The refugee condition: An existential question

Published: 20 June 2023

Summary in English of podcast episode 50: a conversation between Affiliate Artist Habtat Zerezghi and Dr Hyab Yohannes.

The refugee condition: An existential question

Note: This is a summary translation of the conversation that was originally in Blin. Click here to listen to the original.

Hyab: Welcome to the Sounds of Integration Podcast and thank you for agreeing to this brief discussion. To begin, would you kindly introduce yourself to our audience?

Habtat: Yes, thank you for the invitation. My name is Habtat Zerezghi, and I was born and raised in a small village called Doroq in Eritrea. I have been singing, writing songs, and dancing since 1998.

Hyab: You have come a long way from being a young, curious boy born in a small village to now being one of the affiliate artists at UNESCO Chair of the School of Education at the University of Glasgow. What would you say is the difference between Habtat (the young boy) and the "star Habtat" that you are now?

Habtat: First of all, thank you for introducing me to the UNESCO Chair affiliate artists program. Regarding your point, you were the one who added adjectives like "star" and so forth. I feel that I am an ordinary person who is interested in arts, language, and life. If you were to ask me what has changed since I was a young boy, I have aged, gained experience, wisdom, and understanding. However, these do not make me a "star"; they are proof that I am a human being with certain interests. For me, the beauty of an artist lies in their ordinariness and originality, not in their popularity or prestige.

Hyab: Before I ask you about your artistic work, I know from talking to you that you are interested in language. I am curious, where does this interest come from and why language?

Habtat: I am not sure what the correct answer is. It could be from my upbringing; I grew up in a family that valued language as something sacred. I believe that language is not something that belongs to me; it is given to me or passed down from my ancestors. Language is sacred, and I listen closely to it. This is how I learned to speak and understand language. To me, language is the art of learning and life.

Hyab: I know you speak several languages. Can you tell our audience how many languages you speak and how you learned them?

Habtat: You’re right. I speak Blin, Tigrigna, Tigre, Arabic, and Swedish to varying degrees. While Blin is the only language I have mastered, I also possess a good level of proficiency in the other languages. Blin is my mother tongue and a language that has been spoken by my community and ancestors.

Hyab: What were your first experiences with art? How did you get started, and what do you hope to achieve with your artistic work?

Habtat: I began by playing traditional Chefera and writing lyrics, which were my initial experiences in using language and dance for artistic expression. Later, I learned to sing a variety of songs about love, life, death, and exile, with the message being to tell the story of these humble human conditions. I sing, therefore I speak. When I sing, I feel alive. For me, singing is a way of speaking and living. That is all I can say.

Hyab: I would like to ask you about a specific song called Endakhema Beldiya. Let's listen to it first, and then you can explain to our audience what the song is about.

Habtat: The lyrics of the song are frank and straightforward. I ask a question for which I have no answer: will I continue to live like a refugee and ruin myself or return “home”? The song tells not only my story but also yours and ours. It narrates the story of people whose status as refugees reduces their humanity. It is a story of the body's exile from its soul and soil. This separation of the body and soul, which is both insidious and irresistibly devouring, haunts me to the core. As I look inside, I realise that the self I thought I embodied is elusive and fragile. It feels as though my soul is still in the place where I began, left behind. My true self is not confined to my physical being but to the story inscribed on my lost soul and soil. This is what I refer to as the body in exile, separated from its soul and soil.

Hyab: What do you mean in the song by referring to "here" and "there" as places of violence, unsuitable for meaningful existence?

Habtat: Again, the lyrics of the song are clear and straightforward, without any hidden meanings. As people, we were involuntarily displaced from the “there”. In the “here”, we suffer from insidious forms of violence that diminish our lives. Our existence is marked by a constant struggle to find joy amidst pervasive sadness, and our bodies feel stripped of their soul. This is an existential crisis that demands deeper reflection and questioning, even though we may not yet have all the answers. One has to sing and dance to overcome the unbearability of life and the vulnerability of sharing that story.

Hyab: A question that lingers in my mind is the fate of those who are born in diaspora. I wonder where their souls find solace in the intergenerational precarity you described.

Habtat: Those who are born in diaspora know the ebbs and flows of life and language in these places that are strange to their displaced parents. However, this familiarity with life and language does not negate the otherness ingrained in their skins and backgrounds. Unfortunately, they also remain strangers to their parents’ souls and soils, without the memories to connect them. Theirs is a scary mode of being.

Hyab: Thank you for the fascinating discussion.

Habtat: Selam! 

First published: 20 June 2023