Sunday, April 5, 2015

In memoriam: Donald Nathan Levine

Alemayehu Weldemariam

Scholar, activist, aikido sensei. Born Jun 16, 1931, in New Castle, PA; died Apr 04, 2015, in Chicago, IL, of prostate cancer, aged 83.

Donald N. Levine was the Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Chicago and former dean of the College. He graduated with BA in 1950 from the "Hutchins College", MA in 1954, and PhD in 1957 from the University of Chicago under the mentorship of Robert Redfield and Richard McKeon

Levine had a brilliant career as the world’s most eminent social theorist and Ethiopianist. He published over a hundred papers and five books and his corpus includes critical interpretations of Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, S.N. Eisenstadt, and above all Georg Simmel. In the realm of social theory, his work focused on reunifying the sociological traditions and imaginations in a book venture that he titles “Visions of the Sociological Tradition” (1995). One evening during my visit at the University of Chicago in 2011, as we were walking to his home where he generously hosted me for the first week, he started telling me "how sociology used to be as big as Humpty Dumpty and how it had a terribly great fall. And after Humpty Dumpty had that fall, it broke into pieces, and all sociologists and social theorists that came “couldn't put Humpty Dumpty in his place again.” That is exactly what I wanted to do with my book Visions of the Sociological Tradition."

In Ethiopian studies, he is most famous for his two books Wax and Gold (1965) and Greater Ethiopia (1974). He managed to put together and publish a collection of essays on Ethiopia which came to be his last book, Interpreting Ethiopia, with which my name is associated for which I feel proud and ashamed at the same time. Ashamed because I could not help as much as he wanted me to and proud because I was involved in the project from its inception to its completion, albeit an unfortunate hiatus in between. 

Levine served as Chair of the Theory Section of the American Sociological Association in 1997,as editor of the University of Chicago Press's Heritage of Sociology series for two decades, and as member of the editorial boards of the American Journal of Sociology, Journal of Classical Sociology, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and Theory Culture and Society. For his expertise as an Ethiopianist he served as consultant to public and governmental organizations, include the U.S. Department of State, the United States Senate, and the Peace Corps. 

Levine received a Doctor of Letters honoris causa in 2004 from Addis Ababa University, where President Andreas Eshete lauded him in a citation speech as: "Ethiopianist, sociological theorist, educator: you have succeeded in all three vocations. Your pioneering work, Wax and Gold, has become an Ethiopian classic. As manifested in its title, yours is an exceptionally imaginative quest to reach an understanding of Amhara society from the internal point of view. The very concept of "Wax and Gold" has taken a life of its own: it figures at once in our understanding of Ethiopia's pre-modern culture and in our coming to grips with Ethiopia's reception of modernity. Greater Ethiopia draws attention to the deep fact that Ethiopian life is rooted in multicultural identities, and it also demonstrates the salient bonds that hold them together.”

Levine is a towering figure in Chicago sociology and social thought in the same league as Robert Park, George Mead, Albion Small and John Dewey, Edward Shils, and Arnaldo Momigliano. 

Mr. Levine is survived by his wife Ruth, daughter Rachel, and sons Ted and Bill. His memorial service will be held on Thursday, April 9, 1 pm, at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, 1100 E Hyde Park Blvd, Chicago, IL 60615.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Analyzing Unconfirmed Reports of Ethiopian Bombing of Eritrea

Alemayehu Weldemariam
Washington DC
24 March 2015

The first question that crosses one’s mind while reading reports about the bombing of Eritrea by the Ethiopia Air Force on the night of 20 March 2015 is why Asmara or Nevsun, the Canadian mining company that owns and runs Bisha mining, one of the targets of the bombing, wouldn't confirm or deny the reports?

Because it doesn't make economic and political sense to both of them to admit. For Nevsun, it's not only the stocks that are affected, but also the insurance premium. It seems to me the company has an insurance policy that contains a war exclusion clause or it has a distinct war risk insurance policy with a deductible and the damage it sustained is not substantial . In either case, publicity adversely affects its interests: it raises insurance premium while affecting the stocks in the market. So much for the legal implications. What's more, PFDJ wouldn't let it make the attack public before it makes it and it won't unless it plans to launch counter-attacks, which is tantamount to a declaration of war. Eritrea would rather keep quiet to avoid humiliation. So this I think is why Nevsun prefers to use "an act of vandalism" instead of "an act of war" as a legal euphemism.

