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View the documentTransplanted: the odyssey of ''the Outsiders''

Transplanted: the odyssey of ''the Outsiders''

by Jeremy Avis

Jeremy Avis is a British anthropologist who has travelled widely in Africa and the Middle East.

The strange, reverse odyssey of "the Outsiders" holds lessons for would-be cultural imperialists

As each plane touched down and its doors opened, it was a little like opening a series of time capsules, sealed packages somehow preserved from another era - except that their contents were living people, and the shock, for these voyagers, was profound.

Uprooted from a rural subsistence economy, and a deeply religious culture which for centuries had fiercely preserved its separation from the world around it, they were about to plunge - after what must have seemed a miraculous flight - into the daily life of the mostly secular, modern industrial State of Israel.

"They" were the Felashas ("outsiders" in Amharic), Ethiopian Jews from the drought-stricken Gondar region who had wandered, first on foot across rock and sand to Gedaref, Sudan, then back to their own nation's capital, Addis Abbaba, in search of an escape from famine, civil war, and repression. Thousands died or were imprisoned along the way, but these had survived to take part in an airlift that eventually transported more than 10 000 refugees.

They'd come to find a new life in their spiritual homeland. What they found, however, was not some mythical Promised Land, but a new and unexpected series of practical realities to be faced, absorbed and eventually transcended. Their experience - a forced, virtually overnight transition to the production economy and cultural mores of the western world - provides a microcosm of the kind of traumatic change many cultures in Africa and elsewhere have endured in recent decades, first under the heavy hand of colonialism and then in attempting to "develop" by emulating the rich industrial countries of the North.

Felasha women wearing several layers of western style clothing, a status symbol - Photo by Jeremy Avis

Children from one of the "ten lost tribes of Israel" skip home after school - Photo by Jeremy Avis

Felasha children adapt more easily to life in Israel than do their parents

In many cases, development has meant transplanting bits and pieces of the northern industrial economy and its way of life to "the field," where the social ground was often ill-adapted to receive them. In the case of the Felashas. the movement was precisely reversed - the "field" itself, in the form of a people, being transplanted wholesale into the heart of a modern economy- Perhaps for that very reason, the many mistakes and failures of wisdom involved seem plainer, and the lessons to be drawn clearer.

In the process, some found hope, others shipwreck.

A lost tribe

One of the famed "10 lost tribes of Israel," the Dan tribe, the Felashas were believed to have scattered to Ethiopia after the destruction of the Second Temple in the seventh century AD. The Semitic set of their faces and the peculiarities of their traditional religious and cultural life leave little doubt of their origin.

Their religion was preserved in its purity by holy men, or kassuts, who wore special white robes and were further distinguished from the laity by carrying ceremonial white sticks. They, along with a monastic order unique in Judaism, were the only members of the culture able to read and write the Torah. The whole system of kosher foods was preserved from ancient Judaism, along with purification rites and ritual sacrifices on the first shabbat of every month.

Their separation from surrounding tribes in Ethiopia required a high degree of self-sufficiency, which led to a necessary pluralism of skills within the culture. Besides varied farming strategies, there was a vigorous tradition of iron-working and weaving among the men. Women were skilled at working with clay and made huge pots, sealed with butter for grain storage and for fermenting the sour dough needed for preparing Ethiopian njira bread. Even beds were fashioned of clay. In modern Israel, however, these varied skills would often prove useless.

Most of the new immigrants were at first billeted in hastily commandeered four- and five-star hotels. Families found themselves living in sumptuously appointed bedrooms, taking three meals a day in the hotel dining-room, and trying to make some connection between their expectations and the bewildering reality that confronted them.

A teacher at the absorption centre in Naharia, where Ethiopians still spend their mornings learning to read and write, tells of the trauma these immigrants went through. Many were surprised by the large Arab minority living in Israel, and shocked by the secular nature of most of the Israelis around them. The ritual purification practised by Felashas after contact with a Gentile was, in some cases, extended to non-religious Jews.

There was also friction between the Ethiopian kassuts and the orthodox Israeli religious establishment, which despite a secular society still wields considerable influence. They disagreed on many aspects of dogma because the Ethiopian Torah is free of many additions inserted since the seventh century. The relationship got off to a bad start when the official rabbinate insisted that all male immigrants be ritually re-circumcised by a recognized rabbi, on grounds that the immigrants' earlier circumcisions might not have been carried out exactly according to tradition. The rabbinate refused to permit the immigrants to marry unless this was done - and since there is no civil marriage in Israel, the Ethiopians were obliged to accept.

