Gawking at the Exotic

It’s almost spring break again and you’re trying to decide where to go. Ethiopia might come to mind. It’s very near, you won’t have to pay an arm and a ...

Feb 21, 2015

It’s almost spring break again and you’re trying to decide where to go. Ethiopia might come to mind. It’s very near, you won’t have to pay an arm and a leg for the trip and you’ve probably heard from your peers about their fun experiences there. Perhaps you were even taken in by their pictures on Facebook or Instagram in which they’re sitting on a mountaintop staring into a vast lush landscape, bathing naked in a clear stream or playing with mud-covered kids with looks of awe on their faces.
I never gave more than a passing thought to the slight pinch of discomfort I felt at seeing these photos before coming back to Abu Dhabi after a semester at home.
During the four months I stayed in Ethiopia, I got reacquainted with Addis Ababa, my birthplace and the city I’ve lived in for most of my life. With a lot of time on my hands and a job that took me to different parts of the city everyday, I roamed Addis like a wide-eyed wanderer.
I discovered old-fashioned restaurants with exteriors as time-worn as the staff, where stories of the past are the hors d’oeuvres. I went to jazz bars where old Ethiopian classics flow into your ears as smoothly as the honey mead goes down your throat. I spent my days in sidewalk cafes in Piassa, avidly watching young people who had somehow forged a sense of fashion at once subversive and uniquely Ethiopian.
Art shows, music festivals, short film exhibitions, movie premieres and so on. It seemed there was much more to do than I had ever thought possible. Accompanying the guilt I felt at having existed in an uniform bubble for so long was the pleasure of discovery, a delight in experiencing the novel aesthetic of life that some had been creating while I had been wearing down the same routes whenever I went home.
So it was with great excitement that I came back to NYU Abu Dhabi, ready to tell friends of all I had seen and discovered. Imagine my joy when some of them told me they might be going to Ethiopia for spring break!
Yet all my animated explanations of the wonders of Addis were disregarded automatically. People wanted to get to Ethiopia, stay in Addis for the least amount of time possible, for a night of bar-hopping at least, and move on to the rural areas where the real interest lay.
Taken aback by this reaction, I started reflecting on all the times friends had told me about their experiences in Ethiopia and looking up photos they had sent me from their trips. All their narratives, visual and otherwise, had one thing in common: They said nothing about urban life.
I finally started to articulate what exactly about those pictures on Facebook or Instagram had sat ill with me. I had seen them before in brochures in travel agencies, the magazines on Ethiopian Airlines flights and articles written about Ethiopia. There was nothing wrong with these pictures in and of themselves. However, the image of Ethiopia one pieces together from these accounts is an incomplete one. It completely disregards what should be considered a significant part of Ethiopian culture: urban people who are trying to find their footing in a modern age where forging and reconstructing identity has become a struggle, a struggle that is giving rise to new ways of cultural expression that are calling for attention.
The automatic resistance of some of my peers to explore Addis and its urban cultural scene can perhaps be explained by the biased values that the tourism industry reflects. Tourists going to Ethiopia are ushered along trodden-down paths leading to cultural heritage sights and natural landscapes by an industry that has assumed that all they want is to gawk at the exotic, encounter the alien and add it to their ever-increasing list of diverse experiences.
Why should this really matter to an NYUAD student just looking for a new travel experience or a few days of respite? Since we profess to aspire to a more comprehensive level of cultural understanding, it is not only where we travel that matters or how many places we’ve seen, but why we travel.
Helina Yigletu is a contributing writer. Email her at
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