By Ameer Dirar
September 23, 2016 the prodigal son returned back home to Sudan & Ethiopia for the first time in ten years. Actually, it was really the first time in eighteen years that I had really seen Ethiopia properly. My last visit to Addis Ababa ten years ago, was only for three days & I had gone to meet my newly discovered older half brother (on my fathers side), who my father kept secret for all my life. However, that is an entirely different story, for another day.
In a nutshell I was born & raised in New York City. I left NY when I was ten years old, then lived in Sudan for one year & Addis for seven years. I spent every summer from the time I was born in Sudan for summer vacation. My mother had passed away when I was eight & as a result I had never visited her native home Ethiopia, prior to living there. So, Ethiopia was totally foreign to me. As a kid in the eighties I recall the news stories of famine in Ethiopia accompanied with images of starving children, that broke my heart. When my father was promoted to his position of Director of the Economic Dept. for the African Union in Addis Ababa. He gave me a choice when I was ten. I could either go live with my extended family in Sudan that I had become close to growing up, or I could come live with him in Ethiopia. As you can imagine, my immediate perception of Ethiopia was what the media had been feeding me. Images of famine still fresh in my mind, and “we are the world” still fresh in my ears. After living a year in Sudan, I reluctantly went to live with him in Addis only because I missed him.
I remember flying on Ethiopian Airlines for my first time. Admittedly I was impressed, it was much better than the beat down Sudan Airways that I had become accustomed to. The hostesses accompanied me attending to my every need since I was an unaccompanied minor. Treating me as one of their own children, spoiling me brining me cookies & cake. Before I knew it the plane had landed. Looking out the window, all I could see was green trees & hills and grass everywhere. I thought to myself, that we must be transiting somewhere. The hostesses came smiling informing me that we have landed in Addis. Looking out the window again, the cynical New Yorker in me, thought this must be some kind of hustle or scheme. No way could this be Addis Ababa. This couldn’t be the same country that I saw on TV. So, I refused to leave the plane & demanded they bring my father to get me off the plane, if this was really Ethiopia. The captain took a look at my ticket and immediately recognized my last name and exclaimed “you are Dirar’s son?”. The whole crew had a laugh, turns out they all knew my father. Few minutes later my father arrived to collect me on the plane, trying to hide his humiliation as he greeted the crew.
30 years later, here I was back on Ethiopian airlines, and going back for the first time in eighteen years. I had never been away from my family for so long. Excited, nervous & anxious, I embarked from Newark, NJ. Growing up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian was always the airline of choice as I traveled to Sudan at least twice a year, for summer & Christmas vacation. The nostalgia of just being on Ethiopian airlines automatically took me back to those early childhood memories. Although I was flying economy, the hostesses were still very attentive, courteous & professional.
The flight wasn’t packed & the hostess assured me that once the door closed, I could grab any seat. Awaiting the doors to close, I began scanning the plane for empty seats. Once they were closed I grabbed an entire row, kicked of my shoes, put on the yellow socks provided by the airlines & turned it into my bed for the next 12 hours (at least until we reached Togo for refueling). Truth is I barely slept & I was pleasantly surprised by the plethora of in flight entertainment available. I laughed so hard watching the movie Keanu, I realized a few passengers nearby & hostesses were laughing at me laughing, then we laughed some more. After a few tasty meals, movies, and a couple of naps, we arrived in Togo for refueling. A few passengers got off, but the rest off remained on the plane.
Looking out the window as the plane landed in Lome, Togo, I gazed at the beautiful view of coastal shore and it’s teal blue waters as the waves gently brushed against the coast. It didn’t matter that I had never been to Togo before, I was finally back in Africa. The plane got a little more crowded as we picked up a few more passengers and we were on our way to Addis Ababa. I was teeming with so much excitement as we arrived Addis Ababa Bole international airport.
This airport was a far cry from what I remember growing up. There was plenty of duty free shops, & few cafe restaurants with a bar. It looked as if a United Nations conference had let out in the airport, packed with people from all over the world. Feeling a little foggy after the flight, I hustled to find a seat around the edge of the packed restaurant cafe and ordered a much needed coffee and espresso. The waitress looked at me as if I was mad for ordering such a combination. I chatted with a couple travelers awaiting my caffeine fix, then with coffee in hand I headed straight for the smoking section for a nicotine fix, before boarding my flight to Khartoum.
This plane was much smaller and entirely packed with Sudanese businessmen & a few Ethiopians. However, with the same great Ethiopian airlines customer service. Reminiscing growing up in Addis in the 80’s & 90’s, there were only a handful of Sudanese consisting mostly of diplomats & we all knew each other. There was a Sudanese club, located in Addis in neighborhood called Makinisa. This is where all the Sudanese would come on the weekend and bring their families. The men would play cards, dominoes and smoke cigarettes in the plus size den, sipping on tea. The women had their own den/living room adjoining to a huge kitchen. Sharing the latest gossip of the day, in & out the kitchen with the cooks preparing a feast while the kids played outside. Now being in a plane in the middle of the night packed with my countrymen seemed bizarre for me. Nonetheless, I was on my to Sudan.
