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A Young Actor's Exodus Across Time and Space


Teresa Wiltz, WashingtonPost.com, December 16, 2006
As Sirak Sabahat sees it, he's a time traveler, a man who's traversed many centuries, setting out by foot from his mountainous Ethiopian village where people still live as though in biblical times, trekking with his family through endless desert, hiding from wild animals and humans who wished them harm. They walked and walked, until they boarded what they thought was a giant bird, but what was really a time machine taking them, quite literally, to the Promised Land.

Israel. Circa 1991.

There, the travelers encountered not a land of milk and honey but a place of telephones and TV sets, of porcelain contraptions called toilets and white people who claimed to be Jews, too.

What a weird new world it was! But in time it became the world of Sirak Sabahat, too. The biblical time traveler grew into a man and even became famous in his adopted land. Famous, 21st century-style: He won a reality TV show talent contest and later snared a starring role in a movie, "Live and Become," which tells the story of Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel, also known as the Falashas. This year, he became the first Ethiopian to be nominated for an Israeli Oscar.

And now, in later 2006, he's sitting at an Ethiopian restaurant in Adams Morgan, curly coils puffed out in a postmodern 'fro, funky rose-tinted glasses sliding down his nose, laughing and shaking his head at the incongruity of it all. "I've had many, many lives," Sabahat, 25, says. "I came from the Bible. Now I'm in subway times. I had the privilege to be on a time machine."

Sabahat has come to Washington to promote "Live and Become," an independent film that opened yesterday at the Avalon Theatre. He's settled in Manhattan, determined to widen his horizons as an actor. His fame in Israel, he says, didn't translate into anything other than "Miss Scarlett roles." When he decided, after graduating from the University of Haifa, that acting is what he wanted most to do, people told him, "You chose the profession that will bring you starvation in a new way."

His family didn't leave Ethiopia because they were starving, though theirs was a land often riven by famine and civil war. They left, Sabahat says, to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy: To return to Jerusalem. (Ninety thousand of them resettled.) Back at home, his people lived in strict observance of the Old Testament; they were farmers who tilled the land as their ancestors had hundreds of years before. As the oldest son, Sabahat was also destined to farm, to tend to the sheep and the cows, to look after his younger brothers and sister. School wasn't an option. There were no schools. "I don't know what it is to be a child," he says.

In Ethiopia there were regular pogroms against the Beta Israel, who trace their lineage to King Menelik, the son of Solomon and Makeda, the queen of Sheba. Some say the Falashas are descended from the lost Israelite tribe of Dan; others say they are Ethiopian Christians and pagans who converted to Judaism centuries ago; still others insist they are descended from Jews who fled into Africa around 586 B.C. As far back as the 16th century, Jewish officials declared that the Beta Israel were Jewish; in 1975, the Israeli government did the same thing.

In Ethiopia, a country that is both Christian and Muslim, the Beta Israel were a persecuted minority, particularly under the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Dubbed "the Butcher of Addis Ababa," Mengistu, who fled to Zimbabwe 12 years ago, this week was found guilty in absentia of genocide.

In 1984, a coalition of Israeli and U.S. forces secretly airlifted thousands of Falashas from refugee camps in Sudan in Operation Moses. In 1991, Sabahat's family was airlifted from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, in Operation Solomon. He was around 10 when he left his village of Awassa in the country's south, and it took his family nearly a year to make it to the capital, walking barefoot and hiding in abandoned houses along the way.

By the time they settled in Israel, he was nearly 12. He couldn't read or write in his own language, let alone in Hebrew. He recalls that for the first eight months, his family holed up in their hotel, too afraid to venture out much.

Like many children of immigrants, Sabahat says he had to help his parents navigate a culture. A new century. There were so many things to get used to: "The first time I saw a white person, I thought something was wrong with his skin," he says. "The first time my mother saw the TV on in our room, she sent me out for coffee because she thought we had guests."

Another thing to get used to: The notion of race. And racism. "In Ethiopia, we were called Jews," says Sabahat, who graduated from a boarding school for gifted children. "In Israel, we were Ethiopians." And sometimes, much less polite words.

He leans forward, over his platter of grilled lamb and injera , elbows resting on thighs. "Who am I?"

It is this process of assimilation and alienation that prompted French-Romanian director Radhu Mihaileanu ("Train of Life") to write "Live and Become," a French-Israeli collaboration that tells the tale of an Ethiopian Christian boy whose mother passes him off as Jewish and shoves him into the arms of a Jewish woman who'd lost her son. Once they land in Israel, the boy, who is named Schlomo by Israeli officials, is admonished by his adoptive mother never to tell anyone his secret. She dies shortly afterward, and Schlomo is left alone to carry his secret, constantly fearful that he'd be found out and kicked out of his new country.

It was a role that Sabahat was determined to play after learning about auditions for the role of the grown-up Schlomo through his mother, who'd heard about them on Ethiopian radio. He didn't exactly nail his first audition. "The first test, it was very bad," Mihaileanu recalls by telephone from Romania. "He was moving his hands all the time and overacting in a very strange way. I told him, 'Okay, be cool.'"

He made Sabahat put his hands behind his back. Told him not to use his face. And then had him recite a monologue from the script, where Schlomo confesses to his rabbi that he is not a Jew. "He did that scene and it was incredible, because I saw all his soul," Mihaileanu says. Sabahat made the first cut, but his trials weren't over. Because the movie follows Schlomo's journey from childhood to manhood, three actors were needed to play the character: a boy, a teenager and an adult. Moreover, the three needed to look alike and speak Amharic, Hebrew and French.

Mihaileanu selected three groups of actors out of 2,500 hopefuls and set them up in separate living quarters. For a month, Sabahat lived with two younger doppelgangers, Moshe Agazai and Mosche Abebe, studying and memorizing lines until they were virtually indistinguishable from each other. That group made the final cut and the film was shot in Israel and France, picking up European film festival awards in 2005.

For the past few months, Sabahat has traveled the U.S. festival circuit to promote the film, speaking to Jewish and African American groups wherever he goes, the actor as activist. He has also written a one-man play, "From the Bible to the Subway," a humorous take on his experiences, and he's hoping to see it produced in New York. And amid his dreams of success there is a goal of giving back to his countrymen, returning to the biblical times, bringing with him a caravan of doctors and teachers, hopping from village to village building schools and hospitals.

"This is my obligation," Sabahat says. "I appreciate that I am breathing. This will be payment in some way for staying alive."