- The Monarch across the Street
The palace lions became a bloody nuisance. Night after night, the bellowing had disturbed my sleep. Finally, I wrote a letter to the Emperor, Haile Selassie. I had misgivings he’d answer but had decided it was worth the effort. The year was 1970. After His Majesty’s photo op with JFK in the Rose Garden, after grassy knolls, Martin Luther King and Bobby, and four years before the collapse of the monarchy.
Haile Selassie was a diminutive fellow, yet he was a force in world politics, and at home a feared and respected leader. Twice a year, he visited Eritrea, a sometimes volatile extension of his empire, where I lived and taught English. I’d met Selassie on several occasions. These social events at the palace were never a big deal to me. All I had to do was walk across the street from my flat, bow to His Majesty, and speak the few words of greeting I knew in Amharic, and the Lion of Judah, direct descendant of Solomon and Sheba, would smile back. A glass of free champagne, and I was done and out the door.
Given the unlikelihood of a personal response to my letter, one can imagine my surprise when His Majesty, surrounded by bodyguards, walked up to me this morning in the Asmara Café. He carried my letter in his hand.
“Mr. Philip,” he said, “I have an urgent matter of national security to discuss with you.”
Christ, if I’d only left those goddamned lions alone.
I’d never ridden in a limo before. I sat up front with the driver while His Majesty rode in the back. The bodyguards followed closely behind as we headed west on Haile Selassie Avenue, then turned right onto Ras Makonen. His Majesty took the opportunity to wave at people in the street as we passed. At one point, he asked Yemane, his driver, to stop so he could accept a bouquet of flowers from a child. We drove slowly by the Italian Ospidale, the Impero Cinema and the Italian Consulate, local landmarks on my walks to and from downtown.
Yemane pulled up to the palace gates directly across from my flat. Within seconds, the gates swung open, and the car continued up a drive shaded by jacaranda, their purple blooms hanging full on the branches.
In a large cage, two male lions paced back and forth. In another, a lioness smacked one of her cubs with her paw while its siblings looked on. I couldn’t help but feel empathy for these creatures, locked up in the Emperor’s private zoo never to know freedom. One of the cubs slipped out between the bars, and Yemane stopped the car.
“Bring the child to me, Yemane,” the Emperor said, his voice soft, almost a whisper.
The driver picked up the cub and brought it around to His Majesty who had rolled down his window. I turned and watched this feared and respected leader stroke the cub along its nose and under the chin. “You have been a very naughty boy, tunish wondim (‘little brother’).”
I took a moment to study the Emperor’s face. The fine features, his eyes set deep in a coffee-colored skin. His trademark beard, neatly trimmed, the color of licorice. [End Page 271] His Majesty motioned to Yemane, who then took the cub back to its cage, lightly patting the animal’s rump as it slipped back through the bars to its mother.
“You see, Mr. Philip,” the Emperor said, as the car headed toward the palace, “even my children give me grief these days. But you know this already or you wouldn’t have written your letter.”
When the car came to a stop, His Majesty spoke a few words to Yemane in Amharic, then reached over and tapped me on the shoulder. “I will be with you soon, Mr. Philip, but first I must attend to another thing.”
I must be honest. I wasn’t anxious to involve myself in Ethiopian politics. I couldn’t forget the recent school strike and being forced to watch helplessly as military personnel loaded my...