Some question the veracity of the reports saying that whistle blowers would bring the matter to the attention the investors. But the problem is no whistle blower of importance seems to have interest in the matter unless such a whistle-blower is an investor. And it seems that investors don’t have the incentive to do that, because the corporate interest in this particular case overlaps with the investors' interest. If the company is lying, it's doing so to maintain the company's interests, its long-run business relationship with Asmara, and its business as a going concern.

What I am saying is, and I have not denied the increased risks to the investment, the company chose to hide such facts, and it did, because both states chose to keep quiet, neither to affirm nor to deny. So it is very likely that the air strikes took place, and apparently the company issued a statement claiming vandalism, while the states kept silent, which is indicative enough that the company is lying. Why lie? Because, it serves its interests and it coincidentally happened to be legitimate, precisely because Eritrea has not made any accusations against Ethiopia of any strikes in the first instance. Nor did Ethiopia claim to have done so. Therefore, under International Law, the air strike is a non-issue for all intents and purposes.

Martin Plaut muses in a tweet: “If the bombing of Eritrea by Ethiopia is confirmed it raises this question: would Addis have acted without informing Washington in advance?” I don’t want to indulge in that kind of unnecessary speculation. However, one thing seems to be increasing certain that, with or without Washington’s blessing, Ethiopia has carried out successful air strikes against selected Eritrean targets in retaliation for its failure to return the MI35 helicopter it hosted after an Ethiopian pilot decided to land it in Eritrea after hijacking. Mesfin Tekle, Canada-based financial analyst, says, “It’s not always about the price, check the volume. The stock price is not a big mover in any case, but the volume tells a story.” In fact, the volume of stocks offered for sale a day before the rumored strike was 371,448  before it jumped to 773,970 on the same day as the strike, reached 778,362, two days after the strike and is 798,109 at the moment. It can reasonably be expected to hit the record high of 800,000 at closing today. Mesfin explains, “the stock has a market cap of less than $1B so I doubt there're a lot of institutional investors who own it. The news seems to have an effect on the volume. Half a million share trades in less than 3hrs may indicate some exiting the stock early but the price has not made an appreciable move yet.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Ephraim Isaac - A Reflective Conflict Resolution Practitioner

Born, in a small village in Nedjo, Ethiopia, to a Yemenite-Jewish father and an Ethiopian-Oromo mother, Professor Ephraim Isaac is a true polymath and a cosmopolitan. He is a scholar of ancient Semitic languages and civilization, African languages, and Religion. He speaks seventeen languages. Professor Isaac received a B.A. degree in Philosophy, Chemistry and Music from Concordia College, Master of Divinity in 1963 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies in 1969, both from Harvard University where he went on to become the founding professor of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University after graduation. He has won several awards and recognitions for his scholarship and work in conflict resolution, including the 2003 Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action Award from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York, where he has also been featured in its publication titled “Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution” (2007) and honorary doctorates from the City University of New York and Addis Ababa University. He has been admitted to the Swedish Royal Order of the Polar Star in 2013 in a ceremony held at the Swedish House in Washington DC in the presence of the Swedish Ambassador, H.E. Bjorn Lyrvall. Currently, Dr. Isaac heads the Institute of Semitic Studies, based in Princeton, N.J. and the Peace and Development Center, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is also known as “the Father of Peace”, a well-deserved title he earned for his active engagement in peacemaking in the Horn of Africa region. 

Since 1989, through what has now become the Peace and Development, Professor Isaac has been actively engaged in sustained efforts to resolve conflicts involving his native country of Ethiopia. His experience in peacemaking ranges from intrastate conflict among warring religious and ethnic groups in Ethiopia to international conflicts such as the Ethiopian-Eritrean War of 1998-2000. He has successfully mediated the release of numerous political leaders from jail following the bitterly contested national elections in 2005. He has also played a key role in securing the signing of a truce between the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Ethiopian government in 2010.

