Dystopia – Why can’t our MPs look one another in the face?

By Tesfu Telahoun Abebe – A visitor to virtually any Tewahedo Orthodox church will note that, in addition to some remarkable architecture, these houses of worship are adorned with religious iconography steeped in Ethiopian history.

The colorful ‘film-reel’ images on ceilings, tapestry and walls are drawn strictly according to an indigenous style of art. This ‘Ethiopic’ school stipulates that the faces of evil or otherwise villainous characters can be portrayed only in profile.

All holy, valiant and heroic characters get the full frontal treatment. So if you have been to one of our souvenir shops and bought a goatskin parchment illustrating the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon tryst, you now know why some figures are one-eyed!

The other night I happened to be watching a parliamentary session on one of the oh so bland channels when I was struck by a realization which literally floored me. Well, not really, but it did make me start writing this piece!

What happened was that it dawned on me that the ancient rule in Ethiopian art about how faces are portrayed is clearly being applied albeit very subtly and for a modified objective. I was as excited as could be-what researcher wouldn’t be after finding a good specimen to further an investigation.

What investigation you say?
Well, I’ve been relentlessly busy of late on my quest to identify and reveal the signs, indicators, symptoms and manifestations of our current Dystopia, a state of societal and national degeneration.

Dystopia manifests itself through numerous ways both passively and actively and feeds upon the negative energy generated by decades of accumulated strife, division and resentment within a failing and/or failed society.

Having already examined that a failing society begins to distance itself from its own language(s), I have moved on to studying physical (tangible) manifestations and/or symptomatic reference of national dystopia. Let me explain.

For instance, organs of government, legislative bodies and judicial institutions and other august entities occupy grand buildings and premises. Their main entrances are designed to impress and be imposing. And this is as it should be.

Let’s say you have some business or worse at the highest court in Ethiopia-yes, the one housed in a classical building in the area popularly known as ‘Lideta’.

Being a first timer, you amble along to what you perceive is the main gate/entrance until a gruff voice shouts: ‘temeles ante!’ (Get back, you!). The order comes from one of the guards or a policeman/woman. You are virtually skinned by glaring and belligerent eyes. If you’re lucky you are not slapped around but only shoved around while being told (with maddening derision) to use a side or back entrance.

Its the same at many other institutions-the front entrance is seldom allowed for the general public. In fact a lot of organizations stick signs at main entrance telling you to use the ‘back door/gate.

I believe that this practice reveals a frightening fact. It speaks to our secretive, furtive and hierarchical subconscious. Not being able to or allowed to use the front door is a powerful metaphor of an unfree society.

So, let me return to the title of this short piece. The simple reason as for why our MPs do not look each other in the eye is that they can’t-literally. The very chamber in which they are seated has been designed in what I shall call ‘authoritarian layout’ as opposed to ‘democratic layout’.

Virtually all countries which are or have been ruled by authoritarian regimes have seating plans (in parliament) which resemble movie theaters. Only the backs of fellow MPs can be seen. Observe China’s rubber stamp assembly, Russia’s equally farcical parliament (Duma) and indeed our own parliament ament.

Conversely, parliaments in free (democratic) countries feature circular or cross aisle seating plans which are designed so that members can look at each other. Witness Canada’s parliament, America’s Congress and the mother of all legislatures-the British parliament.

Perhaps our innovation-minded prime minister could look into this issue and rearrange the seating plan to reflect his democratic aspirations for Ethiopia. Boy, what a shock our MPs will get when they return from winter recess. From my keyboard to Abiy’s ears!