A new world-view

At the absorption centre at Rosh-Hanikra, a spacious former youth hostel near the sea, families were billeted in two-room apartments with their own cookers and toilets. Despite such comforts, they were faced with the shock of assimilating a completely new world-view. It wasn't just small things, such as the fact that the day now started at both sundown (orthodox Jewish reckoning) and midnight (secular), instead of their own traditional sunrise. The real problem was that the non-formal methods of social control in their home villages - where the norms of behavior were maintained through face-to-face contact with a fixed number of intimately known individuals - were replaced by the inflexible written laws of an anonymous state.

For a once self-sufficient people. there was a loss of what psychologists call the "internal locus of control" over their cultural environment. They were finding that they were no longer the teachers of their own children, who learned the ways of the new world faster than their parents and often reversed roles - becoming their parents' teachers, rather than students. For parents, the realms of food. health care, clothing and childbirth, to name but a few, were no longer in their control.

Every morning the adults saw their children off to school - then went to the classroom themselves. In addition to acquiring basic numeracy and literacy (an extremely difficult task for the oldest immigrants), they were introduced to the realities of everyday life, or "life skills." Post offices, health clinics and telephones were totally new concepts, as was that of sitting in a classroom to acquire knowledge from a blackboard.

Classes dealt too with consumer goods: how to understand the difference between toilet cleanser and shampoo, by the shape of the bottles. The elaborate and wasteful packaging of the modern food industry often gave these peasants - who might know on sight every plant or bird in their native country - no clue as to supermarket contents. The variety of unknown foodstuffs was enormous and bewildering, yet had somehow to be combined at table in a culturally appropriate order.

There were culture shocks for immigrants and centre staff alike. Food was found stored in the toilet, for coolness. The mobile bar-heaters provided during an unusually cold winter had to be replaced by models fixed to the walls, after one was found turned on directly under a baby's cot in an effort to keep it warm. The sea-shore had to be put off-limits because of unfamiliarity with tides and currents, as was the swimming-pool after people began washing clothes there.

Adapting to western modes of dress also had its problems. Israelis donated huge amounts of second-hand clothes. which continued to arrive every week by the sackful. Clothes were quickly recognized as conveying status in Israeli society, which led to a status war among the newcomers, fought with the available supply of cloth ammunition. Men walked about the grounds wearing up to six layers of clothing. Three shirts might he worn at once, part of each one carefully displayed for public view. Old men stood proudly in decorated roll-neck collars. People believed clothes were as disposable as razor blades and plastic bottles. One man threw away a beautiful new anorak because the fashion suddenly switched to fur-lined jackets.

Index of disposability

Though change occurs in traditional, isolated societies, it usually does so slowly and organically. Value systems emphasize continuity and respect for tradition; rituals gain power from the fact of having been repeated in the same way for centuries. Suddenly thrown into a culture whose need for constant economic growth gives value only to the newest, most fashionable product, where everything from theories of evolution to dishwashers have built-in obsolescence, caused acute problems of interpretation for the newcomer. Acquiring the new world-view included finding the new culture's "index of disposability" and the speed of its passing fashions.

Ceres contributor Jeremy Avis with young Felashan - Israeli Fasica

In Rosh-Hanikra, clothes. which protect the body from the atmosphere, were perceived as having the same index of disposability as packaging, which serves the same protective purpose for manufactured goods. The speed of passing sartorial fashion matched that of pop records or yesterday's newspaper. One recalled Kemal Attaturk, who during his drive to modernize Turkey in the 1920s and 30s forbade the wearing of traditional dress. forcing people such as the Kurds to wear western suits. Seventy years later a visitor to some rural parts of Kurdistan w ill notice Kurdish men still wearing the wide lapels and pinstripe cloth that was popular in Attaturk's era. Though the culture's dress was forcibly updated, the speed of its passing fashion remained at the traditional pace.

Just as an army marches on its stomach, so a displaced culture focuses on food. Nowhere was the western characteristic of loss of control so evident as in the Felashas' dining hall. Tremendous antagonism built up in the centre over the necessity of being given food. Due to budget limitations, and the initial impossibility of the immigrants doing their own shopping. a catering firm was contracted to supply three meals a day - thus preventing the Ethiopians from cooking their own food. Inevitably, people began removing food from the hall. complaining of sickness to get permission to eat at home. or even refusing to eat altogether. Children became anemic from not eating enough: they were disturbed because in traditional society they'd always eaten separately from the adults, and their parents were now unsettled at having to eat with them. W hat had been a privately negotiated family affair, eaten from a communal pot, now happened in the public arena of a hall, where everyone had individual portions.

