Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance

By Abel Merawi

Captive-Mind-KetmanJune 17, 2020 ( -- Imagine living in the Orwellian world of totalitarianism as portrayed in his classic work, ‘1984’. In this world, everything you say and do is monitored by the government. If you deviate from the life prescribed for, you will face the wrath of the powerful. You may find the seemingly innocent conversation you have with family, friends, and colleagues as a means to vent your emotions and reveal your true identity. But you can no longer trust them for they might be cadres or informants. Living in constant fear, you hide your identity in the inner part of your mind. With this resolution, you begin to live a double life and join the crowd. This process is called Ketman.

We find the origin of the word Ketman in ancient Persia, which is derived from the Arabic word taqiyaa. These words mean discretion, disguise or concealment. After the Christian force of Spain conquered the Persians, the Muslim religious leaders were forced to makes their followers practice ketman, so as to keep their religion at heart and make it survive the conquest. It was the French secretary and minister named Gobineau who first elaborated the concept of ketman. It was explained in his book called ‘Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia’, which he wrote after living for many years in Persia in the 1850s and 60s.

Gobineau says the people believe: "He who is in possession of truth must not expose his person, his relatives or his reputation to the blindness, the folly, the perversity of those whom it has pleased God to place and maintain in error." He further explains that silence is sometimes not enough, “Not only must one deny one's true opinion, but one is commanded to resort to all ruses in order to deceive one's adversary.” Accordingly, ketman was recognized by the religious as a technique of deceiving your enemy to make your true beliefs survive, at least in your inner world.  

Although Gobineau introduced ketman, it was the Polish poet and author, Czesław Miłosz, who showed its true meaning and various manifestations. In his book, The Captive Mind (1953) he expounded the various ways in which the people of Poland used ketman to deal with the Russian occupation. Miłosz argues that there are numerous ways for ketman to reveal itself. But for now, let us stick to the manifestations that still prevails today.

Among others, Milosz speaks of the Aesthetic Ketman. This refers to “the disparity between man's longings and the sense-satisfactions” offered by the rulers. This pertains primarily to the artists; be it a writer, a poet, or a painter. Since speaking the truth may be costly, the Aesthetic Ketman prefers to show one’s talent in a way that benefits the ideology of the ruling party. This way the artist will be praised by the media and might even be funded. In such a manner, the true passions of the artists slowly die and give rise to a master of disguise.  

Then there is the Professional Ketman, who rationalizes: “since I find myself in circumstances over which I have no control, and since I have but one life and that is fleeting, I should strive to do my best.” For such a person, doing the best means keeping one’s identity concealed. To do the best implies finding an area that will not pose danger. Such a person will abandon any higher goal or passion and strives to find ways of exploiting the system. For instance, as seen in our country, when the government speaks of ‘rent-seeking’ or ‘transformation’, the Professional Ketman will suddenly abandon any previous project and devote solely to the new agenda. The devotion will then be manifested in the various talk shows, seminars, public speeches, and even published writings of the Professional Ketman. In other cases, such a person tries to forget the real problem and dedicate it to writing children’s plays or entertainment. This explains why most programs in the private radio and TV stations focus on entertainment! As Milosz argues, “The object is to establish some special field in which one can release one's energies, exploit one's knowledge and sensibility, and at the same time escape the fate of a functionary.”  

Another common type is known as the Skeptical Ketman. This mostly emanates from the intellectual circle. As Milosz claims, “it helps one conform externally to the obligatory line by allowing for complete cynicism, and therefore for elasticity in adjusting oneself to changing tactics.” The Skeptical Ketman lacks faith in humanity and believes they are not ready for changes, which means it doesn’t matter whether one tries to help people or not. Using this line of arguments, one reaches the conclusion that it is better to changes oneself with the circumstances and at least benefit personally.

When it comes to religious people who refrain from speaking the truth, we find the Metaphysical Ketman. This type argues that things are bad because God is punishing us. Consequently, the situation is accepted as a test of faith and courage. Such is the religious people who refrain from speaking the truth, who became the voice of the government. I think we have such people in every country, we see them in political meetings, we see them exchange warm greetings for media consumption. At times, they even go to the extent of defending the actions of the government by citing some inscription for Holy Books.

Enough about the types of Ketman and more on our current situation. In the Orwellian world, Ketman is necessary for survival. But why do we still have this disguise, while living in a democracy? I think it has been accepted as art even after the fall of communism in many nations. A new player has also joined the league, it’s the politician. For so long, we have seen politicians standing at the podium and promising the people ‘heaven on earth.’ They don’t do it because they fear us, they do it because it has become an art – a display of superiority over the people. Just as a con artist doesn’t regret but feels joy in tricking you, so does the politician. Gobineau argues, “Ketman fills the man who practices it with pride. Thanks to it, a believer raises himself to a permanent state of superiority over the man he deceives.”

Currently, not only the oppressed but also the oppressor uses Ketman. It has developed into an art of seducing others. Such a disguise has become a mark of wit and intelligence. At least, one does it to gain public acceptance because people want to be part of the hype. As Nietzsche said in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’: “No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.” But let me end with a question: wouldn’t it be better to face the truth, even if personal, that to spend our singular existence in disguise?


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

The System and the 'Criminal'

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The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers

A Time to Reflect

The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!

History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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