In this interview, I will talk to him about what it takes to be a peacemaker, how he intervenes in conflicts, what guides his action, and what it means to be a reflective practitioner .

  1. What does it take to be a peacemaker? 

The love of peace and the fear of God. You have to be a peace-loving and God-fearing person to be able to seek and make peace when sought for.  I took my inspiration from my father, who was a silversmith, a very devout religious person, and also a Rabbi. He had learnt to read the entire Torah by heart in the manner of the old Yemenite Jewish tradition. He would always read and chant in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening from the Songs of David by heart. And from him, I learnt two important things: to work very hard and to be respectful to others and be patient. He showed me what spiritual eldership itself means: to be selfless, generous, patient,  humble, sensitive, prudent, and mature. Another source of inspiration is Prophetic Judaism. I love the Hebraic prophets, esp. Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah.  According to the prophetic tradition the world is founded on truth, justice, and peace. Judaic prophetic tradition encourages truth-seeking, peace-making, and resistance against injustice. Yet another source of inspiration is the community in which I was born and raised. There is a custom of immense respect for elders. When elders offer peacemaking, parties to a conflict cannot decline. Even better, they submit themselves to the peacemaking services of the community elders. Today, conflict resolution has become part of the university curriculum, educational program. So it has become professionalized and I have a huge respect for it.  

2. How did you intervene in the conflict resolution processes you were involved in? Once you have intervened in a conflict, how do you manage the process? What is most challenging and exciting about a peace process?

Usually, I don’t like to talk about the work we do, partly because it is very sensitive and partly because we do not do it to get publicity. Instead of answering your question directly, let me try to put it this way: we, Ethiopians, have a tradition of eldership. A tradition I am very proud of. Now what does eldership mean? Eldership means that you have to be very old. With age comes wisdom. There’s what we call the wisdom of ages.  In the Ethiopian countryside, conflicts are resolved are normally resolved by elders. 

Sometime in 1989, as famine and fighting continued to ravage the population, I gathered a group of distinguished former civil servants to reflect upon the condition in Ethiopia and we almost literally made a covenant to approach all the conflicting parties. And the following day, we drafted a letter that in effect said that we, your brothers and sisters, are very saddened by what happened in our country, the bloodshed, the famine. We, as your mentors, friends,  and family would very much like to see all the conflicting parties to come together to discuss how to resolve the conflict, possibly form a transitional government. This letter was sent to all the political parties, including the government. And the first person to respond positively to our call was the then rebel leader, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. As I have come to know him for the past 22 years, he was a man deeply committed to peace and reconciliation.  We had a an economist in our group who explained that peace and development are inextricably intertwined, that you cannot have one without the other. But the Prime Minister, in fact, seemed to have already known this. He accepted enthusiastically our offer to organize a peace conference in Switzerland, but as we all were gearing up for that, the US Department of State came up with the idea of the London Peace Talks, led by Herman Cohen.  And though ours was put off indefinitely, but we reached an agreement to fund the Peace and Development Conference that took place in Addis Ababa in 1991.    

As far as our intervention in the crisis following the 2005 elections is concerned, I initiated communication with PM Zenawi, who was a very humble person. His humility helped a lot. As they say here, “it takes two to a Tango.” For example, when I appealed to him to release Ms. Birtukan Midekssa from prison, I wrote him out the conviction that he is an open-minded person who listens to counsel. And I kept on writing him for a few weeks. At one stage, one night I got a message at about 3 o’clock, because I told him about what I am personally going through and that I could not sleep thinking of the condition in which the lady, her little daughter, and her aging mother are left. Then the following day, I received a letter from him saying “Dear Professor, how are you doing today? I am writing to ask your apology for your suffering. For the actions the government has taken, I feel badly about it. Please forgive me.” You see, this speaks volumes as to the humility of the man who happened to be the prime minister. No prime minister is supposed to write such a letter to ordinary individuals. He had as much respect for individuals as for the Ethiopian tradition of eldership. 

