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On the Happiness of the Martyr
Walata Tsion


Martyrdom is probably the only instance where men are so keen to die and yet die happily, willingly. "Perhaps there is no happiness in life as perfect as a martyr's" once wrote O. Henry. The Greek word martus means a witness who testifies to a circumstance of which he has knowledge from personal observation or revelation. In later Christian texts, the term came to be exclusively applied to those who had died for the faith. For the secular martyr, whose martyrdom is divorced from theism or faith, the act of self sacrifice is de-theisized. The secular martyr, like the tegadalay, retains the sensibility of the classical martyr so that his supreme faith now rests on his country, its landscapes and its people, while retaining the sensibilities and sentiments of a traditional martyr who dies for his faith. John Foxe who writes on the ecstasy of Protestant martyrs describes their erupting joys in such words, something which rings so true for the joyful tegadalay:

"Let us now enter the consideration of the blessed martyr, who although they suffer in bodies, yet rejoiced in their spirits and albeit they were persecuted of men, they were comforted with such inward joy and peace of conscience, that some writing to their friends professed they were never so merry before in all their lives, some leaped for joy some in triumph, would put their scarves, some their wedding garments, going to the fire; some kissed their swords, some clapt their hands, some sang psalms. Universally they forgave and prayed for their enemies, no murmuring, no complaint was ever heard among them."

The sight of Tigray Defense forces dancing and in joy is a spectacle to behold. Surrounded by destruction and death, the young TDF are often seen in videos where they seem truly happy. What a sight to behold! Forgotten joys are rediscovered in martyrdom. These joys, like treasures in a casket, are buried in the sea of lifelong entanglements in zero sum dualisms: to want gain and avoid loss; to want pleasure and avoid suffering. Going from fear to hope like a pendulum, our courage is sapped by the highs and lows of gain which inevitably leads to loss, leading to hope and then to fear. The anti-martyr lives his days in a world of concepts of his own making, like a silk worm trapped in a cocoon of his own weaving. The martyr breaks out of this self-entrapment.

Martyrdom is a reversal of imposed self-imprisonments, cutting through them like a sharp knife. Suddenly, in the light of imminent death, the worldly concerns of gain, loss, fear and hope take a backstage. The neurosis that drives these concerns is suddenly cut from its lifeline: planning, scheming, dwelling on the past or the future, making friends and enemies. A martyr, a tegadalay, emerges from his own cocoon, having unraveled the threads of hope and fear and carrying himself with “the poise of a dying man”. What is this poise? It is the poise of knowing what is important and not. Lying there in his deathbed, would a dying man scheme to become rich and famous? No. A dying man knows the pointlessness of these concerns and abandons them instantly, like a monk's renunciation that leads to the joy of feeling lighter. This joy of lightness, of knowing what's important and not is the sentiment embodied by the young men and women in the TDF. The North African martyr, Vibia Perpetua, feels this lightness and joy in her final hours of persecution: “the day the victory dawned and with joyful countenances, marched from the prison area to the arena, as though on their way to heaven.”

These joys are so infectious that not only is the martyr infused in his own joy, but his entire world is reframed in wholesome goodness. Thus, General Megbey refers to this metamorphosis when he remarks: "the entire Tigray, its people are our allies. Mothers give us food from what they barely had. Children empty their school bags and give us the bags to be used by us; others take off their shoes and willingly give it to us. It is not just the people. Even the mountains speak to us and tell us 'have courage my children, my sons, we are with you'". The tegadalay martyr is transformed by his own joys and this joy in turns transforms his view of the world, so that everything is bountiful, perfect, and even the physical landscape pulsates with the love that the martyr himself is immersed in. The martyr's joy is complete, without boundaries and the gestures of the world become a reflection of his own joy, as if he were looking at himself in the mirror.

What martyrdom offers us is a chance to live fully. It is the logical conclusion of a selfless attitude, from which the saint and the martyr derive their strange joys. For the tegadalay, these joys also become the engine which drives his cause. Martyrdom leads us to the kind of uncompromising view that transforms our entire world into something primordially pure. Working tirelessly for goodness, everyone including one's adversaries become one's brothers. A tegadalay doubts never to put down his own life to save others. So much has been said about the TPLF struggle where men would enthusiastically volunteer to be the first to step on land mines to set them off and clear the path for their compatriots. A tegadalay, like the saint, dwells in a communitas of friends with new rules, absent of the politics of gain and loss, exchange and seduction. Even his music speaks of landscapes, of a mother's love, of rivers and mountains, of children's hopes, of sacrifice but remains absent from the kind of lewd lyrics of sex and seduction that is the domain of the universe of hope and fear, gain and loss. His songs are starkly simple in message, minimalist and its lyrics repetitive, just like the repetition of a prayer to hone the spirit, support it, stabilize it involving a call and response pattern between audience and performer, replicating a community of worshippers at mass who are in a spirit of communion. Just like a saint, the tegadalay undergoes a sort of secular theosis, gambling everything for love; an audacity to love without limits. Thus when a tegadalay sings "weyane ina lomi, weyane ina tsebah” he is invoking tomorrow, continuity, immortality, everlastingness...all of which are sensibilities tied to the domain of the metaphysical. The armed resistance becomes merely a support for a deeper journey into a sensibility that is non dual, vast, uncompromising, infinite.

Those of us who watch the joys of the martyrs on our little screens are likely to misinterpret their happiness as a raucous party of youngsters. Saints inhabit a world so deeply misunderstood by us outsiders. And yet they remind us of a world we faintly remember, instinctively. Their joys are messages beckoning us to come back to the world of our primordial home-love-just like calling of the fresh springs to the salmon wandering in the vast ocean of the salty seas.