Before the priests comes a parade. A group of men hoisting sugar cane into the air circles in the street like a hurricane seen slow-moving from far off satellites. They chant spirituals and churn down the dense road. The red, green, and yellow of the Ethiopian flag beats against the bleached sky with a thump that echoes the syncing pulse of the crowd. Eyes flicker at us, and out of nowhere children emerge to greet us, shyly extending their arms for a handshake. Some bold boys tug at my shirt, asking, “Candy? Candy?” People shout, “Ferenji!” or “You!” or “Good morning!” (even though it’s after noon) or “China!” because the fairer-skinned Chinese have an invested presence in this country.
A drunk man comes up to Brian and blows a harmonica in his face, laughing. I ask, “Bob Dylan? Bob Dylan?” but he is not listening to me because he is too busy playing harmonica in the ferenji (foreigner) face of my friend. As we try to get away from him, we laugh like we’re in on the joke because others are watching. Entirely unsure of where we are, I avoid eye contact with those who stare and pick a place far off to focus on.
The crowd thickens as a cloud of silk umbrellas shading the Orthodox clergy approaches. Behind them, the priests carry the tabot atop their heads. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to have the biblical Ark of the Covenant, a relic said to be passed down from the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The white-clad congregants parade their church’s symbolic ark—the tabot—throughout the city in celebration of Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan. The tabot remains covered, concealed like the bread priests slip into opened mouths hungry for a living Lord. God with us beats in my chest, a mantra of reassurance, God with us, that said enough begins to sound like a question, God with us?
Bodies press into each other, and the police maintain space between the crowd and the procession. The boys I photograph, holding up icons and umbrellas, pull cell phones out of their pockets to take pictures of us, too, the wide-eyed ferenjis.
A red carpet is rolled out and covered with long grass. The man spreading the grass at the priests’ feet kneels and, weeping, kisses the ground. The priests’ tent moves forward and then stops for the carpet behind them to be rolled up and rolled out in front of them again. And they go on like this toward the church, where the tabot will be returned to the Holy of Holies.
The crowd moves forward with the tent and some people gesture for us to join. “We’ll stay here,” we say, pointing to our feet. An older woman shoos some children away to make room for us on a slope where the crowd is still. From there we watch the procession until it is time to go back down the street we came from, passing vendors of tomatoes, onions, chickpeas, spices, and plastic shoes, all spread out on blankets and tarp. Along the way, a man dressed in white stops one of us and says, pointing to himself, “Photo?” The man stands erect with his chest puffed out, and Michael takes his picture. The man says, “Thank you,” and walks away without asking to see the photograph. Two curious children follow us to the gate of the home where we are staying.
Later that night, Michael laughs outside with the gatekeeper. They are teaching each other words by pointing to their feet or their noses or the vines that have overtaken the barbed wired compound walls. I hear their laughter come in from the dark through an open door and think of how the gatekeeper and I washed dishes together the evening before. He washed and I dried. We didn’t exchange a word. Our backs perpendicular to each other as he handed me a cup, a plate, a casserole dish. How do you ask, “What are your joys?” when you’ve only just learned to say “thank you”? Amaseganalehu.
A nearby mosque’s call to prayer wakes me in the morning. The prayer is sung in Arabic in a nation that speaks Amharic. “They don’t understand it, but the sound washing over you is meant to be a blessing.” I open the door and the prayer floods in. In my half-sleep I feel connected to all men who call out. God with us? My drowsy feet slap against the outdoor tile as I stumble toward a bathroom, my western ears unable to distinguish voice from instrument.