I don’t know any other Sebene-s. I have heard of a few. My great grandmother on my father’s side. The aunt of a former co-worker. Some woman my cousin met in Asmara years ago. Because my first name is so rare, there was always debate about its meaning. Occasionally I meet someone who has heard it before.
My last name means Trinity and its known regality instantly evokes the Emperor and symbolizes the uncolonized majesty of our ancient Christian land. Occasionally I meet someone who has never heard it before.
The obscurity of Sebene coupled with inefficient spelling in Latin script ensures its continued mispronunciation. Growing up, we allowed English speakers to rhyme it with Ebony, Sebony, which seemed better than Suh-bene.But Sebene is pronounced with short e‘s, Se-be-ne. In Amaringya, which is what we spoke at home, a long a is sometimes added to the end of names as an endearing syllable; that might be why my parents pronounce my name Se-be-nay. I still say it their way.
Names in our family reflect my combined Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage. I have more than a dozen aunts and uncles and over thirty first cousins, and many of their names, like my favorite uncle Elias’, come from the bible; these names have their own original meanings from Greek, Hebrew or other roots. I am intrigued by names that are unique to our languages and display aural potency.Gohatsebah: dawn, Bereket: blessing, Asgede: they bow before him, Finot: the way. Awet: victory. Fikerte: beloved. Sewit: ripe. Aman: peace. Guttural and frictive sounds mimic the rush of winds and water and are combined with explosive consonants that pop from lips and tongues like crackling fires and cries of birds. Even when translated into English these names signify the cosmic bond of spirit and nature and invite lyric possibilities to immigrant ears, to those of us who grew up here and have lost intimacy with the power of their unique meaning in melody.
Sebene is a Ge’ez word. Ge’ez is the root language of Tigray, Tigrinya and Amaringya, the three Ethiopian languages related to Hebrew and Arabic. Consensus in my family was that my name meant “cloth.” Being the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Ge-ez describes many religious objects, and after much consultation and discussion, my parents concluded that Sebene named the fabric covering the Ten Commandments. Carried on the heads of priests, these ceremonial replicas were deemed too holy for mortal eyes, so decorous cotton protected them. With fragrant frankincense and myrrh wafting through the dim, crowded space and rhythmic pulsing of drums and bells propelling his movements, the priest walks down the aisle. A traditional white fabric delicately embroidered with vibrant colors frames his head.
As a child, I did not remember this scene or Ethiopia at all but from the time I was a teenager I deduced that there was humor in the translation. When someone enlightened enough to know that there are meanings to all names (you would be surprised) asked me what my name meant, I would answer “cloth,” wait a beat or two, explain the ritual significance, and end with “So, it’s a holy cloth.” My siblings and cousins embodied poetry. I personified a sardonic history lesson. I practiced that routine over 20 years always knowing that I remained unsure of Sebene.
A few years ago, I met an Ethiopian woman on the subway and over months of periodic morning commutes we learned each other’s histories. When I mentioned to my dad that Maro’s father was also an African Studies professor, he deduced that it was an old friend of his who is a Ge’ez scholar. I begged my dad to contact him to uncover the true meaning of my name. And he did.
Sebene does signify the ceremonial object but it is not cloth the name describes but the luminescence that crowns us all, that manifests our innate divinity. Sebene means halo.