In these days "Eritrea, end and rebirth of an African dream" by Alessandro Pellegatta, (Besa Publishing House, euro 15)
A beautiful book that reads in one breath, almost a novel, more than a guide, perhaps even a bit of a travel journal. Written as a report. In short, an exciting reading, to do before leaving for Eritrea, to get to know the country, its past and present history. But not only. A book to pack, if you leave for Eritrea. A book full of anecdotes, stories, practical information.
Alessandro Pellegatta:Eritrea is a complex country . To understand it, you need to take a step back in time. First of all know the colonial history and then the contemporary one. One must learn to know the other person who, as Kapuściński says, is complex, sometimes dangerous but helps to find his roots. Today, unfortunately, the culture of diversity and confrontation has replaced fears and ideologies that no longer see or understand.
Q: You say in the book, you are not born writer, it is the journeys that lead you to write. Travel "to get lost", travel "to find yourself". How come it you found in Eritrea?
Traveling for me means getting lost, to find the curiosity for the world. Above all for the South of the world, which certainly represents the future of humanity.
Q: Why Eritrea?
A trip to Eritrea is an extraordinary experience . We must abandon old thoughts and prepare to see a different reality, of an extraordinary beauty. Eritrea is a country of which almost no one speaks.
A small country with an ancient history. From the land of Punt, to the port cities on the Red Sea, in particular Adulis.
Today Eritrea is a country that is seeking its own path for development away from old and new colonialisms. Far from the appetites of the great powers and multinationals. Despite the Red Sea offshore platforms , oil, gas, gold fields ...
And Eritrea is in a strategic position for the passage of oil tankers. Also ahead of it has a hot territory, Yemen, an area of war. The tensions with Djibouti, the only US military outpost in Africa, are also being rekindled. And the tussle goes on with Ethiopia ...
As Pasolini wrote, Eritrea is a completely different earth than we imagine it . And then there are the Eritreans. They have grace, dignity. In this grace of popular gentlemen, Muslims, Christians and Copts are confused. These are nomadic and peasant populations.
In the peasant villages over the centuries there has never been private property. The ownership of the land is collective, and there is a rotation of possession of the fields between the families. The nomads are even more essential, and they always move lightly with their dromedaries. For centuries the Eritreans are unaccustomed to possession, and this gives them a certain detachment from things.
Q: Is Eritrea the center of a complicated geopolitics?
To understand this, we need to know the history of the Red Sea, a sea highway that has allowed the development of the area and commerce. Without the axumite civilization would not have been possible.
Geopolitics is complicated today.
We do not know what's really happening. The Assab area is off limits because there are military posts. Yemen, a very poor country, an area of confrontation between Saudi and Iranian influence, in which there is currently a very serious humanitarian emergency.
Eritrea in 2009 was pointed out as a destabilizing country. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has accused, without proof, Eritrea of supporting Al Shaabab. However, although without evidence, this accusation has become a leit motiv , along with the comparison with North Korea.
In reality, if we go to see what happens in neighboring Ethiopia, we do not find the democratic state that we would like to believe. Instead, there is a very tense situation, of civil war, of ethnic conflicts. A situation of which we never speak.
It is not like that in Eritrea. There are 9 ethnic groups with different languages and cultures. The extraordinary thing about this country is that you walk to Asmara and see the Coptic church, the synagogue, the Catholic church, the Protestant church. There is complete religious tolerance and respect for diversity. There are no devastating conflicts in the Islamic world. There is no terrorism. Al Qaeda was defeated in the bud, stopping the infiltration.
Q: And what role do women have in the country?
The role of women in Eritrea is very important. No one knows that the Eritrean liberation movement was supported by women who were 30 percent of the fighters. Massawa was freed by women. Currently there are local female ministers and governors.
Q: The book reads: " Asmara is everything, except a nightmare place", from which escape. From the country, however, in recent years many young people have come out looking for the future in Europe, why?
Surely the long military service is heavy. The young conscripts can not design a future, a family. This applies to men and women ...
However, the mechanisms of cause and effect of this situation should be understood.
L 'Eritrea is a country that is experiencing a real siege and one perceived.
Q: What do you mean?
The decision on the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia ( nd 1998-2000 conflict ended with the Algiers Agreement favorable to Eritrea for the Badme area) was not enforced. Eritrea continues to be a poor country that suffers from the very strong pressure of Ethiopia, a world power. Unfortunately, the moment of pacification has not yet arrived for Eritrea, which is why, inside, there is a climate of closure and mistrust.
It is a country that has been colonized and re-colonized, which has fought for independence, which does not give up.
I would like to add a consideration on the flight abroad of young Eritreans. Many of those who claim to be Eritreans are not. They have been encouraged to say this for the advantages recognized by the Eritreans. They are boys who do not ask for asylum in the first country, Italy.
