"Now," said the laughing young woman, "you must recite a poem for me."
The request shouldn't have surprised me. The person who made it, Saba Kidane, is a celebrity among her fellow Eritreans, known for passionate, songlike performances of her poetry. Earlier in the day, standing beneath a flowering jacaranda tree in the garden of my pensione, this bright-eyed 26-year-old with cropped hair and a long blue dress had recited some poems for me. Thrusting her arms out in bold gestures, she let her eyes drop and then flash open, beaming as if she'd gone up in a hot-air balloon and couldn't believe what was unfurling below her.
But it was late now, and after an evening of exploring Asmara, Eritrea's capital city, the only imperative I felt was to climb into bed. Besides, standing in a dark alley between two parked cars, I couldn't think of a single verse. "We don't really memorize poems in America," I began lamely, mentally racing through "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" to see if I could remember it. I couldn't. So I shrugged and smiled.
She smiled back and held her ground.
I turned to Jim, my boyfriend, who couldn't come up with a poem either, but we finally admitted to knowing some songs. Saba swayed encouragingly as we muddled through a few lyrics by a musician we knew back in New York. After we finished, she grabbed our hands and said, "Good, now we'll sing a song together." Which is how, on a mild, blossom-scented night, I came to be belting out a hearty rendition of "We Are the World," a song that I had never liked, but which suddenly felt like the perfect anthem to be singing, clasping hands in a circle in Africa's newest nation.
I had first heard of Saba, and Eritrea—located on Africa's Red Sea coast—3‰ years ago. Saba had been invited to perform at a poetry conference in Manhattan but was denied a visitor's visa. Eritrea had just emerged from the Armed Struggle, a brutal 30-year war of independence with Ethiopia that had ended in 1991 and flared up again from 1998 until 2000. The American consul thought that if Saba entered the U.S.A., she'd never return home.
To those who knew her, that was preposterous; like many Eritreans, Saba was ecstatic about her country's new independence and its prospects as a democratic state. Their improbable victory over the better-equipped Ethiopians had required the participation of all Eritreans: doctors, mechanics, writers, and artists had brought their skills to the fighters' mountain hideouts. Eritrean women played a key role, putting their traditional domestic duties on hold to fight alongside the men. Saba had tried to join them; at 13 she added three years to her age and entered the army, missing combat by a few months. She became a poet instead.
These days she walks through Asmara with a bit of a swagger. Linking her arm through mine, she sweeps down palm-lined Liberation Avenue, Asmara's main artery, for the evening passeggiata. We stroll by cafés where Asmarinos sip beer and whiskey and pass throngs of young women in jeans and ponytails, old women in gauzy white netsala cloth, and men in jackets tailored with Italian flair. It is not a quick walk; we are stopped every few feet by friends of Saba, who shake our hands and catch up on gossip. In a country of 4.4 million, it's easy to have friends in high places. "He's the goalie for our national team," she says, pulling a burly young soccer star over for a hug. She introduces another young man in a polo shirt as the author of the Tigrinya-to-English language primer Jim and I bought when we arrived.
As it happens, we don't need to learn much Tigrinya. Asmara is full of English speakers, including friendly strangers who offer help with directions. But we don't need much help navigating the city, either; it's compact and easy to explore on foot, and petty crime is almost unheard of, whether you're wandering through quiet residential streets or exploring the labyrinthine open markets where vendors sell vegetables, spices, furniture, ceramic pots, and baskets.
At one market, a boy sits behind a tangle of flimsy sandals made from old tires. It's hard to believe it when you see Eritrea's rocky terrain, but these were what the Eritreans wore to fight the Armed Struggle. Murals on streets and inside public buildings pay romantic homage to the ragtag soldiers who marched hundreds of miles and lived in underground caves while fighting the U.S.- and, later, Soviet-backed Ethiopians. Since then, their sandals have become a symbol of independence; a giant sculpture of them rises over one of Asmara's main squares.
If Eritrea is shaped like the profile of an elephant without ears, then Asmara is the elephant's eye. It sits atop a 7,700-foot plateau, which keeps the air pleasant, if thin—walking uphill leaves us in breathless awe of the young men in cycling jerseys pedaling around the hilly terrain. A holdover from Eritrea's 50-odd years as an Italian colony, bicycle racing is hugely popular, and thousands turn out for the annual Giro d'Eritrea each spring. The Italians also left culinary legacies, like the fragrant cappuccinos we drink, topped with delicate tufts of foam. Even primitive roadside teahouses are equipped with solid espresso machines, some dating to the colonial era. Italian cuisine and Eritrean food complement each other; at restaurants you have your choice of using injera, a spongy, fermented crêpe, to scoop up spicy chicken stew, grilled beef strips, and sautéed collard greens, or sinking a fork into tender layers of lasagna and creamy cannelloni.
It's not surprising that Eritreans are good at absorbing other cultureswhen you consider the melting pot they live in: the country has nine ethnic groups and languages and is almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. During the war, religious and ethnic differences were set aside in favor of a united independence movement. Asmara's Grand Mosque sits placidly between the main Orthodox and Catholic churches and near a synagogue. (The Jewish community is so small, however, that the synagogue is only opened upon request.) A Muslim-owned restaurant we ate in had no problem with its customers bringing in beer from the Christian-owned shop next door.
Instead, tensions are directed toward Ethiopia; Eritrea remains on high alert for an attack from its southern neighbor, and the shaky cease-fire is enforced by 5,000 UN peacekeepers. But there are also fears that this nascent democracy may be turning more dictatorial. In September 2001 the independent press was shut down and several journalists were arrested, along with 11 politicians who had signed a letter calling for implementation of the 1997 constitution (the detainees have never been charged, and Human Rights Watch has protested their detention). Young people cannot leave the country until they have completed their military service, but conscription can stretch out indefinitely; non-mainstream religions have been curtailed; and political parties other than the government-approved People's Front for Democracy and Justice have been banned. A government official assured me that these "growing pains" are temporary, and for now the ruling party still enjoys a reserve of goodwill, but some observers wonder how long this feeling will endure.
For visitors, however, the mood in Asmara is one of openness and relief that peace has come at last. There is also a sense of wonder that this refreshingly low-rise city is garnering international attention as one of the world's unheralded architectural wonders. UNESCO is considering declaring the city a World Heritage Site; the World Bank has approved a $5 million loan to help preserve Eritrean architecture and archaeology; and last year, a handsome coffee-table book was published on Asmara's Modernist buildings.