A special tribute to Prof. Donald Levine [Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam]

This past January, Prof. Levine emailed to tell me about his long-planned visit to Ethiopia that had been thwarted by his illness. He had set three objectives for that trip. He wanted to be present for the launching of his book Interpreting Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. He wanted to witness the opening of a new youth facility in Hawassa, some 270 km south of the capital. Several years ago, he had co-founded the Awassa Youth Campus with the aim of providing a variety of sports and artistic opportunities for local youth. (Click here to see the wonderful video.)  He had obtained substantial funding to expand the physical facility of the campus. He was most eager to see the very first group of young Ethiopian men and women test out for promotion to black belt in aikido (a unique martial arts philosophy in which “practitioners use their skills to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.”  Neither was to be. The expansion to the youth facility could not be built because of “delays”.

With greater urgency, Prof. Levine planned to visit my personal hero Eskinder Nega and she-ro Reeyot Alemu, Ethiopia’s courageous and famed journalists, languishing in prison. When Eskinder and Serkalem (both internationally acclaimed Ethiopian journalists) were victimized by long incarceration and abuse that rose to the gravity of crimes against humanity in 2007 before being acquitted of all charges, he had personally pleaded with the late Meles Zenawi asking him to show compassion and allow medical care to be given to Serkalem who had given birth in prison. Meles relented.

I believe the fact that his declining health would not make it possible for him to visit Ethiopia one last time weighed heavily on his heart. As I read his email, I felt he had a greater purpose to accomplish in his planned visit.  I sensed he was acutely aware that he was in the sunset of his life and wanted to bask for just a moment or two in the Land of Thirteen Months of Sunshine for the last time. He yearned to go home. I felt he wanted to go back one more time, for the last time, and breathe the fresh Ethiopian air, visit his old stomping grounds in Menz, laugh with his Ethiopian friends and engage the young men and women of the Awassa Youth Club and advise them to strive for excellence by building not only their bodies and mental skills but most importantly by building their character with integrity, self-discipline, self-dignity and hard work. I felt he wanted to say “Farewell Ethiopia” for the last time as his plane left the Ethiopian airspace headed back for America. That was what I read, heard and saw between the lines of his email to me.

Prof. Levine was a man of great learning and appreciated art and literature. I wonder if he thought of Khalil Gibran’s verse as he planned his final trip home to Ethiopia:

Farewell to you and the youth I have spent with you.
It was but yesterday we met in a dream.
You have sung to me in my aloneness, and I of your longings have built a tower in the sky.
But now our sleep has fled and our dream is over, and it is no longer dawn.
The noontide is upon us and our half waking has turned to fuller day, and we must part.
If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song.
And if our hands should meet in another dream, we shall build another tower in the sky….

The longing to go back became a dream for Donald Levine; but that dream, hopeful and cheerful,  in my view, describes the essence Donald Levine, the man who had a love affair with Ethiopia for over one-half century.

Prof. Levine passed away on April 4, 2015. His son, Bill Levine, announced, “Gash Liben, Ethiopian scholar, lover of Ethiopia, founder of the Aikido Ethiopia Project has passed away today at 1 pm.”

Donald Levine, the scholar, is unarguably the “Dean” of the “Ethiopianists” (non-Ethiopian scholars who have made it their labor of love to study Ethiopia and develop scholarly knowledge accessible to the world). I became aware of Prof. Levine’s scholarship through his seminal work Wax and Goldas an undergraduate in the 1970s. That book is full of extraordinary insights about Ethiopian society and culture. His penetrating understanding of the complexities and subtleties of Ethiopian cultural forms was not merely extraordinary; it was stunning. Few scholars of any nationality understood Ethiopia as did Prof. Levine.

There is little that I can add by way of review of Wax and Gold or of his broader scholarship. The New York Times described Wax and Gold as “a classic work of area studies.”  The Times Literary Supplement noted, “Ethiopia’s abiding problem is the symbiosis of her autochthonous civilization with the demands of an uncompromising modern world. . . . Nobody has yet described the dilemma, its origin, its magnitude and possible ways of resolving it with greater ability and understanding.” The American Journal of Sociology commented, “An important, insightful, and excellent book. . . . With remarkable freedom, virtuosity, and success [Levine] forays from his own base as a sociologist into the domains of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, and linguists.” The American Sociological Review commented, “Levine perform[ed]  the most ancient scholarly task well, that of the sage, who leads us to see the eternal wisdom hidden behind the veil of everyday concerns.”