The real theme is that excesses of internal repression are described, to then favor the entry of Eritreans into Europe.
The description of Eritrea as a "North Korea" is the result of an injury. The dictatorial countries are different. In Eritrea, there is no cult of personality. Instead there is a great sense of community.
Q: How do you feel an Italian tourist in Eritrea?
There is no hostility towards Italians. In Eritrea there is a physiological predisposition towards the other. Historically, geographically and culturally, the different Eritrean ethnic groups have had to learn to live together. Plateau and lowland. The former has an agricultural and peasant culture that reflects what is the Coptic Christian tradition, the same as Ethiopia. The lowlands, on the other hand, have a nomadic culture which corresponds, for the most part, to the Islamic religion. In the country these two elements coexist peacefully, indeed they tend to integrate.
Traveling in Eritrea means knowing very different realities, Asmara, Keren, Massawa.
Q: How is Massawa, a port city on the Red Sea?
Walking through the streets of Massawa, despite the destruction suffered, still leaves us to imagine the beauty of buildings such as the Bank of Italy. There are small streets lined with buildings constructed of madreporic material. You see Turkish infrastructure, Indian merchant palaces ... with an incredible melting pot .
Even here Italians have been careful in the design of buildings. They respected the local tradition, taking into account what already existed.
Q: Last July 8, Asmara became a UNESCO world heritage site ...
Asmara is the most fascinating city in all of Africa, with a combination of Western, Arab and Islamic elements.
If the realization of Italian colonialism has become a patrimony of humanity, it must be recognized that the Eritreans knew how to preserve its modernity.
Beyond the labels, the buildings of Asmara have an incredible charm and beauty. I honor the Eritreans for having understood and valued a heritage that could have been destroyed. As in Addis Ababa where nothing is left of value, and where the real estate of the Chinese is advancing unstoppable.
The entrance of Asmara in the heritage of Humanity will not be of great importance only from the architectural and urban point, but it will represent a milestone in the history of Eritrea.
Cultural heritage always expresses the culture of a community and connotes it. And the need to rebuild the national identity of Eritrea still remains a priority. In fact, since the end of the nineteenth century, the country has been subjected to processes of conquest, occupation, militarization, colonization and spoliation, including culture.
If we then abandon any ideological prejudice, we must also say, as Aldo Rossi stated, that he made more architecture, and good architecture, the fascist regime in the colonies than in the last years of republican Italy ...
Eritrea has been a veritable gem of experimentation. Asmara lived under the Italian colonial occupation a period of extraordinary modernization, especially in the Thirties with the communication between the port of Massawa and the capital.
Asmara became a "little Rome" at that point. Extraordinary architects who could not express their potential at home arrived in Asmara and built over four thousand buildings, passing from Decò to Cubism, from Futurism to Rationalism, both in public and private buildings.
Behind the result achieved by Asmara Unesco heritage there was a great job. Dozens of engineers, architects, surveyors, the municipality of Asmara, people I met, all very smart.
Now we must also worry about Massawa. A city that has been bombed by Ethiopian aviation and still bears the heavy signs of the war.
Q: In your travel to Eritrea what situations did you see outside the capital?
Very different situations between cities and countryside.
The real problem of Eritrea is the aftermath of the long struggle for liberation ( ed. 1961-1991) . A war that left devastation and deforestation, allowing the desert to advance. Keren had already begun a process of desertification at the end of the nineteenth century, because the peasants to drive away the birds that were going to eat in the hard plantations, lit fires. So only the baobabs remained, trees with a strong peel.
Then deforestation was caused by the need to heat up, then cut the wood. And finally the war with Ethiopia has come.
Eritrean salvation, however, was its traditional ability, like the adulitans and the axumites, to preserve water.
Think of the daily struggle of Eritrean peasants, with little mechanical means and low electricity. They fight to get fruits from the land facing the aggression of the desert and drought.
Another point in favor of Eritrea that is useful to know is the defeat of malaria. Health protections have increased and improved. Although there is still much to be done to protect the weaker sections of the population, especially children.
Q: The book also talks about the Eritrean archaeological sites ...
Yes, in particular of Adulis and the axumite cities on the Eritrean plateau.
Few people know that the development of the Axumite kingdom has been made possible by the maritime exchanges of the port of Adulis. The port was in fact connected to Axum through caravan routes that went up the Haddas and Komailé courses and, with a difference in height of over 2,000 meters, reached the axumite towns on the Qohaito plateau. From here the tracks crossed the Ethiopian Tigray passing near the monastery of Debra Damo and Yeha. Finally, arriving in the capital of the Axumite Empire made famous, since the ancient world, by its spectacular stele.
