A Short Biography

Hailu Gebre Yohannes (Gemoraw-P.N.): A Short Biography

Hailu Gebre Yohannes (better known as Gemoraw Nede Biltasor or simply Gemoraw) was Gemorawborn in 1935, in Addis Ababa, in a traditional Ethiopian home, at the very spot where the Organization of African Unity (OAU) building stands today.

As a small boy, Hailu was given church education by his father Merigeta Gebre Yohannes, who had the ambition to see his son, young Hailu, become a priest. Some of the unique happenings include the following. In the Theological School, the vast majority of the teachers were following the Old Testament. But as a teenager Hailu opted to study modern education instructed in English at Menelik High school while at the same time offering church service, as a Deacon, at the Holy Trinity Church at Arat Kilo. It was at that time that Hailu began gaining fluency in Geez and Amharic and eventually became sharp and solid in them to the extent that he could write dictum filled with polemic interpretations; and even converse secretive matters in Geez with priests and literate monks.

Upon completion of his learning at Menelik High School, Hailu joined the Trinity Collage of Theology at the Addis Ababa University where his search for and query about the mysticism of life, nature and the natural milieu began to gain momentum. To quench his youth dreams about life, Hailu focused his curiosity on and attempted to examine about creation and the inter-links lying between humanity and her ever-existing surroundings. He pondered more about life and death as well as life after death. Eventually, just instinctively and intuitively, Hailu got seriously immersed into the philosophy of life and death. Indeed, and very truly indeed, the major question that stroked his mind was – Why is life so much full of the art of making life itself and that of causing the horror of death? Thus, to Hailu, life is surrounded by lots of potential causes for an actual death. Likewise, death is surrounded by lots of creatures, each carrying a momentary life, which will be dispossessed by it at any time. Principally, death gives the resurrection of life and life gives the rebirth of death. Thus, one lives momentarily to die and one dies in due time and space to give more room for the predecessors’ future life. In short, Hailu realized that all the time somewhere, somehow, while someone’s life goes away at that very moment, somehow, somewhere, the making of life goes on. In Hailu’s own words: “life goes and life goes on”. Although a young student of theology, Hailu’s personal inclination tilted more and more towards knowing more about physics, astronomy, astrology and chemistry. Particularly, his focus was put on the search and research about the seismic structure and the volcanic contents found both underneath the center of the earth and at the bottom of the oceans and seas. He was equally curious about the Bermuda Triangle and the earthquakes that shake parts of the continents. Regardless of being known by the Collage staff and his student friends as an outstanding, bright and youngest student of the Trinity Theological Collage, he was ultimately thrown out of his class accused for raising some philosophical questions about the unquestionable creator of the Heavens and Earth.

Later, Hailu shifted to the Ethiopian Language Studies of the then Haile Selassie I University where he pursued his studies of classical morphology and phonology of linguistics. Soon after he joined the Linguistics Department at the Faculty of Arts, he won popularity among students and most of the University staff for his ability of writing dynamic, three dimensional, powerful and penetrating dictums in Geez, Amharic and English. Among the most popular poems that won awards for his ability of writing poetry one was Hailu’s famous dictum known to this very day as: BEREKETE MERGEM. This work remains to be popular among students majoring or studying Amharic. 
The 1960s were a decade of radical student movements, not only in Ethiopia alone, but also in the rest of the Western World. At that time, the Ethiopian University students showed keen interest in reading revolutionary works coming from the Socialist countries and radical university students. Thus, during his initial exposure of his literary work at Addis Ababa University, Hailu wrote a poem that appeared on a famous campus contest entitled SEOL, literally meaning: Predatory. He wrote this dictum after the May 1960 Military Coup de estate. One could observe Hailu zealously held busy writing since his early days at the Department of Theology and at the Institute of Ethiopian Language Studies, Haile Selassie University.

The 1960s was also the period when Hailu (Gemoraw) was considered by the secret police in Addis Ababa as ‘the man with a poisonous pen’. He was thus suspected to be one of the ringleaders’ known to conscript young university students to revolt against the then government. While under police surveillance, Hailu was thrown out of the university, once again, for his radical political and socio-economic outlooks. Thus he had to move between his parent’s home and jail several times. 

Amidst this turbulence, during the inaugural ceremony of the creation of the Organization of African Unity in 1963, Hailu composed a small book entitled: ONENESS, which he personally read at the opening ceremony and distributed copies to African leaders attending the Inaugural ceremony of the time. To his dismay, Hailu was taken back immediately to the central jail suspected to have included statements in that book attacking certain Ethiopian officials of the time. When freed from jail, Hailu turned out to be one of those unique and exceptionally few precious, selfless, far fetching sons of Ethiopia. Groomed in green, yellow and red colors of his national symbol, this fellow called Gemoraw by most students of the 1960s, started to live for Ethiopia and write about her to his fellow Ethiopians of the current and the distant future. Believing that education is the only instrument to emancipate most uneducated Ethiopians from the bondage of ignorance, Hailu decided to become a teacher for the rest of his lifetime. Accordingly, he went to the Technical School and later to the Teachers Training Collage at Addis Ababa where he resumed his teaching career. Most of his literary works since then are thus direct reflections of his vested interest in teaching Ethiopian masses. Having read numerous books, Gemoraw acquired lots of knowledge, which enabled him to publish 30 works out of over a hundred manuscripts, some of which are bound and ready for publication. Today, Gemoraw’s contribution to Ethiopian literature takes a big share of the Amharic Literature. Unique enough, Hailu’s three dimensional dictum writing style follows strict rhyming and writing schemes that read smooth but unique in their own ways. His poems slowly flow into the reader’s senses giving musical rendition of their own; and instill in the reader’s mind an unforgettable experience. His greatness and unique style of writing are reflected at once in his powerful, nagging, giggling, ticklish and blemish poems. 