So the solution to the post-2005 elections political deadlock was based on traditional eldership. So we tapped into long-standing cultural traditions of using elders to mediate between the government and opposition groups. In the Ethiopian tradition of shimagele-jarsa, the mediating elder exercises sympathetic listening, respect for each side, patience, broadmindedness, impartiality and advocacy for serious dialogue. As a result, we secured not only the release of the 35 imprisoned leaders of the opposition party, but also of about 30,000 prisoners throughout the country. At one point I jokingly told Meles that “now we can turn the prisons into schools and clinics” at which he laughed.  

I was not only writing to him. I also used to call him on his phone, calls he never failed to answer. For example, I remember to have spoken to him on the phone several times during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. But I don’t do that to a point being a nuisance.

3. What values and principles guide your action as a practitioner of conflict resolution and peacemaking? You have an interesting mélange of personal and professional experiences in your background. To mention just a few of them, you are a religious person, a scholar who taught at Harvard for several years,  and a community elder (Shemagele). What have you brought to bear on conflict resolution and how did your diverse background help you in accomplishing what you set out to do?

Spiritual eldership is our guiding principle and in any conflict resolution process that we are involved we do our best to uphold the trinitarian values of truth, justice, and peace that underly prophetic Judaism.  Our elders display an extraordinary degree of strength in character in being moral, upright, humble, patient, truthful, loving, and god-fearing. As a scholar of ancient religious literature, I know that peace itself is a religious concept, messages about peace abound, being practically universal in religion. Religion is and can be a powerful, positive agent of peacemaking and reconciliation. Even if warring cannot be totally eliminated, religion can be a force to reduce it. The work of the Peace and Development Center with which I am involved is a prototype of peacemaking based on that principle.

My most favorite prophet is Isaiah who says “beat your swords into  ploughshares”, who says “lions will lie with cows some day”, who says, “who cares about your fasting? The fasting I want is free the prisoners, take yolk from people’s shoulders, and cloth the naked.”  

What distinguishes us as a group of peacemakers is a first-hand experience of fighting and blood that nurtures what I call “the virtues of the heart” -- humility, empathy, kindness, generosity, respect and sacrifice for others -- a part of the big package I call “wisdom”, and that wisdom has to be communicated in a special language of the heart. That is the making of a true elder.

4. What does it mean to you to be a reflective practitioner of conflict resolution and peacemaking?

The reason why we succeeded in our peacemaking efforts where others have failed is in part because we were reflective conflict resolution practitioners.  As I said earlier, conflict resolution has become a profession and universities around the world offer courses and confer diplomas in  the field.We were not the kind of people who were trained in that field. Being a professional has its own pluses and minuses. The reason why we succeeded where the international community failed is because the expatriates were professional mediators, who approached the conflict from a rational, technical point-of-view. But conflicts, maybe, sometimes ensue from our brains, but in most cases, they emanate from our emotions. The international community could have helped if they took a different approach. They would have resolved it, had they tapped into the rich resources and capacities for peace that were available at the local level. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Kerry's Ethiopia Opportunity

