The decision that a lot of migrants make, to use their own ethnicity for the sake of commerce, is very common. I myself have done it – in the past I’ve worked abroad as an English teacher. Some students I had in France expressly chose me as a teacher over, say, Americans, because they thought the British accent was simply more ‘correct’ – my accent literally won me work. Which is odd really – my only real qualification over the competition was the fact I happen to be British. This use of culture as a means of making money is also quite problematic – it depends on reusing other people’s stereotypes (the unfounded French belief that British English is somehow better than American English) as an advantage.
I came away with a very similar impression after I spent an hour or so one Saturday afternoon in the Hamer Ethiopian Restaurant just near Finsbury Park station. I’d been talking to the owner, Hana Teklmariam, and Biruk Teklu another Ethiopian who happened to be in the restaurant and helped interpret my questions. I’d eaten at the restaurant before – it’s one of four or five Ethiopian restaurants in Finsbury Park, serving the capital’s reasonably large community—according to ONS statistics there are around 15,000 Ethiopians in the UK of which 11,000 live in London.
Hana told me that her restaurant is the third in a series of Ethiopian restaurants which have been housed on the site, the first of which was launched about 25 years ago and was, she said, the first Ethiopian restaurant in the UK. The owner of that enterprise apparently emigrated to the US, and Hana eventually took over the business from its second owner after having worked there following her arrival in 2003. Today, she works 24/7 keeping the place going according to Biruk, who informed me “she is a very friendly lady; everyone here loves her”.
Hana is in her forties and was wearing a white headdress and a beige top. Besides being the manager, she’s the head chef and employs another Ethiopian woman to be front of house. After a faltering dialogue with Hana, Biruk, who was wearing jeans and a sports jacket, took me on a tour of the establishment. We had a look in the kitchen where Hana had something bubbling away in a pot, and he showed me some massive piles of cling-filmed injera, a kind of large, slightly sour-tasting pancake which serves as the base of a lot of Ethiopian food.
Besides being a restaurant, Hana’s place also serves as a food store, and she imports spice mixes and other produce from east Africa. Hana told me most of her clientele will be Ethiopians, although they do get customers from other nearby African countries plus, obviously, locals like me. No one was really eating, it was about 4.30pm after all, but there were a handful of men sat alone at the tables, drinking St George, a very good Ethiopian lager.
While Biruk gave me a tour of the premises, we started discussing the way Hana had chosen to decorate her restaurant. Quite strikingly, above the bar on the ground floor were six tableaux depicting various Ethiopian ethnic groups. I find there’s something pretty cringeworthy about ‘exotic’ representations of African tribespeople, but there they were, hung up above the bar, bare breasted women carrying baskets on their heads. And it carried on much the same upstairs too.
On one wall was a photo of a ‘tribesman’ and on the low communal tables were more photos of men and women in traditional gear. Besides the slightly cringeworthy images of ethnic groups, there was a wall painted with a selection of letters and numbers from the Ge’ez alphabet, an ancient script now only used as a formal language in Ethiopian churches. And there was a photo of the Obelisks of Axum, an Ethiopian national symbol which was finally returned to the country from Italy in 2005 after being plundered on the orders of Mussolini in the 1930s.
So, I was quite curious about the way Hana had chosen to decorate her restaurant. Was it not tapping into foreign ideas about what Ethiopia and Ethiopians are like? Surely it was a bit of a simplistic use of imagery? Biruk inadvertently gave me some answers.
At one stage, we were discussing a picture of a bearded Ethiopian man on the wall, topless, with a cloth round his waist and an AK 47 slung over his shoulder. “This man is from the Hamer tribe, they are famous in our country for not wearing clothes. But now, one generation coming to the next, they are now covering up their private parts. But, they are famous for walking around naked all the time” he grinned, “like something in the National Geographic!”
Biruk then went on to tell me about the different ethnicities in Ethiopia, telling me there are over 82 in the country. He said he was from the Amhara ethnic group, who, as I understand, make up the majority of Ethiopians in London (and are the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia at 27% according to Index Mundi). Hana, however, was from the Hamer ethnic group herself (hence the name of the restaurant), who make up just 0.1% of Ethiopia’s population (according to Wikipedia). Hamer people are, according to Biruk, a nomadic group who live “far, far in the south of Ethiopia”.
What really struck me about Hana’s restaurant was that she was not only using her ethnicity to advertise her restaurant to the wider world, but also within London’s Ethiopian community itself. Coming from a tiny minority within her own country, who are seen as ‘exotic’ and perhaps even a bit backwards by more cosmopolitan Ethiopians (that National Geographic reference), Hana seemed to be using that cultural identity as a means of differentiating the business in a relatively crowded market—there are already a handful of Ethiopian restaurants in Finsbury Park, including a competitor next door and plenty more in nearby Holloway.
Walking a fine line
Before I’d ever heard of the Hamer people, I would quite probably have assumed that Hana’s restaurant was more or less typically Ethiopian, when in fact it was a pretty unrepresentative vision of Ethiopia. And what struck me as particularly interesting was the fact that she’d chosen to emphasise a very specific idea of her own ethnic group to other Ethiopians living abroad; a sort of taste of home yet also a taste of the exotic. A bit like me moving to Madrid and visiting a Scottish restaurant.
In a way, tapping into one’s own cultural symbols—be that the fact I have an English accent or paintings of topless women—is a perfectly reasonable way of differentiating one’s business. But, the risk you run is of being misunderstood, and especially so for anyone who’d never heard of the tiny Hamer ethnic group; only an Ethiopian would know what that word signified.
Towards the end of the tour, Hana told me the restaurant would soon be having a makeover and begin selling a wider range of dishes, including a uniquely Hamer dish (at present, no Hamer food is sold on the menu as “it’s harder for other people to eat”). It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of imagery Hana will use to represent the place after the revamp, how she’ll use those cultural symbols and the kind of story she’ll want to tell about herself and the place she’s from.