*Friend, Master Storyteller, Scholar, and Humanist Par Excellence: Reminiscences of Teshome H. Gabriel

In the very first week that I arrived at UCLA in the fall of 1993 as a new faculty member in the Department of History, I was introduced to Professor Teshome H. Gabriel.  He was described to me as a film scholar, and as the moving spirit behind the collective, comprised mainly of younger faculty and graduate students in the humanities, known as “Emergences”, also the title of the journal published by the group.  In those days, the group would meet on Friday evenings, and we gathered at the bar in the basement at the Faculty Center where Teshome, liberally and unstintingly spending money on others as he seems to have done his entire life, would order pitchers of beer for the group.   It took very little time to discern that, as good a scholar as he was, he was also an extraordinary person, a friend generous to a fault, a person full of unusual creativity, wise counsel, good spirits, and fortitude.  And so it is a blow in the extreme to find that Teshome will no longer be in our midst, even if in spirit he remains with all those who were fortunate to have known him.

Teshome Gabriel, who had a very long association with UCLA, passed away in the early hours of Tuesday, 15 June 2010, at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Panorama City.   His wife, Maaza Woldemusie, had driven him to the hospital and they had just arrived when he suffered cardiac arrest.  Teshome earned his doctorate in film studies at UCLA and went on to become a faculty member at the same university.  His principal appointment was with the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, though he was also affiliated with the African Studies Center and more peripherally with the Department of Comparative Literature.  The brief official announcement of his death issued by UCLA’s International Institute describes him as having “written extensively on memory and the cinema, theories of Third Cinema, on the aesthetics of nomadic thought in cinema and on weaving and the digital in developing countries.”  Intriguing as is this description, to which I shall return shortly, it does not gesture at his unique – and, sad to say, largely unrecognized by the faculty and administration —  place in the intellectual life of UCLA and the part that he played in mentoring untold number of students.

It is not merely that thousands of students over the years took his classes on third world cinema, and in particular one of his signature classes on ‘film and social change’.  There cannot have been many African, and African-American, students in the humanities at large who did not come to know Teshome, or go to him for counsel.  He mentored them, and many other students, in innumerable ways.  Teshome had an enormous if quiet following on campus among the students, who recognized that, before everything else, he was dedicated to them.  What made him more lovable, and doubtless frustrating at times, was that he was rather disorganized, the very picture of the absent-minded professor.  He would scribble notes on the back of envelopes, on newspapers (usually the New York Times) and in the back of books, and one was quite certain that most of those notes would, as happens to scraps of paper, disappear into thin air.  Before one of the coffee shops on the north campus called LuValle was renovated about 8-10 years ago, Teshome, in a manner of speaking, held court; in later years, he divided his time between LuValle and Northern Lights, on the other side of the main research library.   It wasn’t possible to have a conversation with him for more than 15 minutes on campus before someone passing by would stop to say hello, banter with Teshome in Amharic, or exchange some news about Ethiopia.  He was, shall we say, a distinctive presence in every way, not least of all because in Los Angeles’s very mild winter he dressed as one might in Chicago or Minnesota in the middle of a snow-storm, and even on a slightly warm day he usually wore a thick scarf around his neck.

It is characteristic of Teshome that, in nearly the seventeen years that I knew him, I do not ever recall hearing him utter the word “research”.  When we met, he might ask, ‘What are you reading these days?’, or ‘What are you writing?’  It is difficult to convey, to those who think that research is the task of a research university, but have never quite bothered to ask whether most of what passes for research is even worth the paper on which it is written, never mind the millions squandered on such utterly useless things as surveys, questionnaires, and the economist’s mindless models, just how refreshing it was to be in the company of someone who never quite bothered with research.  Teshome had, I believe, come around to the view that most of research is in fact inimical to thinking, but it is necessary only to accept that ‘research’ was far from his mind.  He was interested principally in thinking and storytelling.  To what extent he imbibed his supreme gift for storytelling from his indigenous Ethiopian traditions is an interesting question in itself, but he could mesmerize young and old alike with his gifts.  He regaled my children with stories and had an enviable way with young ones.  His interest in storytelling – the origins of stories are often unknown, proprietorship over stories is difficult to accept, and the telling and retelling of stories puts into question the notion of the true and authentic story — may also account, in good measure, for his indifference to notions of authorship.  If there is relatively little that appeared under his own name, one should attribute it both to his unselfishness and his conviction in the idea of collective authorship.