By Martin Schibbye and Patrick Griffith This month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to attend the 21st African Union (AU) summit. The message he brings will speak volumes about the future of American engagement on the continent. In announcing the visit during a U.S. Senate hearing last month, Mr. Kerry expressed concern about the potentially negative impact of China's and Iran's increased presence in Africa. He noted that graft and poor development choices could undermine the stability of some African governments, and he acknowledged the need for more U.S. engagement. Further American cooperation on development and security would be good news for Africa. But the U.S. must continue to focus on another potentially destabilizing factor in the continent: ongoing violations of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. Since their inception, the AU and its precursor, the Organization of African Unity, have embraced the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The African Charter on Human and People's Rights expressly protects a raft of basic human rights, including freedom of association, free expression and political participation. But despite these affirmations, the protection of such rights remains inconsistent across AU nations. Some governments continue to ignore certain provisions entirely. If he needs an example, Mr. Kerry need only look out his window in Addis Ababa. This month the Ethiopian Supreme Court upheld an 18-year prison sentence against independent journalist Eskinder Nega. Though the Ethiopian government is often touted as a close U.S. partner on security and poverty-reduction efforts, it has a dreadful record on rights. After parliamentary elections in 2005, the government jailed opposition leaders such as former judge Birtukan Mideksa and independent journalists who reported on the post-election unrest. Mr. Nega and his wife Serkalem Fasil, herself a prominent publisher, were among those arrested. They spent 17 months in a detention center on trumped-up charges of treason and genocide before they were finally released. Pregnant at the time of her arrest, Ms. Fasil was denied prenatal care for seven months and gave birth to their son Nafkot while in custody. In the spring of 2011, as popular uprisings gathered momentum across North Africa and the Middle East, Mr. Nega wrote extensively about their possible impact on Ethiopia. Despite warnings that he was going too far, Mr. Nega continued to write and speak publicly, often criticizing the government and calling for democratic reforms, while emphasizing the importance of nonviolence. But like fellow journalists Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, and opposition activists such as Andualem Aragie, Mr. Nega was charged in September 2011 under Ethiopia's widely criticized 2009 Antiterrorism Proclamation. He now faces 18 years in prison. The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights has expressed grave alarm at Ethiopia's persecution of journalists and peaceful activists. In April the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also weighed in, declaring Mr. Nega's detention illegal under international law and calling for his immediate release. But these admonitions have so far not convinced Ethiopian authorities to change course. When U.S. President Barack Obama laid out his administration's agenda for sub-Saharan Africa last summer, he emphasized strong democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law, noting that these promote both prosperity and stability. But as long as journalists and political activists are imprisoned for speaking their truth to power, such principles will remain illusory. Mr. Kerry has an important opportunity this month to convey that very message to his counterparts in Addis Ababa. Mr. Nega and his colleagues deserve nothing less. Mr. Schibbye is a Swedish journalist who was detained in Ethiopia for 14 months under the country's antiterror laws and held at Kaliti Prison with Eskinder Nega. Mr. Griffith is an attorney with Freedom Now, a legal advocacy organization that works to free prisoners of conscience, including Mr. Nega.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Media Release: Ruling by Ethiopia's Supreme Court in Eskinder Nega Case Another Missed Opportunity

Today, Freedom Now, Amnesty International, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, the Committee to Free Eskinder Nega, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, English PEN, the International Press Institute, the International Women’s Media Foundation, Media Legal Defence Initiative, the National Press Club, PEN American Center, PEN Canada, and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, condemned the decision by the Ethiopian Supreme Court upholding the 18-year sentence imposed against independent journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega. "By upholding the sentence, the Ethiopian government has missed yet another opportunity to respect its freely undertaken obligations under international law,” the groups said. “This failure is particularly striking in light of today’s World Press Freedom Day celebrations." "By misusing anti-terror legislation to stifle the peaceful work of journalists like Mr. Nega and his colleagues Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, the government has, unfortunately, demonstrated that it is willing to disregard the legitimate rights of the Ethiopian people and undermine the credibility of international efforts to address real security threats in the region, all in an attempt to silence critical voices in the country. It is time for the international community to make it clear to the government in Addis Ababa that such violations will no longer be tolerated." The decision upholding the verdict came yesterday after the Supreme Court postponed the appeal proceedings on seven separate occasions. Mr. Nega, who has been detained by the government eight times because of his journalism, was arrested on September 14, 2011 after he authored a series of articles and spoke publicly about the possible implications of the Middle East and North African-style popular uprising spreading to Ethiopia. Authorities held Mr. Nega without access to family for nearly one month and without access to an attorney for nearly two months. At trial, Mr. Nega admitted criticizing the government but affirmed that his writings only called for peaceful democratic reform in the country. He was convicted on June 27, 2012 and sentenced to 18 years in prison on July 13, 2012. After his sentencing, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that the continued imprisonment of Mr. Nega violates Ethiopia's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a party, and called for his immediate release.

