Walking around the empty streets of downtown Asmara on a Sunday afternoon, you could almost imagine yourself in a small Italian town. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to imagine yourself in a small Italian town in the 1970s, instead (although, how would I know what that looked like? but that’s how I imagine it anyway).
There are tiny vintage Fiat 500s tugging down the road next to old, hunched-over men with walking canes and fedoras strolling past intricately built apartment buildings and churches. Then you take a second look around and a pin bursts your beautiful Italian fantasy – everything is falling apart. The buildings are crumbling, windows are shattered, cars are sputtering, and the men seem to be missing a leg, or some fingers, or an eye. After a long and disabling war with Ethiopia, instead of moving forward, Eritrea seems to be a stuck in a different time. Everyone here seems to know loss; everyone seems to have a martyr in the family.
The locals didn’t seem to feel the same strange sense of going through a time machine, or going into the Twilight Zone, as I did. Asmarinos walk around, laughing, arm-in-arm. They sit outside tiny cafes and drink macchiatos and shout to their friends across the street. It’s aesthetically beautiful: the deteriorating pastel art deco buildings are surrounded by the grinning faces of healthy youth, beautiful gardens with overgrown flowers, and the friendliest stray dogs you’ll ever meet. And amongst all of this are the children who come up and tug your shirt hem, whining “money, money” or sometimes even squinting their eyes at you and yelling, “China, china!”. It’s a city of too many contradictions; too many disparities between the beautiful and the uncomfortable. But this city’s beauty is also heartbreaking at the same time, because it’s a constant reminder of the long history of colonization.
Venture outside of this small capital city and the mountains are covered with shacks made from mud and stones, with roofs thatched from who knows what, and covered in sheet metal or plastic. These tiny huts are sprinkled around the lush mountain tops, mixed with a few cafes, churches, donkeys, and camels.
The city of Asmara seems like a different planet when you enter from the mountain roads outside. The colonizers of the 1930s had no reservations turning the city into their own tribute to Italy. Most of the city was built between 1935 and 1941, so the Italians managed to build this whole city-wide tribute to themselves in just six years. It’s a playground of modernist architecture: the Art Deco Cinema Impero, the “Cubist” Africa Pension, the beautiful Orthodox Cathedral, the former Opera House, the futuristic Fiat Tangliero garage, the neo-romanesque Roman Catholic Cathedral and the neoclassical Governor’s Palace are all famous sites in Asmara. Just driving through some side streets, you’re surrounded by beautiful Italian colonial villas and mansions.
Despite Italy losing its colony to the British in 1941, they left a lot of their own culture behind, and their lasting tribute to their colonizations still stands (even if it is slowly falling apart). From the old cars that should probably be in museums, to a favorite Italian past time and sport – cycling, Eritrean culture still screams “Italia!”
Pasta and pizza are two favorite foods here, followed by gelato for dessert. Even the Tigrinya word for “ice cream” is “gelato.” That’s not the only way that Italian has penetrated the local language. How do you say goodbye here? Ciao. Just walking around Asmara you’ll hear, “come stai?,” “andiamo,” “ciao, bella!” and obviously “beera.” On any given day, an older gentleman might start speaking to you in Italian and many younger locals speak it fluently too, having attended the Italian school.
How many times we’ve had to pull over the car to avoid a stampede of cows. Camels and donkeys and horses are whipped while hauling bags of bread and grains and rice over dirt roads. The Medebr market is full of old metal trash, aromatic spices, and piles of garbage. How can a city like this be so beautiful and entrancing, yet so dark, at the same time?
Even after my 8 weeks in Eritrea came to an end, I still have so many unanswered questions and a lot of confusion about this city. Some things don’t make sense, and some things make so much sense that they force a heavy weight upon your shoulders as you walk through the streets.