I was so nervous, I didn’t know what to expect after not seeing my family in 10 years. We landed in Khartoum & walked across the tarmac then on to a bus to the main terminal. When filling out the customs entry card, I wrongly fill out my new family address. The immigration officer grills me about it then asks me in Arabic incredulously about the mistake. I smile, then point to my passport and say “See how my passport says America? I don’t know”. He looks at me and laughs and ushers me through to scan my backpack then heads to baggage claim. What struck me odd was that they were not searching bags after baggage claim, as it was their practice in the past to do so. My father greets greets me by baggage claim with a big hug. He’s older and grayer than I remember, but thank God he’s healthy and full of energy. I missed him.
My cousins wait for us outside the airport to take us home. On the drive home not much seemed familiar. There were so many new roads, restaurants, malls & houses, so much has changed in ten years, some for the better and some for the worst. I arrived in Sudan in time for Eid al-Adha and most of country is shut down for about a week for celebration.
My cousins take me out for the night. We start at the strip of cafes on the Nile street, where boat cafes lit up with decorative lights, dance on the Nile river & on the opposite side large fields with ladies serving tea & coffee. Neither the boats nor the street itself that we were on were there last time I visited. My cousins and I take over the top half of the boat. Coffee, Snacks, Juices, Hookah, loud laughter & a cool breeze, were the perfect ingredients to perfect night back home. We ate late night at Barcelona Pizza, in Khartoum. As a New Yorker, I have to admit that their pizza and fried chicken was truly amazing! One of my cousins cars broke down on the way back home, so we all get out and give it a push. Some things never change.
However, some things do change. The amount of restaurants with quality food really surprised me & a majority of the new restaurants where owned and run by Syrians who came as refugees. The Syrian refuge crisis has resulted in many Syrians taking refuge in Sudan and many of them are driving the bustling restaurant business. The healthcare business was also booming. My cousin Amal, noticed I was walking with a bit of a limp, due to an old knee injury. She brings to my attention how cheap it was to do an MRI. The price difference is between a couple of hundred dollars and a couple of thousand dollars. I spend the rest of my time in Sudan reconnecting with family & looking for business opportunities. Quickly I learn that Sudan has pretty hefty real estate prices, and that doing business in Sudan is not that easy. The sanctions have definitely taken an affect on the country as a whole, but the people are still friendly.
I hop on Ethiopian airline once again and fly to Ethiopia. I get emotional landing in the airport, holding back tears of joy. Addis Ababa was home to my best memories growing up, & it was always home in my heart. However, the Addis I grew up in was very much different than this Addis. The time I spent in the late 80’s & 90’s, Addis was riddled with street gangs called Dorea’s. So, my father put me in martial arts classes so, as did parents of many of my friends so we could defend ourselves if need be. Over the course of years of constantly fighting with the doer’s we had become friends somewhat. We were to skilled and they were too many. I didn’t see any dorea’s in this new Addis. Matter of fact driving from the airport I didn’t recognize a thing at all. Not even the turn off the road to our old house. Addis Ababa has truly made a 180 degrees turn, and had changed for the better.
Since my brother was away on business to India I decided my first few nights to stay in the Hilton Hotel. I reasoned that with so much change going on it would be better to stay somewhere I actually recognize. Hilton has always been a classic and still is, plus there is an Ethiopian airline bureau in the Hilton, which is perfect in case you need to buy or change a ticket. Eventually, I venture out and find different accommodation by Bole. Although I used to live in Bole, I was lost, because the landscape completely changed. There were new roads, skyscrapers, mini malls, restaurants, hotels, night life entertainment. The amount of change that I saw was truly impressing, now I understand what everybody was telling me prior to my trip coming there.
Upon my brothers arrival we decided to take a trip to Awassa. Even as a kid I had never been, because there was nothing to see there with no where to stay. Now there were resorts, there was tourist scene by the lake where you can take a boat ride and see the hippos in the water. The town was bustling with business and economically thriving. While driving through town, I also saw Awassa university which was massive and expanding. We spend the night in a hotel that my brother knows. They set us up in our own rooms adjacent to each other. We hang out all night in the back porch deck catching up and chewing chat as we bond. After an amazing traditional habesha breakfast, we drive around town. The city is littered with motorized rickshaws which in Ethiopia are know as bajaj. My brother Sami who is mainly responsible for the explosion of the bajajs across the country has somewhat of a quasi celebrity status. Everywhere we go people call him Sami bajaj. We drive to Shashamene and attend Friday prayer in mosque there. Then we go to a small village in the area where Sami helps those in need and then shows me a small but humble mosque he built for the village. It was truly inspiring.
Later in the evening we drive back to Addis & with political tension in the air we are routinely stopped and frisked until we reach the city limits. I spent the rest of my time with my brother and his family. His wife prepares a feast for us upon our arrival. I play soccer with my nephews in the yard, and late night chat chewing sessions with my brother. The morning of my departure, my brother Sami takes me to the airport and sends me off with a big hug. Back on Ethiopian airlines and back to New York City. Only problem is that once I get to the ticket counter to check in, I realize I left both my iPhones in my brother Sami’s car. I frantically search everything just to make sure, then I give up. Losing a phone at times can feel like losing an arm, but eventually I get over it once I get on Ethiopian airlines. Between all the music, movies, tv shows, and video games, I oddly enough didn’t miss my iPhone at all. Before I knew it I was back in New York. Few days later my brother sends my phones through the mail. I look through the pictures in my phone and can’t help to think that I already miss Africa again.
By Ameer Dirar
Entrepreneur and Freelance Writer
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