Prof. Levine’s scholarship, of course, covered a much wider scope of sociological theory and asnalysis. He was highly regarded for his critical interpretations of the “founding fathers” of modern sociology including Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, among others. He was a foremost authority on Georg Simmel who theorized that society consists of a web of patterned interactions and the purpose of sociological inquiry should be to examine the forms of sociological interactions as they occur and reoccur in diverse historical periods and cultural settings. Simmel’s work stood in contrast to the other great sociologists  including Weber who argued that the methods of the natural sciences could be rigorously applied to examine human cultural norms, values, symbols and social processes. I believe Simmel’s work informed his research and analysis on Ethiopia considerably.

I began communicating with Prof. Levine following the 2005 election in Ethiopia. Prior to that time, I had little interest in Ethiopian politics and human rights. I was propelled into action following the Meles Massacres that year in which 193 unarmed protesters were killed by sharpshooters and nearly 800 wounded.

I do not recall my first communication with Prof. Levine, but by 2006 we were exchanging emails on various Ethiopian human rights issues including Congressman Chris Smith’s H.R. 5680, “Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006”.  We communicated by email regularly over the years. I am honored to say he was a long time and regular reader of my weekly commentaries. He appreciated them. Of course, we did not always agree on things; but he was always gracious enough to tell me why he did or did not agree with me. He understood the method in my provocative pamphleteering (blogging). He reminded me from time to time how I reminded him a little bit of Thomas Paine, the American patriot who railed furiously against tyranny, defended liberty passionately and preached that the people will ultimately fulfill their destiny by overthrowing the tyrants who abuse them.  Though I believed Paine was a far more radical and iconoclastic pamphleteer than myself, I took the comparison as a great compliment.

I was also not the type to hold back. I told him that he rightly deserved the nobility title of “Fitawrari” (“leader of the vanguard warriors) for his long service to Ethiopia as he had led the scholarly march to promote and preserve important values of Ethiopian society, people and culture. I addressed him as Fitawrari Leben Gebre Ityopia in all my communications until my very last email. Or simply, “Fit”.

After years of email and telephone communications, I finally met Prof. Levine in person in late November 2012 at the African Studies Association (ASA) meeting in Philadelphia. The ASA had organized a special full day symposium in his honor under the rubric, “Revisiting Wax and Gold”. He bestowed upon me the great honor of chairing one of the panels and becoming a presenter on another.  It was an extraordinary privilege for me because I believe “Wax and Gold” is a classic and incomparable sociological study of Ethiopian society. It is a work of such depth and insight that it demonstrates the extraordinary scholarship and brilliance of Donald Levine. He could have asked so many other more accomplished scholars on Ethiopia than myself, but somehow, despite my different academic and professional background, he thought I would be best suited for the job.  I was humbled and honored by his request, and took to my duties with gusto. Many of his former students presented excellent papers at that symposium and the panels were very well attended. He was very pleased.

Many have seen the multi-part interview Prof. Levine gave on ESAT with Abebe Gelaw, the young and relentless exiled Ethiopian journalist. Prof. Levine’s command of the Amharic language is stunning. (See video here.)  But Prof. Levine was not merely a dispassionate and passionate social scientist studying Ethiopia. He brought a large measure of patriotism in defense of Ethiopian sovereignty and freedom. Last year he offered a moving defense of Ethiopia’s victory over Italy at the Battle of Adwa and what that victory meant for Ethiopians and the rest of Africa.  (See video here.)

As an academic myself, I appreciated Prof. Levine’s passionate defense of expressive and academic freedoms. In 2012, when an illegally scanned copy of a book written by the former Ethiopian junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam was posted online, he was furious and unreserved in his condemnation. He wrote those who did the online posting “committed an act that [is] illegal, unethical, and imprudent. To my mind, that marks it as ‘un-Ethiopian.’”

