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Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

April 29, 2010

Beneath The Lion’s Gaze

The stories that survivors have told us are frequently embedded in the historical and political contexts in which their torture occurred. In most – unfortunately not all – cases, we’ve known a little bit about the conflicts in their countries, but far from enough to really understand what we were being told. It’s a concern frequently expressed by the clinicians we’ve spoken to as well: “How can we be expected to understand our patients’ experiences when we’ve got people coming in from 60 countries on four continents.”
          We may imagine that the trauma of torture is the same everywhere, and in every context, but that’s not really true. It probably makes a difference, for example, if a person was “selected” for torture because of their political activities, or because they just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time; if they were tortured to extract information, or to “set an example” for others. 
          The physician and father of the extended family at the center of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, Maaza Mengiste’s moving novel of the Ethiopian revolution, has been tortured as the result of a misunderstood act of compassion. When he is at last released, 

“He stood still, dry-mouthed, waiting for soldiers to fling the door open and drag him back. He waited for the mocking laughs and taunts at his gullibility…He waited unbearable minutes for the Colonel’s commanding stride to grow increasingly louder. There was nothing.

“…There was the momentary thought that he was a vulgar and frightening sight. He was close to naked, his trousers cut and torn, holes revealing parts of him indecently. But the thought evaporated in the cloudiness of a dulled and bruised mind. He didn’t care. All modesty had disappeared during the interrogations. The Colonel had turned him into nothing but a mass of damaged nerves and soft bones. He’d been repeatedly stripped of all inhibition, one indignity after another.”

Mengiste was born in Ethiopia and now lives in New York. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, her first novel, is a fictionalized retelling of the Ethiopian revolution which began in 1974. Lorraine Adams, writing in The New York Times, called it “an important novel, rich in compassion for its anguished characters.”  
          The military junta called the Derg terrorized the Ethiopian people until 1991. As the author notes at the novel’s end: “There are no confirmed numbers of how many men, women, and children lost their lives during its rule. Some reports…say the death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands. By the end of the most violent period of the Derg’s rule, the Red Terror (1976-78), Mengistu Haile Mariam had effectively eliminated all opposition through execution, imprisonment, or exile.” 
          If you’ve read this novel, please let us know what you thought of it. We would especially be interested in hearing from Ethiopian immigrants, or from people who have worked with Ethiopian torture survivors. Please tell us about other books you recommend. We would welcome reviews (of books, films, other resources) from our readers. 

(If ordering books or DVDs discussed in this blog from Amazon, please consider doing so through our website, which will help to support the work of The Refuge Media Project: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze  NOTE: In her Times review, Adams also cites two related works that I have not read: Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears and Nega Mezlekia, Notes from the Hyena’s Belly. Let us know if you’re familiar with these works and found them valuable.

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