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Ethiopia, Coming Home

Bobby Fisher A traditional Ethiopian meal of fried Nile perch accompanied by shiro and doro wet at Habesha.

Photo: Bobby Fisher

The crowd sat on low benches around the perimeter of the room, watching the dancers make their rounds. One of the women would single out a patron, moving in uncomfortably close and singing an insulting line in Amharic that made the crowd roar with laughter, whereupon the patron was expected to throw an insult back at her and try to outdance her, which was difficult: her upper body moved like a belly dancer’s, shoulders rolling and quaking, her head pitching forward and back like a frenetic flamingo’s.

Waldemariam translated the jokes for us as a dancer zoomed in on one of Samuelsson’s friends, Klancy Miller, a former pastry chef at Taillevent, in Paris, and mocked her short dreadlocks. Then she went after Samuelsson, for his inability to understand a word she was singing—but both victims had played this game before, and held up their end of the dance-off.

Although it was 4 a.m. when our group shut down the club, just a few hours later Samuelsson was ready for a trip to Debre Zeyit, an area about an hour’s drive south of Addis, where he is looking at property for a painting studio. Beyond cooking, painting is one of Samuelsson’s great passions. Hanging on the walls of his Harlem apartment are his own abstract canvases, which appear to have been inspired in equal measure by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Mark Rothko. Over the short decade that he has been visiting Ethiopia, Samuelsson has become connected with Addis’s tightly knit contemporary art scene. While touring Addis, he soaked up as many ideas for his painting as he did for his cooking, noting that a gas can was "a shade of green you’d never, ever see in Manhattan," or wondering whether a sheet of steel in a fabricator’s stall might work as a canvas.

Dotted with crater lakes, Debre Zeyit has always been a resort destination for Addis’s educated classes, although, with an elevation 2,000 feet below that of the capital, it is hotter and drier. When we arrived at the lot for sale, we found it surrounded by an imposing iron gate, beyond which we could see nothing. When the seller arrived, he opened the gate onto a modest parcel of land perched on a cliff about 300 yards above a crater lake. Beyond the lake lay the pristine desert, with mountains rising on the horizon. Samuelsson, who had never seen a picture of the property—he’d known only that it cost considerably less than our SUV—was silent for several minutes. And then he spoke. "From now on, when you can’t catch me on my cell phone," he said to us, "you’ll know where I’ll be."

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