Monday, April 1, 2013


April 1, 2013 Washington, D.C.: In an opinion released today by Freedom Now, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found the Government of Ethiopia’s continued detention of independent Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega a violation of international law. The panel of five independent experts from four continents held that the government violated Mr. Nega’s rights to free expression and due process. The UN Working Group called for his immediate release. Mr. Nega is serving an 18-year prison sentence on terror and treason charges in response to his online articles and public speeches about the Arab Spring and the possible impact of such movements on the political situation in Ethiopia. Arrested in September 2011, Mr. Nega was held without charge or access to an attorney for nearly two months before authorities charged him under Ethiopia’s widely criticized anti-terror laws. This is the eighth time during his 20-year career as an independent journalist and publisher that the Ethiopian government has detained Mr. Nega. His appeal has been repeatedly postponed, most recently on March 27, 2013. In the attached opinion, released in conjunction with an op-ed by the renowned Ethiopian opposition leader and former prisoner of conscience Birtukan Mideksa, the UN Working Group found that the application of overly broad anti-terror laws against Mr. Nega constituted an “unjustified restriction” on his right to freedom of expression. The UN Working Group’s opinion also recognized “several breaches of Mr. Nega’s fair trial rights,” further rendering his continued detention arbitrary under international law. “The Ethiopian government cannot continue to use anti-terrorism legislation to muzzle the work of independent journalists, even when it does not like what is being reported,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Maran Turner. “The targeting of journalists by resorting to overly broad anti-terror laws, just like the use of anti-state charges in the pre-9/11 era, is a violation of the internationally protected right to free expression and undermines international efforts to address real security threats.” Freedom Now represents Mr. Nega as his international pro bono counsel.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Book Review: WENDY LAURA BELCHER. Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson.

