Gift of Incense
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Jamati was in attendance at The Culture Shop in Washington D.C. as Sierra Leonean owners Valentine and Mona Davies hosted a discussion of the book Gift of Incense – A Story of Love and Revolution in Ethiopia by Judith Ashakih. The book is the personal memoir of Eritrean composer, musician and singer Abubaker Ashakih, as told to and written by Judy, to whom he was married for thirty years until his death in 2002. After an enjoyable evening of literature and fellowship, we sat down with Judy to talk some more about the book and the story behind the book.
Gift of Incense chronicles the fascinating story of how Abubaker, an Eritrean who grew up in a conservative Muslim family, discovered and decided to purse his gift for music and parlayed his drive for success into ownership of Ethiopia’s famed Venus Club. It is also the story of his life with Judy, an American from a small town in Ohio, who made the unconventional decision to emigrate to Ethiopia in the early 1960’s, where she and Abubaker lived and worked together for ten years until they were forced to flee by the brutal regime known as the Red Terror to eventually settle in a small town in Ohio were they were the only family from Ethiopia. Abubaker and Judy began working on the book after friends urged Abubaker to write down the stories he often told of his life in Ethiopia. Judy says that the book was also Abubaker’s way of reaching out to those unfamiliar with his culture so that they would understand that “We all want the same things. To have our children safe and have them grow up healthy. We don’t want our kids to go through what immigrants go when they come here.” Abubaker passed away before the book was finished and Judy decided to complete the project because, “Abubaker told me to tell these stories.”
Abubaker Ashakih was a talented musician who composed over 350 classic songs for famed Ethiopian singers such as “Ye FikerShemani” (Weaver of Love) for Bizunesh Bekele, and “Ye Hewete Hiwot Anche Be-mehonesh” (You Are My Life) for Tilahun Gessesse. He discovered his gift for music quite by accident. When he was a child, he came up with the idea of tying a string around the knob of a squeaky door and pulled the string so that the squeaks gained a tonal quality – his first musical composition! Gift of Incense tells of Abubaker’s determination to pursue his music in spite of his family’s efforts to convince him to pursue a “respectable” career, even going so far as to destroy his instruments. Judy recounts that his family’s opposition only made Abubaker more determined to prove that he could make a living with his music. His story is an inspiration to anyone who feels called to step out of the box and pursue their passion.
The tumultuous political situation in Ethiopia is an ever-present backdrop in Gift of Incense, which describes lives lived in the midst of war between colonial powers Britain and Italy, under Emperor Haile Selassie I, and the Marxist revolution which eventually caused the Ashakih family to flee the country. But Judy says that Abubaker refused to allow political talk at the nightclub, insisting that the Venus Club be a place of love, respect and unity. As for her own political views of the situation in Ethipia, Judy says “I refuse to believe that if you kill 100,000 people, the country is better for it.”
Gift of Incense is also the story of a man and woman who met, fell in love, and built a meaningful life together. Judy happily describes a loving thirty year marriage which survived despite cultural differences and the challenges of having to rebuild their lives as immigrants in America. Despite the challenges they faced growing up, she is close to her children and lives within fifteen minutes of most of them and her grandchildren. Although she is not their birth mother, she refuses to use the word step-children, saying “I loved Abubaker and so I love his children.” The very name of the book is a testament to the bond between Abubaker and Judy. Incense is the nickname that Abubaker was given by his grandmother when he was a child. And when Abubaker and Judy were married, he declined the Muslim name that the Imam originally proposed for Judy, declaring that her Muslim name would be Hadiyya, which means “gift”. Judy says of her relationship with Abubaker, “It’s as if our souls met somewhere else in the universe and it was destiny that we would meet on earth.”
Judy’s love for Ethiopia resonates throughout the book and in her conversation. At the book discussion, an audience member asked a question many of us were wondering. How did Judy Linder, a white woman from a farm in Ohio, wind up living in Ethiopia in the 1960s? The man asked his question using an Amharic word that many of us did not understand. Judy paused and asked him, “Do you know what that means?” Judy’s son Anwar explained that the man used a word which means “outsider”, but that Judy never believed that she was an outsider in Ethiopia, that she considered Ethiopia to be part of her, and she to be part of Ethiopia.
Judy says she may continue to write because “Everyone has a story to tell, and it’s important to tell our stories for our children so that they will know everything.” In Gift of Incense Abubaker and Judy Ashakih have given readers a wonderful story about music, revolution, the Ethiopian and Eritrean people, and ultimately, about the power of love. Gift of Incense is available at The Culture Shop in Washington, D.C., 202-726-2211 or on amazon.com.