The Ethiopian invasion conducted in this area has brought damage, looting and devastation to both the archaeological and naturalistic heritage. Many monumental sycamores were shot down by Ethiopian soldiers for pure contempt. The sycamore is in fact sacred and symbolic in all of Eritrea, since for centuries public debates have been held under its foliage, sentences are issued and the population is gathered.
But the violence was not limited to the natural elements. They also fought against the archaeological heritage of the Eritrean plateau. Senafe was destroyed and, with it, sacked and ruined the ancient axumite city of Matara where a precious stele was detonated by placing an explosive at its base.
Many artefacts looted by Ethiopians are still today in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopians fought to get back the Axum stele from Italy, but so far they have not given Eritrea back what was subtracted from Matara.
Unfortunately, these cities are on the border with Ethiopia, currently militarized, so it is difficult to go there.
Q: In the book I found the description of arrival at Asmara very beautiful. From the airport to the Hamasien hotel ...
I arrived in Asmara at night, a misty atmosphere, dark. The city, 2,350 meters above sea level, presented itself with clear sky and stars. Fantastic. After the airport, after one, two roundabouts you arrive in front of an airplane-shaped building. At that point it seems to be in a painting by Sironi or De Chirico, in those symbolic outskirts.
Instead it is the Fiat Tagliero service station . And one wonders how they make their wings up. And they've been there for about 70 years ...
Then we arrive at the Hamasien, a hotel of the 1920s with a Tyrolean style dome and here the obligatory question is: "but where did I happen"? If there were no pepper trees it could be Bavaria ...
The Hamasien is a hotel now almost decrepit, a former CIAAO hotel, ( ndr Italian Company Hotels East Africa) with 80 rooms and a great charm. A particular suggestion.
Q: What can you appreciate and what should not be expected?
If the search is the comfort of a 7-star hotel, we're not there. But the charm of living in a hotel of colonial architecture, see the sky from the windows in Lombard style ... the feeling that can give a building like this ... is priceless.
We find ourselves in a timeless dimension. Even if then, maybe, the hot water is missing ....
The Hamasien is also in the neighborhood of the cottages, the old center of European residences, full of bougainvillea, flowers, palm trees.
Asmara is an enjoyable city, without skyscrapers, where everything has remained on a human scale.
The modernity of Asmara lies in this absence of skyscrapers, everything is very soft, quiet. You walk day and night without any disturbance.
I have visited many cities, none like Asmara. Asmara is truly a gem.
Walking through the center you arrive in its pretty rooms, such as Bar Vittoria, where you can drink cappuccino or coffee. It's incredible. A thousand miles away from home is like being at home. On the way it happens to meet the children of old ascari, people who want to converse in Italian. For the pleasure of communicating, knowing, remembering.
I'm going back to say, it feels like home.
I have experienced many flash backs. I saw our beautiful Italy in the fifties. Going to Asmara means finding a city that still has a strong Italian presence: the Italian House, the Embassy, the legendary library of the Pavonian Fathers. A library that is one of the most important in Africa. Unique if you are looking for books on the colonial experience. I was able to experience it, sitting in an old-fashioned setting where I could consult books that would be scattered throughout Italy in the most prestigious libraries. A heritage that deserves to be known and valued.
This is why I think that the entry of Asmara into the Unesco heritage will lead to an acceleration in development, including cultural development. Only I hope that the Eritreans can manage it because a new colonialism, unfortunately, is always possible.
Q: So Asmara is a "city on a human scale", clean, quiet, safe, hospitable ...
Absolutely yes. The Eritreans then have a great sense of dignity, of decorum. To understand how it is Asmara you have to get on public transport, on a bus. The ordered crowd waits in line, with education. We have a lot to learn. Beginning with nobility of mind.
Q: To finish, without spoiling the book, a mention of the Dahlak Islands. You write "dry, desolate, without shadow", then the tourist might wonder, why go there?
Going to Dahlak is a unique experience for those who love the wild and the true nature.
The Dahlaks have nothing to do with Sharm El Sheik, there is no nightlife. But they are wonderful islands for the relationship you can have with the sea and with nature.
Of course you have to sleep in a tent, bring water, fish to eat ...
It is fascinating to think that each of these islands once had its own cistern for water and that it was used for dry farming. The nocturnal humidity, the sea dew, that is, were used to generate water, in order to cultivate.
We think of the great climatic changes. In Pantelleria, to say, there is the same arid colture of the Dahlak Islands. Today it is essential to know precisely these techniques, resources that will become increasingly necessary. I would add that at Dahlak Kebir, the largest island, there is a wonderful necropolis, a must see. The Dahlaks are also a place in the history of our navy.
Q: What to do to go to Eritrea and to Dahlak?
Apply for a visa in good time and rely on a tour operator. For the Dahlak Islands the indispensable condition is to love and respect nature and the sea ...