by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
At this very moment, North Africa is erupting in epidemic protest. I imagine that no leader or government member feels safe in their position at this moment, as at any time the rebellious itch that awakened the people of Tunisia and Egypt could spread to their lands. Even my fiancee’s friend, in reference to myself working in the DRC, said, “Well, at least he’s not in Egypt.” How could we have known six months ago that American’s would be evacuated from the most stable tourist attraction in North Africa?
What a perfect time to read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s unbelievably vivid journalistic work The Emperor, covering the reign and fall of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 until 1974. This small, thin man controlled the country without question for over forty years, and he was often praised by the west for being a great leader, until the revelation of government excess resulting in massive famine brought out the truth of a man who was blind to the needs of the people. But how can any person rule for forty years and be expected to change with the times, be expected to adapt to a world becoming modern with new technology, be expected to take roads which could lead to his own loss of power?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was so popular in America that he was able to get himself elected four times, but even the American people knew they never wanted that to happen again and amended the constitution to make sure it wouldn’t. It looks like Egypt’s president will step down after thirty years, and likely the same will happen to other long-term leaders. I don’t want to say that the western system of short presidential terms is the best, as there are clearly problems with leaders spending two out of four years campaigning, but at least it allows for different perspectives.
Kapuscinski captures the reign of Haile Selassie through stories recounted to him by minor functionaries who worked in the Imperial Palace. These stories, told to him during secret meetings while rebels swept through the streets searching for anyone who had connections to the old government, bring to life the everyday affairs of His Distinguished Highnesses court from protocols at the various meetings to the simple everyday affairs of a man who placed a pillow under the Emperor’s feet so that they wouldn’t dangle when he sat in the tall throne:
“I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth – I say it with price – His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne, and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer.”
I must say a bit about the language of this book. This is not mere reporting. Karuscinshki has taken the stories and written them in a miraculously beautiful tone. The blurb on the book which compares him to Conrad, Kipling, and Orwell is not simple advertisement, but the reality of what he is able to evoke with the written word. Here, he takes something we take as an everyday commonality and brings it to life in his juxtaposition:
“Do you know what money means in a poor country? Money in a poor country and money in a rich country are two different things. In a rich country, money is a piece of paper with which you buy goods on the market. You are only a customer. Even a millionaire is only a customer . . . And in a poor country? In a poor country, money is a wonderful, thick hedge, dazzling and always blooming, which separates you from everything else. Through that hedge you do not see creeping poverty, you do not smell the stench of misery, and you do not hear the voices of the human dregs. You have money; that means you have wings. You are the bird of paradise that everyone admires.”
So, what of Haile Selassie, as it is a story of his reign?
Well, what is startling, and a particular reason I would recommend this book to be read, is how the stories of his rule evoke images the modern world would better place in the middle ages, or thousands of years ago when Emperors ruled their people and had no care for their wellbeing. This is a time when the only work that mattered was working for the Emperor in a ministry, and the constant struggle for power within those ministries, along with the Emperor himself controlling all appointments and demotions, seems archaic.
Most startling of all is the supreme reverence to which those telling the story hold their Selassie. Often they defend him, talk of how it was not he who failed the people but his ministers, mention the reforms he made, or plead that he was trying to develop the country but no one in the rest of the world understood his intentions.
One ‘reform’ he instituted was outlawing a practice where a person accused of murder must be executed via disembowelment by his closest family member; instead Selassie created the role of state executioner and had people hung or beheaded. As for development, well, he was fine with construction buildings, factories, and other modern things in his capital city, but was against education, particularly reading. In one case, in regards to keeping newspaper circulation low this reason was given:
“… that might create a habit of reading, and from there it is only a single step to the habit of thinking, and it is well known what inconveniences, vexations, troubles, and worries thinking causes.”
Halle Selassie’s international downfall began when the British reporter, Jonathan Dimbleby discovered the starving people in northern Ethiopia and created a documentary called “Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine.” Ironically, most of the interviewees trace the downfall to a group of Peace Corps volunteers who came in during the famine and held a fashion show at the University. Normally gatherings were forbidden, but since it was Americans it was allowed, which led large number of students to get together and then they marched on the Palace. After that, the students never backed down again.
Of course, Selassie was deposed in a military coup, but it was the educated youths who made up the ranks of the military. Even in the end though, Selassie was still revered and not executed like so many of his ministers. He even supported the military rebellion as it was happening – maybe he was senile, but most deny that – and would say, even while imprisoned in his palace, “If the revolution is good for the people, then I am for the revolution.”
Maybe he knew that his time was up and wanted to step out of the way of actual progress.
It was also discovered that he had hit money throughout the palace and held Swiss bank accounts in excess for $100 million.
So, as President Hosni Mubarak watches the protests in Egypt, and can read the international news basically telling him the end is near, what sort of thing is going through his mind? And can he help to create a smooth transition rather than what Ethiopia was left with? There have been enough bloody wars and revolutions in Africa in the past century. Let’s hope this doesn’t become another one.
Like Shelley’s Ozymandius, any man only concerned with himself and his own accomplishments, will end up being washed away by the sands of history.