He was very concerned about the politicization of contemporary Ethiopian higher education. He lamented

With the overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopians inside and outside the university enjoyed a marked increase of freedom of speech and publication. Even so, the pattern of unwarranted governmental intrusion into the university was matched by such destructive actions as the abrupt dismissal of some forty of the most experienced and accomplished members of the University faculty. It has remained difficult to uphold standards of admissions and to hold faculty performance to international academic standards. The government has failed to realize how delicate and vulnerable a university of high quality is.

Prof. Levine was an implacable and longtime defender of academic freedom in Ethiopia. When he served as assistant to the acting vice president of Haile Selassie University, Harold Bentley in 1958,he observed:

Before the project [Haile Selassie University] had a chance to break ground, however, Addis Ababa was   racked by an attempted coup d’etat against the late Emperor. As a friend of one of the coup leaders, Girmame Neway, I was one of the last persons to talk with him before he was captured and killed. Girmame’s parting words riveted me: ‘Don, please tell our story to the world. Even if we are defeated and killed, at least a word of truth will have been spoken in this land of deception.’  A few months later, I published an article in accord with Girmame’s testament, an article which the Emperor found so offensive that he wanted the U.S. Government to put me in prison. But then, Acting Vice-President Bentley dissuaded him with this memorable argument. ‘Your Majesty,’ he pleaded, ‘think of yourself for a moment not as head of the Ethiopian State, but as Chancellor of this new University. You want it to be internationally respected. For that, it must be able to guarantee academic freedom. What better proof of your intent could you demonstrate than to invite Dr. Levine to return to help build it?’”

The rhetoric worked. Despite the fact that I had written an article that was terribly critical and threatening to him, the Emperor understood that for this university to be a first-class, internationally respected university, it had to guarantee freedom of inquiry, speech, and publication; and so, with grace and generosity, His Majesty approved the idea of inviting me to return…

He warned:

The truth is that those in Power need, today more than ever, an independent and open quest for truth. Although the conclusions or the process of such inquiry may at times bring discomfort to the powers that be, surrounded as we are by unprecedented changes of enormous complexity, it stands to the advantage of these powers to support free inquiry and to be open to its honest conclusions. Failure to do so can result in calamities, based simply on ignorance and uninformed judgment….

I must say that I have some regrets as I write this special tribute. I believe Prof. Levine deserved to receive our accolades and appreciation while he was alive. He should have been recognized by all Ethiopians for his prodigious scholarship on Ethiopian society and culture. He should have been especially recognized by Ethiopian scholars who are familiar with his scholarly impact of his works. He should have been recognized for his work in establishing an extraordinary youth civic society organization.  Most of all, he should have been recognized in official capacity at the national level for his one-half century of service to Ethiopia and its people.

It is sound moral principle to give than to receive. Prof. Levine has given a lot to Ethiopia. Like him, many other “Ethiopianists” have given freely to Ethiopia. It is painful to see them pass away one by one; and I am left despondent as I survey the intellectual landscape and scan the scholarly horizon and see not even a mirage of images that resemble their scholarly caliber, dedication and commitment. Though they pass away by nature’s command, I comfort myself with the forlorn thought that their contributions will live forever. I can imagine young Ethiopian scholars in a future generation picking up their works and marveling at their dedication and scholarly excellence.

A scholar’s ultimate legacy: Dialogue

What may be said of Prof. Levine’s legacy? He was the quintessential scholar, and his legacy, I believe, is succinctly stated on the homepage of his website donlevine.com

I invite you to join one or more of these conversations: to engage the perennial questions of how to help each generation become strong, accomplished, and wise human beings and citizens; to grapple with searching ideas of the finest theorists about human nature and the social order; to engage the complexities of a two-millennial civilization and its tortuous encounters with modernity;  to absorb the teachings of an Asian master who discovered in the flow of water a key to promoting harmony in human action.

And along the way, to share ideas for more effective ways to sustain these and other conversations….

I say great teachers and scholars never die; they just fade away in the minds of the youth of coming generations to silently, relentless and endlessly agitate dialogue.

Dialogue. That is exactly how I intend to honor the memory of Fitawrari Leben Gebre Ityopia. Or simply, “Fit”.

Filed in: Articles & Opinions