His books of prose are equally attractive, serving the young Ethiopian generation as a source of inspiration. In addition to his own original writings, he has also translated and presented the works of some of the Chinese greatest authors in an appealing and readable style. Hailu’s books of poetry, fables, play stories, history, philosophy, development and various other subjects which he single-handedly prepared, were widely read by thousands of Ethiopians both at home and elsewhere in Diaspora.

Through numerous writings and famous poetic works, this living legend, Novelist, Poet Hailu Gebre Yohannes has already won the minds, taken the souls and stolen the hearts of numerous Ethiopians. Reading his literary works takes his readers through a long sticking journey of learning the African, Oriental and Western cultures and social setups. His mastery of many languages, his ability to capture and poetically paint the beauties of Ethiopian nature and humanity are striking. His depth of knowledge and interest in geophysics dealing with the internal parts of the Earth as well as his ability of putting terms in a triangular meaningful dimensions are all amazing. His works are engaging others in discussions and his philosophical touch on human and natural resource development and logic are simply enlightening our perception beyond the level of mere knowledge. His philosophical, idiomatic and three-dimensional dictums remind readers about his well-expressed outlook, mainly based on one of the Laws of Dialectics, … that life is full of contradictions and that life itself is the cultivation and the harvest of the struggle taking place between two opposing bodies (be it humans, animals, plants or other living beings including mother Earth). His artistic talent of capturing the characteristics of humanity as well as the fauna and flora out in nature, through a three dimensional interpretable penmanship enables literature lovers to recognize man’s linkage to nature and the dynamic episodes taking place in the wombs of Mother Earth. 

Hailu’s numerous scripts and literary works written in Amharic (Amarigna), Geez, English, Chinese, Norwegian and Swedish have encouraged many Ethiopians to open up their eyes, unveil and understand the contextual relations between humanity and nature, between heavenly and earthly functions, between the oceans, seas and rivers, between plains and mountains as well as between different climatic zones. His humorous, ironic, sensitive, sarcastic, critic, comedy and tragedy centered dictums and plays have been igniting the flame of revolt, the joys of festivities, the melancholy of the missing ones, the dream of the lovely ones in the hearts, souls and minds of his readership. 

His three dimensional Tran-disciplinary approach to the real world situations transcends in all spheres of life, as it is a gathering of views from theological, social, anthropological and humanistic and scientific perspectives of the early times. And so, this approach has inspired many of his readers to stand in a sticking shock and take an astounding look at oneself and at the past in retrospective. 

Hailu’s basic thinking originates from the fact that Ethiopia is the origin of everything and every-being. No more no less. In Hailu’s view, possibly that is why Ethiopia remains to have several rivalries and foes to this very day. As a mother, she remains to be the center of affection, attraction and adornment. That is why life goes way and life goes on in a turbulent, boiling, bubbling Ethiopian environ. To name few among his unique and master literature contributions and scripts suffice to list nine of them herein below: 

Most of Hailu’s works are filled with predictive and visionary wisdom, initially giving early warnings to the Ethiopian society at large, indicating what might take place for lack of prompt reaction in due time. His literary works are treasures, storing the beauties of Amharic – the Ethiopian National language – not only for the present generation alone, but also for generations yet to come. His deep-grabbing love for languages, fine arts and music are all reflected in these writings and spoken expressions of Geez, Amharic and Chinese tongues. The sophistication he adds on his paintings, the pictures he takes and the songs he composes are all amazing and amusing to those of us who happen to know Hailu a bit closer. He is the man behind the three dimensional dictums that we all mumble every now and then. He is behind the camera that took some fine picture we got as presents from him. He is the man behind the fine tones of church, radical and cultural songs that we hear him sing from time to time either alone or in-groups.

Hailu (Gemoraw), through his unique literary works, reminds us the Ethiopia that we know of as the mosaic of a conglomerate of people, culture and landscape giving the society its entity and ever-graceful beauty. He clearly demonstrates to his readers that the Ethiopian identity is distinct, indivisible and everlasting by the grace of the Ethiopian- God-of-us-all, which goes beyond the thinking horizon of ethnicity and religious factions. In Hailu’s view, Ethiopiawinet is an identity of people who live in contradictory conditions of life dynamically interwoven in socio-economic-political fabrics that tempt one to struggle in order to overcome the daily challenges of life and the essence of living. 

