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Africa Today 47.2 (2000) 212-214

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Salamon, Hagar. 1999. The Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 157 pp.

This is a first-rate book. It makes an important contribution to Fälasha studies and, beyond that, to the understanding of the world of Ethiopian country folk on whom the literature remains scanty. It is extraordinary--and a tribute to the author's sensitivity, persistence, and imagination--that such a persuasive and vivid image of Ethiopian country life should be exclusively the product of interviews conducted in Israel. It certainly rings true, clarifying, correcting, and deepening a picture which first started to emerge from the sources for nineteenth-century Ethiopia, the early modern European travelers showing a pronounced curiosity about Ethiopia's "Jews."

The study of the Fälasha, who now prefer to be called Bétä Isra'él or Ethiopian Jews, has a long and honorable place within Ethiopian studies. However, it was carried to a new level by the publication of three excellent monographs between 1986 and 1992: Kay Shelemay's Music, Ritual, and Falasha History (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1986); Jim Quirin's The Evolution of the Ethiopian Jews. A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) to 1920 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992); and Stephen Kaplan's The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century (New York and London: New York University Press, 1992). The monographs by Shelemay and Quirin rested on intensive fieldwork in Ethiopia and all three on a comprehensive reading of the available literature. They came to a common conclusion, that the history and culture of the Bétä Isra'él was very deeply embedded within [End Page 212] Christian Ethiopian society and culture, from which, in many respects, it seemed to have derived. Yet none of these studies entered quite so fully as does Salamon's into the lived world of the Bétä Isra'él.

Few accounts, at least in recent years, have so vividly and tellingly caught the texture and substance of country life among the Ethiopian plow-farming peoples, the oral sources illuminating the photographs (taken by scholars other than the author) which illustrate the text. Salamon has elicited from her informants accounts of daily life which have application well beyond the casted community from which they emanate. Christian Ethiopian farmers, for the most part, lived lives, artisanal activity aside, hardly distinguishable from their Fälasha neighbors, and the accounts of the material round of daily life, together with routine social activities, applies to Christian and Bétä Isra'él alike. Yet, significant differences between the two communities there were. The sources for the Fälasha remark constantly on how they were feared and suppressed by their Christian neighbors. The Fälasha generally lacked rights to agricultural land and so made their living by practicing the crafts of potting, smithing, and tanning, and by renting agricultural land. Their neighbors held that the Fälasha were buda, people who at night transformed themselves into hyenas and preyed on those same neighbors. The European equivalent would be werewolves. The Fälasha were quite prepared to talk to Salamon about these allegations, which allows her both to confirm their historic authenticity and, at the same time, to provide a persuasive and compelling interpretation of their meaning for those to whom they were directed. Salamon also tells of religious debates between Ethiopian Christians and Bétä Isra'él, and of occasions of synchretistic practices linking the two communities.

Recent scholarship established that Bétä Isra'él life and culture is derivative from Christian Ethiopian culture in many ways. Bétä Isra'él historical traditions emphasize formative experiences in the fourteenth century, experiences which are confirmed in Christian documentary sources. The Bétä Isra'él liturgy stems from the liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and their literature equally is completely dependent on Christian origins. Salamon confirms this picture, showing how interdependent Ethiopian Christian and Fälasha communities were on each other, and how completely the latter were subjugated...


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