Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Book review and synopsis by Historian Angelo del Boca

Memorie di una principessa etiope
by Martha Nassibou

"A marvelous book that takes us into a world that is completely unknown to us westerners, the complex world of the Ethiopian aristocracy of the 20s and 30s."

In the beginning of the 1930’s, in the last century, the sumptuous palace (Guebi) of the noble Nassibou Zamanuel stood in the centre of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. It was surrounded by a fifty-thousand square meter park, adorned with tall trees and ornamental plants imported from all over the world. The Guebi consisted of dozens of room elegantly furnish with Louis XVI and Chippendale furniture, Sevres china and immense tapestries from Beauvais. There were some eighty butlers, domestics, cooks and gardeners assigned to the care of the palace, working under the watchful eye of Dejazmatch Nassibou, who was divinely handsome in his dazzling general’s uniform - six feet tall, with an athletic figure, attractive and serene features.

In the life of the Dejatch, all seemed exceptional and like a fairy-tale: from the time he conquered the heart of the young Atzede Mariam Babitcheff in the presence of the Regent, Ras Tafari Makonnen, following a breath-taking race at the Imperial Race Course; to the time he took her on a pilgrimage to the top of Mount Menagesha, where the hermit-saint, Wolde Mariam, foresaw the birth of five children to the bride.

On October day in 1935, however, the lovely fairy tale came to an abrupt end. By order of Benito Mussolini, the Italian forces began the invasion of Ethiopia from North to South, without a declaration of war. Dejatch Nassibou fought with valour to defend his culture, the ancient Coptic-orthodox civilization which made of Ethiopia a Christian land in the heart of Africa. The forces however are far too disparate, and the conflict will spell the end of the Ethiopian Empire and of the splendour of the Nassibous.

On 21 June 1936, Ivan Babitcheff, father-in-law of Dejatch Nassibou, was arrested. On 19 October, the Dejatch dies in a clinic in Davos, Switzerland. In the months that follow, all the Nassibou family are forced into exile.

More than sixty years after these events, Martha Nassibou, daughter of the Dejazmatch, tells the tale of the incredible journey of her family, exiled in Italy from the end of 1936 until August 1944. Eight years of exile in the “vacation resorts” of Mussolini, only for being the wife and children of Dejatch Nassibou Zamanuel, who had conducted himself with extreme correctness in war, an attitude certainly not reciprocated by Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani.

A valuable historic testimony, the book sheds light on the world of that Ethiopian aristocracy, “juggling between the wish to preserve their feudal heritage and a powerful longing for modernity”