Wendy Laura Belcher. Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson. Pp. ix–286. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Cloth, £45. In 2008, I debuted my edition of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (Broadview) by presenting to a group of Johnson scholars at the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. After I described my edition’s emphasis on Johnson’s indebtedness to the oriental tale, an eminent Johnsonian demurred, declaring that Johnson ‘would have been disgusted’ by The Arabian Nights. Wendy Laura Belcher’s new book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson, definitively argues that Johnson, far from being disgusted by all things oriental, was in Belcher’s ingenious phrase ‘discursively possessed’ by Abyssinia from the very advent of his literary career and throughout his life. Belcher’s account radically reframes Johnson’s thought while also offering a new model—‘discursive possession’—for theorizing the relationship between European and non-European cultures that should have wide-ranging resonance beyond Johnsonian and eighteenth-century studies. Scholars need to take seriously Belcher’s claim that ‘The Western literary canon is a vast graveyard haunted by self-representing others, whose voices become the uncanny language of the very text that participates in constituting the other as an object of knowledge. The legible sign of the invisible other appears through the text that displaces heterogeneity even while being transformed by it’ (p. 18). Belcher’s animating paradigm of ‘discursive possession’ shows ‘how African discourse can animate European texts,’ locating ‘agency outside of the European traveler, author, intellectual’ (pp. 6, 7). As Belcher explains, discursive possession is more profound than intertextuality or influence studies because it accounts for the agency of a non-dominant discourse to shape the discourse of a dominant culture. Belcher critiques the ‘dominant models’ of post-colonial theory for ‘a failure to recognize that Africans produce discourse’ that powerfully affects Europeans (p. 7). To explain discursive possession, Belcher draws on African concepts of spirit possession and also shows how Johnson himself defines ‘possession’ as a lack of agency inherent to the creative process (pp. 48–9). The products of discursive possession are ‘energumens,’ texts ‘through which other texts and voices speak’ (p. 8). Belcher makes her case first by outlining the powerful discourse produced by the Habesha, the people of the Ethiopian highlands, an ancient discourse of cultural exceptionalism that had penetrated Europe as early as the Middle Ages via the Habesha’s own self-representing texts and ambassadors, tantalizing Europeans with accounts of the Habesha’s pure Christianity. Belcher shows that Europeans did not discover the Habesha, but were, one might say, discovered by them and were thus the recipients of their self-representations from the start of their cultural contact. In this way she offers a direct rejoinder to Edward Said and other post-colonial theorists of orientalism who believe (in Belcher’s summary) that ‘non-Western discourse … had little opportunity to shape the Western world’ (p. 98). It is important to note that Belcher’s emphasis remains on discourse. She is not suggesting that we find ‘real’ Abyssinians in Western texts; rather she is interested in ‘whether typical Habesha discourse – from Habesha texts and traditions – appears in the European text’ (p. 102). The Habesha discourse of cultural exceptionalism drew Europeans to Abyssinia, whether to attempt to reunite the Habesha with the Roman Catholic Church (as in the case of sixteenth-century Portuguese Jesuits), or to celebrate the Habesha as proto-Protestant models of a non-decadent Christianity (as did the seventeenth-century German scholar Hiob Ludolph). Belcher argues, Habesha discourse possessed the young Samuel Johnson at Oxford as he read deeply in scholarship on the ‘primitive’ church in his own spiritual awakening. In this way Belcher convinces the reader of the centrality for Johnson’s thought of his first published work, A Voyage to Abyssinia by Father Jerome Lobo (1735), a loose translation of a French translation/adaptation of a Portuguese manuscript about the Habesha, a work Johnson scholars have long dismissed as hackwork and that only a handful examined. Belcher points out that we must account for the fact that Johnson begins his illustrious literary career not with a Latin classic or with Shakespeare, ‘but with a text about a famous African people – an African people who have long been imbricated in European debates and thought’ (p. 45). Belcher believes Habesha discourse offered the young, questioning Johnson a model of religious practice that resonated with his desire for a pure Christianity that was ancient, like Catholicism, but was not the ‘aggressive political and colonial institution’ of Rome. The Habesha church ‘offered a way of separating the spiritual doctrines from the earthly power’ (p. 70). Belcher’s compelling reading of the significance of Habesha Christianity for Johnson’s thought offers a wonderful solution to the long-standing debate over the nature of Johnson’s ‘slightly peculiar,’ seemingly crypto-Catholic Anglicanism (p. 70). From her detailed reading of A Voyage to Abyssinia, spanning three of the book’s eight chapters, to her fresh interpretation of Johnson’s early play Irene, to her analysis of Habesha discourse in Johnson’s oriental tales published in the Rambler and the Idler, Belcher sheds definitive light on works that have received little scholarly attention, particularly in the past 40 years. Again and again she shows how Habesha discourse shaped Johnson’s writing. Her analysis of the complex palimpsest that is A Voyage to Abyssinia does a signal service to Johnsonian scholarship. She shows that ‘his translation’s effect, regardless of its motivations, is to recuperate the Africans and mortify the Europeans, much as the Habesha themselves might have wished’ when he ‘recasts the Portuguese as colonial aggressors, not devoted servants of God’ or when he ‘dramatically mistranslates in the Habesha’s favor, working against the negative presentation of the Habesha that Lobo and Le Grand are trying to communicate’ (pp. 91, 94, 95). Some of this has been pointed out piecemeal by previous scholars, but never before in the service of a larger argument about the agency of African discourse. Perhaps the most surprising chapter in the book is Belcher’s reading of Irene in which Habesha discourse appears in Johnson’s representations of ‘the oriental other as a complicated, rhetorically gifted Christian’ (p. 140). Belcher’s excavation of Habesha discourse—along with her careful attention to the variations between Johnson’s text in its final stage version—in this play convincingly explains some of Johnson’s seemingly odd dramatic choices in the play as well as its stage failure. Belcher concludes with two chapters on Johnson’s Abyssinian masterpiece, Rasselas, that argue against recent scholars’ readings of it as ‘the paradigmatic orientalist text, deploying the Middle East to explore unmistakably Western obsessions’ (p. 191). Instead, Belcher shows that Rasselas is ‘a text with deep links to non-Western thought and partially co-constituted by the Habesha’ (p. 193). Belcher takes the 50-year-old scholarship of Johnsonians such as Gwin J. Kolb and Donald M. Lockhart on Rasselas’s Abyssinian sources and gives it the theoretical sophistication of her ‘discursive possession’ model, elegantly melding what might seem like very different scholarly traditions. Her interpretation of the tale itself, especially an extended reading of the astronomer’s possession by age-old Habesha rhetoric of power over their land, is ingenious and original. The last pages of Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson gesture towards broader contexts in which the ‘discursive possession’ model can be useful. As Belcher notes, artists have long described the creative process as one of possession. Scholars need to take this seriously, to chart, as Belcher has done so compellingly, how ‘non-European thought, through such discursive possession, animates some texts of the European canon’ (p. 247). © The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press 2013; all rights reserved