I sat in silence as I waited to watch a short film that I heard would remind me of home. I arrived in a dark room when the first of a series of short films featured at New York’s Independent Film Festival this past week was in session. The solitude of going alone coupled with an extra twenty minutes to viewing gave me time to observe the scene. I occupied the first seat in the second aisle on the left side of the room; my ears and hair caped in black cloth.
Hagereseb is a 38-minute window into the lives of first and second-generation immigrants who live in Yesler Terrace. The film’s protagonists 10-year-old Abai and, his sidekick, Mahari has one goal: to buy a new pair of batteries so that Abai could get one last music session with his older brother, Sam before the day’s end. Viewers don’t ever see Sam in the movie, but they sense his complex nature and status around town through the characters his brother encounters in their neighborhood.
When Abai finds that Eyobe, a neighborhood bully, hustles him out of his change for a firecracker that costed him ‘a buck fifty,’ Abai yells “Sam is going to f–k you up!” But his brother is nowhere around. He’s on his way to Eritrea in Northeast Africa, the country where his family originates. Abai doesn’t know when Sam will return.
In the opening scene, we hear the clamor of Hadas, an older relative of Abai, trying to explain the seriousness of Sam’s departure as she tidies up the kitchen. Hadas begs Abai to give his undivided attention in Tigrinya – one of the main languages spoken in their native land. Her plea falls on deaf ears, and Abai doesn’t bother to break contact with his piano keyboard while attempting to jam batteries into its slot. He is unemotional, detached, cool, and gives off the vibe as if the words to Kendrick Lamar’s “B—h Don’t Kill My Vibe,” come forth to his thoughts.
“Are you trying to get sent home too?” she says with both hands stretched out on the dinner table. Now that she has broken her accent and is speaking plain English, Abai seems more inclined to listen.
In truth, Hagereseb does remind me of home. Not the place where I’ve lived for the past 23 years but the place where my ancestors have worked, fought, played, and buried some of their loved ones for generations. The vigor of the Eritrean people, notably the Tigrinya tribe (one of nine in the country), is aflame in this short drama which viewers of the Eritrean diaspora recognize in the mannerisms of Yesler’s amiable community. Mahari’s mom is short and has a routine look embossed in her demeanor. Her werqi or heavy round gold earrings are covered in a white cotton shawl known to Eritreans as the ntsela while her friend brews traditional coffee. I immediately notice a familiar fog, also known as itan in their living room. The incense is believed to deliver peace and love in the home of its coffee drinkers.
When Mahari’s mom scolds her son for his disrespect and rascal habits of not doing the ‘dishes’ or the ‘laundry’, peppering her rant with English words, her friend pulls out a “Bes’maam Beli” – a saying Tigrinya speakers use when they’re faced with a hardship and try to soothe the troubled thoughts of their children and neighbors.
When the lights cut off unexpectedly in an aunt’s one-bedroom apartment in Sembel, Asmara, last summer, my cousin cursed whoever she felt was responsible. Her mother responded with a “Bes’maam Beli” conveying to her daughter that the Lord could ease her worries if it were possible for her to stay positive.
When Mahari’s mom asked how Sam was doing, Abai sunk his head low. As a typical Eritrean of Christian faith, Mahari’s mom told him not to worry and that when she sent her son home, he returned with a new attitude, by learning his language and being embraced by his family, his people.
Many scenes from “Hagereseb” could happen in New York City, the place where my father arrived in the summer of 1983 through a refugee resettlement program. My mother would join him a year later. As a result of their sacrifices and bold attempt at starting a new life in the West, I am a product of a mass exodus and call New York home. In the Eritrean diaspora, we sometimes don’t use Tigrinya as the language to communicate our wants and needs but to mock our parents’
and know we’ll be scolded in return because we think it’s funny. We sometimes respond in English when spoken to in our mother language; we sometimes say “Africa” when we refer to our native land even though we mean to say “Eritrea” because Africa is NOT a country. As any adolescent like Abai would understand, we sometimes feel more connected with our American or European or (insert your preferred nationality here) peers and think we are better off without our parents. There’s a well-hidden disconnect in not knowing where exactly we come from, or what being Eritrean even means, when the country that we’re in tells us that we don’t appear to fit the [Black] prototype.
Eyobe, an acquaintance of Sam, shows us how we may disassociate ourselves from our ancestry while being black in America. “[They] gonna have his a– hunting,” he says, once Abai breaks the news that his family is sending Sam home. After I heard Eyobe support a common misconception about life in Africa, I thought back to the memories of hurtful jokes in a predominantly Black American schoolyard: “Ariam is an African booty-scratcher!”
All things considered, [we] assimilate quicker than our parents and older relatives do, and we learn that with a new identity we, too, shape the fabric of the communities we settle in.
“The f–k? You don’t hear me dawg.” – Eyobe
It’s 1997 in Seattle, Washington’s largest city, and the neighborhood’s aesthetics radiate remnants of an urban past nearing the end of a century. Parts of Yesler Terrace may not look the same today as the film depicts, and we don’t see all of it, but everything about the first racially integrated housing development built in the 1940s fits the profile of many diverse cities in America. Foremost, the streets are wide and that might be more of a West Coast attribute. People are gathered outside on their porches. Mahari’s shirt is loose and reaches his knees. Hip-hop music is blasting outside of an old convertible car. The infamous keyboard that takes viewers on a journey through Yesler Terrace hangs out of an unzipped red Jansport backpack. And the one scene understood the most is the one where Abai and Mahari fake an age-appropriate game of Rock, Paper, Scissors when they notice a cop car pull up and drive down the street. Although their home cultures don’t match that of their neighbors, they realize that the world views them as they would any other Black child and we all know Black men and their sons in America face a greater risk of deadly force than their White counterparts.
Although “Hagereseb” is not a foreign film, it is best understood without English subtitles.
It is not a foreign film though it recognizes and cherishes a community that is still foreign to many. Hager meaning “country” and seb with a literal translation of “people” is a short drama that conveys the strength and pride among “people of the country” or the village from one of the world’s youngest diaspora groups. Abai’s one-liner affirms the title; “I am home”.
For Abai, home is Yesler Terrace. For me, it’s New York City. But in the hearts of Eritreans anywhere, our nationality is not defined by the number of years we spend at home or abroad but the esteem and regard we have for our native land and its people.
Director: Zia Mohajerjasbi
Click here to view the trailer:
Correction: Mahari’s mom did not wear a ntsela over her head in “Hagereseb”, but on her back.