Two Brooklynites do Timkat
by Nina Granados
(Nina and I travelled together for two weeks in Northern Ethiopia in January of 2015 when I was working there on a Getty Images/Lean-In.org grant.)
Most of us westerners have a romanticization towards what is foreign from our daily scraps of living in an industrialized landscape.
For a Brooklynite, that means the hyperlocal gem that’s tucked away unsullied by selfies. If no one’s been there, then we wanna get there first and bask in the feeling that no one else has been there before.
This truly isn’t about that. It’s about Timkat, the Ethiopian celebration of Jesus’s epiphany. This holy realization came about while being baptized at the Jordan river. It’s about the precession of colors, prayer, sacredness and orthodox faith. Devout believers journey from the most remote dust-colored edges of Ethiopia to embrace this cosmic festivity.
We, on the other hand wanted to get there before anyone else in Brooklyn could post about it in their digital feed. OK, so we weren’t the only foreigners there, but at some point we were the only farangis at midnight mass among the chants and hums of devotees.
Holy maria there were a lot of people when we stopped. We hadn’t reached our final destination when a long line of a festive colorful tribe that sang and paraded down the only road to our hotel. We joined the procession and kinda felt at home rubbing elbows with complete strangers, except there wasn’t any Ommegang. I forgot to mention that I wasn’t actually wandering around, I hung back in the mini-van with the other elderly tourist who preferred to gaze from the shelter of a window seat. Those colors!
Then after experiencing a heavy bout of fomo, I mustered the energy to join the kaleidoscope of sweaty, jovial praise. I was putzing around on a cane because of my injured back while people looked at me funny. Seriously. My camera-man lover friend who was the photographer in the trip (who also served as my personal nurse by filling up my whoopie with mild hot water for my back pain so I can fall asleep at night) captured the energy of the hundreds of faithful believers to share with the world the celebration of Jesus becoming woke. This crucial moment was personified through the carrying of the Tabot, which was covered in cloth so no one could see it, not even the priests, because it was too sacred to be gazed upon—it symbolizes the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments.
“After several disorientating minutes of chanting incoherently under the beaming sun at a high altitude that was way higher than the highest point in Sunset Park, I had to hit the curb to gather my Holy Marys.”
I could hardly keep up with the adults so I hung back with the children who seemed more or less piqued by my wonky gait. After several disorientating minutes of chanting incoherently under the beaming sun at a high altitude that was way higher than the highest point in Sunset Park, I had to hit the curb to gather my Holy Marys. Most of the same children etched around me and one little boy with a shiny orange oversized shirt held out his sun-kissed hand and said, “money.” My heart sunk a little. I realized that I had left my bag in the mini-van and only had my nurse’s one point shooter that hung around my neck. The child looked disappointed, and I felt guilty. After acknowledging this awkward moment between me and this Ethiopian child, I painfully stood up from the curb and went to squeezed his shoulder, then gestured both my hands in the air that I had nada to give. He scurried away and most of the children followed suit. I thought about treating this like riding the 5 train during rush hour. First epiphany: Brooklyn hearts are made of part steel.
Midnight Mass, Later That Night
The night had settled firmly into pitch black. Out here in the mountains, at night, the only illuminations are the constellations above and the occasional street lamp that makes that singular part of the dirt road look orange. After the tuk tuk dropped us off, we made our way into the midnight mass congregation. It’s probably the most important single event during the entire Timkat celebration. It leads to the commemoration of the baptism of Jesus. People there sported their traditional white garb with accents of red, green and gold on the seams. A calming feeling came over me at the sight of this. Minimally transfixed. The atheist in me.
Camera-man wasted no time setting up to capture the scene. We came upon a white linen tent, the ground was blanketed in paisley patterned rugs and there were priest inside lined up in a circle, they were praying, their hums sonorously raised and gently lowered, filling up the tent. Most of them had bronze handbells in the shape of the Christian Coptic cross. He went in and set up his tripod to record the holy moment. I stayed right near the entrance. I immediately noticed there were no women inside. I could feel certain priest looking at me with a curious gaze, through their black shades. I stood there for a moment, letting the chants soak my ears.
While he continued on, I walked outside and there were children waiting. They looked straight up at me. There was one little girl with a fuschia colored shirt and one braid that hung to one side of her shoulder. Her eyes were beaming, like little sparks on the ocean when the moonlight hits. She said one word to me. “Beautiful.” She said it again. “Beautiful.” After basking in this exchange of Thank you’s and Beautifuls, I began to wander off and she was right on my side following me. She handed me a tiny wooden cross with a thin black lace tied at the top it. I went for the small change of Birra that I had. She stayed close as we slowly walked around praying people. I’m shuffling for it and it’s not reaching my finger tips. An older girl called out to her, and she scurried towards her. A gift for the atheist.
“One could never truly explore every crevice of this earth in one lifetime. You have to believe that your life doesn’t truly end when your body is buried underneath the earth.”
There were almost all women camping outside the tents with a few elderly men in the crowd. You could still hear the priest’s songs through the sheets, and most of the women hummed along with them. Other women chatted quietly. This was a new experience, absorbing the different sounds that emanated around me. I was witnessing a truly peaceful gathering, believers coming together to be closer to each other through prayer and song. I finally found a spot to settle in the very well attended midnight mass prayer. One woman looked at me, her head was covered in a thin white scarf, her deep wearied eyes gave away the sense that she’s been to the moon and back. Her gentle curious gaze put me at ease, yet I wondered what she was thinking of what I was thinking of her. My mind started to shift as I thought about all the farangis she’s encountered. She probably saw us all the same. Privileged. We saw her as a portal to an encounter that connected us to another world. One that we were eager to share with our friends back home. Telling them that they too should get off their couches and explore something very unknown to them. To shake off that feeling that the world is as big as their own. It isn’t. One could never truly explore every crevice of this earth in one lifetime. You have to believe that your life doesn’t truly end when your body is buried underneath the earth. Another life begins in that realm and you transcend any possible obstacle of exploring the universe. Here, these believers came together to share their faith in something that’s very foreign to me. Another epiphany: The curious believer.
Camera-man came out of the tent and set up his tripod outside the women’s camp. The vibe had started to pick up and the women began their own song and the tune was festive, upbeat, some began to dance near where he was stationed. I was still in a trance-like state, then it dissipated into the crisp air when he and I locked eyes. He too had been transported into another world. The women continued their mirthful mood. I was soaking in the sounds of beating drums, the curious atheist in me had lead me into a place of awe. Later epiphany: The priests with the black shades were blind.
Nina Granados is an oenophile yogi who loves riding her bike all over brooklyn and sinking herself in other cultures through traveling. You can find her serving French and American vinos at Vanguard Wine Bar. Find her at her blog Pachamamaterroir.wordpress.com
For some unedited videos from the event click here.