Hence, Hailu attempts to harmonize and depict about the average person struggling to win one’s daily breads either out in the villages or in the tightly settled townships of Ethiopia. His lifelong works attempt to catch and put into picture the contrasts between the people living in the highland cold and in the lowland hot climatic conditions of Ethiopia. 

Hailu’s expressions manifest the pride on one’s own nation and society. They remind readers the serious need to defend the national collective treasures given as endowment at one’s own place of birth, the farsightedness, the cultured attitudes and manners, the linguistic diversities as well as the character of attending known religious and traditional ceremonies.

In mid-1960s, when he left the central prison in Addis Ababa, Hailu resumed teaching at the Technical High School and later as a language course instructor at the Addis Ababa Teachers Collage. Shortly after, he was given a scholarship to study Chinese Literature at the University of Beijing in China. Three years after his arrival in China, Hailu won popularity among Chinese and international students for his fluency in the Chinese language and for his observation of the strong and weak points of Chinese philosophy. His initial Chinese poem on Mao was highly acclaimed by all. Nevertheless, even on a foreign soil, Hailu’s dynamic pen caused him to face political obstacles from the Chinese authorities and government.

Upon completion of the basic studies of the Chinese language, Hailu composed a large Chinese-Amharic dictionary and a Chinese-English phrase book. Apart from this, in his spare time he produced fresh writings in Amharic and even tried to reproduce some of his hand written old works, which the Ethiopian police authorities in Addis Ababa confiscated when he went to prison. Meanwhile, as partial fulfillment of his doctoral thesis he began to write on: “The Influence of Anarchism on Chinese Literature: With a particular focus put on the case “Ba-Jin”. Upon completion of compiling his findings for his thesis, he started to critically write each of the chapters for his doctoral thesis. But the title of his thesis in itself became a costly venture, which forced him to surrender his entire initial thesis work to the Chinese authorities who felt that his thesis was loaded with political criticism on Chinese literature. He was thus, asked to leave China immediately. In Ethiopia, the aftermath of the Red Terror made his wish to return home unrealistic and dangerous. Consequently, he had to appeal for his rescue from the country where he lived for seven years. Just as it like in Ethiopia, upon his departure from China, he had to leave without taking his books and personal belongings he had while in Beijing.

Amnesty International and UNHCR came to his rescue and brought Hailu to Oslo, Norway, where he was given political asylum. While in Oslo, Hailu found out that he could neither publish most of his hand written works nor could he continue his studies on Chinese philosophy. Ultimately, he had to move to Stockholm where he lives to the present day. While in Stockholm, Hailu was admitted at the Chinese Language Department of the University of Stockholm. His advisor and Hailu tried to secure entry permission for Hailu to travel to Beijing and bring with him the necessary documents to finalize his thesis but in vain. The Chinese Embassy denied him entry visa claiming that he is under persona-non-grata. To add insult to injury, the Norwegian government deprived of Hailu’s residence and work permit claiming that Hailu had lived long away from Norway, without reporting to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Meanwhile, he applied for political asylum in Stockholm. But the Swedish government denied him the right for an asylum claiming that there is no more any threatening cause for Hailu if he returns home to Ethiopia. The Swedes felt that a new government with whom Hailu has no serious confrontations is running Ethiopia. Thus he leads an unsettled and a turbulent life of a lonely lion. Hailu still remains on the move trying to secure residence and work permit elsewhere. 

His life goes on while the lives of many, who he knew in the good-old-days, have persistently been passing away without his physical presence to share the respective family mourning. 

Particularly, while living in exile, he lost most of his dear and near relatives as well as friends. Those who died include his parents, whose loss touched him most. Notwithstanding the turbulent challenges of life, which he continues to face, Hailu Gebre Yohannes is listed (by a monthly published Ethiopian Magazine named Rai) as one of the most famous Ethiopians of the Century (for details, see Rai, April 2000). In the meantime, an attempt is being made to bring Hailu to Canada. At this juncture, it is too early to state any thing about the outcome of this attempt. Overall, he is a great example of an enduring man for all of us. Unlike many of the intellectuals of his generation, he has not turned his back upon Ethiopia. His enduring commitment to and zealous struggle for our country and his altruistic fight for the freedom of Ethiopians during the last 42 years is something that deserves our appreciation as Ethiopians. Hailu has been fighting against all odds, atrocities and mediocre inundated in clandestine organizations in all the continents of the globe. He has spent lots of his lifetime and energy selflessly working for and denouncing the wanton killings and massacres of innocent Ethiopian citizens left out on the cold, without entering into the issue of ethnicity or ethnic politics. One can thus safely conclude that this great man of a powerful pen is an author and translator, as well as a philosopher, researcher, poet and a great teacher.

In remembrance of his literary contributions, a get-together feast was organized and held in 1998 by a group of Ethiopians living in Sweden. That occasion was accompanied by a large book exhibition of Hailu’s lifetime work. Likewise, at this juncture, this all rounded man of our nation deserves recognition from those of us who are of the same offspring, sharing and breathing the winds of common upbringing in and suffering for mother Ethiopia.

October 31, 2000 Tadesse Zerihun (Ph.D.) 623 Columbus Ave. # 3 Boston, MA 02118 USA