Prof. Donald Levine: The scholars’ scholar
This past January, Prof. Levine emailed to tell me about his long-planned visit to Ethiopia that had been thwarted by his illness. He had set three objectives for that trip. He wanted to be present for the launching of his book Interpreting Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. He wanted to witness the opening of a new youth facility in Hawassa, some 270 km south of the capital. Several years ago, he had co-founded the Awassa Youth Campus with the aim of providing a variety of sports and artistic opportunities for local youth. (Click here to see the wonderful video.) He had obtained substantial funding to expand the physical facility of the campus. He was most eager to see the very first group of young Ethiopian men and women test out for promotion to black belt in aikido (a unique martial arts philosophy in which “practitioners use their skills to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.” Neither was to be. The expansion to the youth facility could not be built because of “delays”.
With greater urgency, Prof. Levine planned to visit my personal hero Eskinder Nega and she-ro Reeyot Alemu, Ethiopia’s courageous and famed journalists, languishing in prison. When Eskinder and Serkalem (both internationally acclaimed Ethiopian journalists) were victimized by long incarceration and abuse that rose to the gravity of crimes against humanity in 2007 before being acquitted of all charges, he had personally pleaded with the late Meles Zenawi asking him to show compassion and allow medical care to be given to Serkalem who had given birth in prison. Meles relented.
I believe the fact that his declining health would not make it possible for him to visit Ethiopia one last time weighed heavily on his heart. As I read his email, I felt he had a greater purpose to accomplish in his planned visit. I sensed he was acutely aware that he was in the sunset of his life and wanted to bask for just a moment or two in the Land of Thirteen Months of Sunshine for the last time. He yearned to go home. I felt he wanted to go back one more time, for the last time, and breathe the fresh Ethiopian air, visit his old stomping grounds in Menz, laugh with his Ethiopian friends and engage the young men and women of the Awassa Youth Club and advise them to strive for excellence by building not only their bodies and mental skills but most importantly by building their character with integrity, self-discipline, self-dignity and hard work. I felt he wanted to say “Farewell Ethiopia” for the last time as his plane left the Ethiopian airspace headed back for America. That was what I read, heard and saw between the lines of his email to me.
Prof. Levine was a man of great learning and appreciated art and literature. I wonder if he thought of Khalil Gibran’s verse as he planned his final trip home to Ethiopia:
Farewell to you and the youth I have spent with you.
It was but yesterday we met in a dream.
You have sung to me in my aloneness, and I of your longings have built a tower in the sky.
But now our sleep has fled and our dream is over, and it is no longer dawn.
The noontide is upon us and our half waking has turned to fuller day, and we must part.
If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song.
And if our hands should meet in another dream, we shall build another tower in the sky….
The longing to go back became a dream for Donald Levine; but that dream, hopeful and cheerful, in my view, describes the essence Donald Levine, the man who had a love affair with Ethiopia for over one-half century.
Prof. Levine passed away on April 4, 2015. His son, Bill Levine, announced, “Gash Liben, Ethiopian scholar, lover of Ethiopia, founder of the Aikido Ethiopia Project has passed away today at 1 pm.”
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