Speaking truth

'One Woman's Monologue' is he story of many women's lives.

Ethiopians 88 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Ethiopians 88
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Everyone respects me. They don't know the price I pay for my accomplishments and independence… An Ethiopian man whose honor is wounded is capable of murder," says Almaz, sitting at a small table in her living room in the lamplight. Worried, her voice full of feeling, Almaz speaks aloud the words she is writing to a friend who is also a divorced, Ethiopian social worker. That day, Almaz received her get (divorce papers). Her children are asleep and she is alone in the house. She pours her heart out in the letter to her friend and we are privileged to hear her most intimate fears and confessions. The letter is a technique and "Almaz" is the actress Tetena Kabeda Asefa, who stars in this powerful one-woman show dramatizing the real-life story of Lemlem Tsahai, a young Ethiopian graduate student murdered by her husband a year ago. (As in many such cases, he committed suicide after murdering her.) The Health Ministry, where Tsahai had been employed, commissioned the play from Batya Makover, editor of Israel's only Amharic newspaper. Makover interviewed Tsahai's friends and family but also took artistic liberty. The result, entitled One Woman's Monologue, is stunning: the writing is real and deeply felt and the acting is superb. We feel Almaz's dilemmas, her joys, her achievements, her fears. One Woman's Monologue opened at the Khan Theater for one night last month. It should be shown throughout the country. Wife murder, unknown among the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, has become a problem of crisis proportions in the migr Ethiopian community in Israel. While Ethiopians make up just one percent of the population, 25% of women murdered by their husbands or intimate partners over the past decade were Ethiopian. Of the last 18 women killed, seven were Ethiopian - an even higher percentage. Something is terribly wrong in the Ethiopian community, but deeply rooted social mores made the subject taboo. Until the past few months, almost no one was talking about it. The silence was broken in April when Channel 2's weekly Amharic program highlighted domestic violence and the Absorption Ministry is focusing attention on domestic violence among Ethiopians this year and conducting prevention workshops throughout the community. In Ethiopia, a tightly knit, religious community with traditional values and safeguards made wife murder a red line that men rarely crossed. The mejad, or inner part of a kitchen, was off limits to men if a woman was in there, according to Shula Mola, chair of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. If a wife feared violence from her husband, she could take refuge in the home of an honored elder. Even after she returned to her own home, her husband would not dare harm her because that would damage the honor of the elder. In every Ethiopian Jewish village, there were shmagala, wise elders who were consulted when problems arose. The transition to modern, technological Israel erased these supports. Extended and even nuclear families, used to living side by side in Ethiopia, were dispersed, and a major source of daily support has been lost. "Almaz," from a respected Ethiopian family, immigrated to Israel as a child with Operation Moses. She integrated well, completed university and found meaningful work as a social worker. Her husband, "Bero," came much later with Operation Solomon. He had spent his formative years herding sheep in a mountain village. Though they loved one another, their worlds and values clashed. Bero, who couldn't hold a job, expected Almaz to have dinner ready and keep the house clean - and to wash his feet as well. She needed his help around the house, but he felt that housework was demeaning. Her salary supported the family. He felt humiliated. "I was torn between two worlds," Almaz tells us in her monologue. "Between being a professional woman and a wife to an Ethiopian man. Talking to him was difficult. He wasn't used to talking about his feelings, about relationships." Beru's mother interferes and the situation deteriorates. For Almaz, divorce seems to be the only option but by the end of the 45-minute performance, Almaz has become fearful. She has come to realize that she made a mistake staying alone in the house on this day, the day her divorce became final. A noise at the door alerts her - but it's too late. Tsahai had participated in Ethiopian women's empowerment workshops run by Shatil, the consultation and training arm of the New Israel Fund. Shocked by the murder, five Ethiopian women's organizations formed a forum, guided by Shatil, to address the problem of violence against women. Forum members say they feel the problem is best addressed from within the community in a culturally sensitive way. "I thought I could save Bero," says Almaz. But she could not save him from alienation, unemployment and disgrace. And tragically, she could not save her own life. The writer is a journalist and a grantwriter for Shatil.