 'momentous' and then hit upon 'indelible' which, like the Italian, has the sense of depth of hue.

1 Comment

1 Charles Cantalupo

Greetings!  This is a great poem, and I enjoyed your translation.  Ghirmai Negash and I translated the same poem, which appears in our anthology, Who Needs a Story: Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and English (Asmara: Hdri Publishers, 2006, now distributed by African Books Collective / London). Our translation also appears at http://www.fascicle.com/issue03/poems/eritrean2.htm.  Here it is:

Abeba, my flower from Asmara…

Measured and subtle
As her makeup
And her finely drawn eyes –
She spoke like poetry.

The food her family sent
To prison everyday
Arrived as usual
The day her grave was dug.
I heard her cry.

Later that night
I also heard
The prison guard
Summon her out
And the shot.

She lives in my dreams
And refuses to leave,
Knowing all my secrets
And never letting me rest.

Before she died
She wove a basket
Inscribed “for my parents” –

Abeba, my flower from Asmara…
Who never blossomed.
My cell-mate.

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