Since, at least in the last 20 years of his life, Teshome had no research agenda, and was unencumbered by any desire to be famous, prolific, or the holder of a “chair” or “distinguished” professorship, he was at complete liberty to let his stupendously fertile imagination wander about in the most unexpected ways.  Teshome first became known for his work, extending back to the late 1970s, on “Third Cinema”, though he kept on refining his ideas and never ceased to revisit much of his own work which others had come to take for granted.  It is not too much to say that Teshome was the principal scholar who helped to develop a critical theory of Third Cinema.  He saw such a third cinema as a guardian of popular memory and as a source of emancipation for formerly subjugated peoples.  While Third Cinema would develop its own conventions of narrative and style, its aesthetic had to be tied to a politics of social action.  Though it is his work on Third Cinema that made Teshome into an internationally recognized figure in film studies, his later work, a string of very short essays written intermittently over a period of two decades, was brilliantly creative even if it never got the recognition that it deserved.  In one of those essays, he explored the relationship between the web and weaving – and so birthed the idea of digital weaving.   When Ashis Nandy and I approached him for a contribution to our book, The Future of Knowledge and Culture:  A Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century (Viking Penguin 2006), he proposed a short essay on “Stones”.  I very much doubt that anyone has even written on stones with such verve, imagination, and jouissance as has Teshome.  Here is a passage from Teshome’s essay which illustrates the sheer fecundity of his mind:

“Movement is not just a spatial displacement, or a matter of sequence, or of a linear history. While stones are generally associated with immobility, those that tend to remain still are in fact the ones that move the most throughout history.  By not moving at all, they move in other directions, in other dimensions, in their own curious and often ironic way.  Pyramids would seem to be the most immobile of things, yet they have been all over the world; there is no place in the world that does not carry archival memories of pyramids, for whom the pyramid does not signify something of deep cultural importance.  One can argue that the same forces are at work in the wailing wall of Jerusalem and the great wall of China, and the Kaaba/Ka’ba of Mecca. Stones, like sacred relics, travel and induce us to do likewise; they move us emotionally, spiritually, and in many other ways.”

One could not have a conversation with Teshome without walking away, if one allowed one’s imagination something of a free hand, with some interesting idea that had entirely escaped one’s attention.  The ideas he bore had, one could argue, some fundamental relationship to the circumstances of his own life.  For instance, he was greatly intrigued by the idea of the ‘nomadic’, and I often wondered if it had to do with what had become his largely sedentary life in Los Angeles.  For a major academic, Teshome traveled very little – other than visits having to do with family matters — in the last 20 years of his life, barely even attending conferences.  And, yet, he traveled much further in his mind than most who have done the rounds of ‘world cities’.  It would be a breach of privacy to share the details, which I can never forget, of his visit to Ethiopia, where he grew up and attended school before moving to the United States around 1962, after a gap of some thirty years.  Teshome and his wife Maaza, with whom we had the pleasure of sharing our home on many occasions, had very close links with the large Ethiopian community in Los Angeles, and on many Friday evenings Teshome could be found engaged in animated conversation at Awash, one of Los Angeles’s landmark Ethiopian restaurants.

Though Teshome did not leave behind a large body of work, and even there much of what he wrote is scattered in various journals and books, his life illustrates the difficulties in taking the measure of a man who lived in and for others.  He was attached to no dogmas, and in his own relationships with others displayed an equanimity that can only be described as remarkable.   I almost never heard even the trace of anger in his voice.  It would be a mistake to suppose that he had no firm ideas of his own; nevertheless, his singular achievement, with respect to his interactions with scholars, students, and intellectuals, resides in the fact that he was uniquely gifted in creating an ecumenical intellectual space for dialogue and reflection.  In 2002, when I published my first book Empire of Knowledge:  Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, London), I dedicated it to my young daughter (“to whom the future belongs”) and to Teshome Gabriel, “who has enabled the futures of many young ones”.  Ten years later, I would have reason to add much more to this dedication.  Teshome was a true friend and brother, a weaver of tales, a gifted scholar, and a person of the finest qualities in every respect.  He will be greatly missed.