Rural subsistence living has given way to town life for Felashan Jews who emigrated to Israel - Photo by Jeremy Avis

At home. their diets were limited to foods grown in the immediate area. Besides njira. kosher beef and chicken, there was a selection of other crops (corn. pulses, beans, rapeseed oil) and a few -seasonally gathered food-. Nothing prepared them for the thousand- of foods available in Israel - especially the addictive properties of sweet foods. The centres kitchen staff, in turn. had only trial and error to guide them in discovering which food the newcomers would accept. In and culture, food is surrounded by often bizarre symbolism and food taboos. Thus. seemingly benign foodstuffs caused near outrage when presented to the immigrants.

The Australian-horn social worker who managed the centre told of the mysterious -symbolism -surrounding eggs. One mealtime, an elderly man rose from his seat holding a hard-boiled egg aloft tor all to see. and announced to the hushed onlooker- with the pathos- of a Shakespearian tragedian: "The egg is cracked."' No one ate their eggs that evening.

Another teacher recalled a near-riot that broke out in her class when she explained how Israelis eat duck. She compounded her error by explaining to an incensed elder that in some countries people even eat frogs. "The poor man was speechless with shock." she recalled. ''He just stood there, mouth open, for a few moments before walking out the door. It look days to persuade him to return."

"'They wouldn't eat my pickles, the catering manager protested. "They said they were only for donkies." Sardines were also refused, with the comment "we don't eat babies." Pasta, however, was welcomed. It has been a favorite among the Felashas since Mussolini's invasion of what was then Abyssinia in the early 1930s.

One wonders at the long-term health effects of exposure to food additives, pesticide residues, and especially the huge increase in the intake of sugar, common in modern society. An Israeli army dentist who dealt with Ethiopian recruits (the immigrants were not exempt from compulsory military service) noted symptoms related to high sugar intake. He added that they also had no tradition of tooth brushing (at home, they used the ubiquitous African "chew-sticks," unavailable in Israel). This produced alarming rates of tooth decay.

A slow eclipse

Many of the earliest immigrants' knottier problems were quickly being sorted out for more recent arrivals. thanks to the intervention of some original immigrants, who later acted as vital bridges of communication between the old and new cultures. True role models. they had learned to speak fluent Hebrew and most either had jobs or were studying for university degrees. They seemed content, but still had a difficult time. bearing the brunt of newcomers' frustrations and relaying to them the often-unrealistic expectations their previously arrived countrymen had for them.

In one way. the smoother transition was a good thing, but in another it was filled with sadness - as one contemplates what is in fact the slow eclipse of a culture way of life such as that of the Felashas includes a rich storehouse of oral tradition, music, folklore. unique artistic and technical knowledge based on adaptation to an agricultural economy in a marginal environment. Much of this knowledge will pass away in the next few generations as the young people integrate into the mainstream society.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember: cultures don't suffer, people do. The Felashas who survived war and desert wandering underwent great pain, and in their new life at least the physical worst was over. Also, the patterns that usually accompany immigrations indicate that, thanks to what is called "the rebound effect," at least some traditions would continue. Initially, the old culture goes into rapid decline as the immigrants embrace the new society's habits and mores. But as the young people grow old, there is an almost inevitable reversion to traditional values and the company of one's own distinct ethnic group. Israel's towns and cities are crowded with old people's clubs for Bulgarians, Romanians, Poles and Moroccans, where not a word of Hebrew is heard.

For the Felashas, the first concern was finding work in an economy where unemployment was soaring in the wake of the huge influx of Russian Jews. Manual labor and farm jobs were all most could hope for in the beginning, and here they were in competition with migrant workers from Lebanon, who often worked for less than the minimum wage. For those past 40, there would be little support from within their own community, for at that age in Ethiopia most men are grandfathers, and considered "old men."

At one centre in Ma'alot, Felasha groups were still living on benefits two years after arrival. Many were depressed and fearful about leaving the security of the absorption centre. They had trouble budgeting their allowances, complaining about not having enough food while their houses contained multiple stereos and videos. One wonders whether life in some of the country's rural farm communities would not have been better suited to these people's skills and temperaments than the bleak caravan sites awaiting them on the edges of Israel's urban sprawls.

One thinks, as well, of other people in other countries, who still live in the villages where they were born - but where the modern industrial way of life has come as an invader, making them strangers too, emerging from their own time capsules into an era they never made. and which they should perhaps not wholly accept, without some reserve.