Published: April 2009
By Tara Bahrampour
After a 30-year war of independence, this small East African nation is luring travelers with its Modernist architecture, 750 miles of undeveloped coastline, and the best cappuccino south of Italy. <b>Tara Bahrampour</b> reports on what may be Africa's next destination
"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.
When the Italians arrived in the 1880's, Asmara consisted of little more than a few huts along a river. The colonists built a Catholic church with a red brick campanile and a main street lined with palm trees. Then, in the 1930's, the tiny city bloomed into a playground of Italian Modernism.
"Mussolini decided that he was going to establish a second Roman Empire and thought he'd start it here," says Naigzy Gebremedhin, a dapper man with a white goatee who heads the country's Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project (CARP).
Under Il Duce, Italian architects let their imaginations soar. They built a city of streamlined contours: here a factory with an illuminated glass tower, there a cinema with a retractable roof, there a bar with a triangular "prow" and round portholes. Some architects adhered to classical fascist lines, but many adopted futuristic themes, designing buildings that resembled locomotives, planes, or boats. Walking through the city, we encounter architectural grace notes everywhere, from the aluminum piping along a marble café counter to a spiral staircase that, from below, looks like the crown of a conch shell.
The Modernist boom lasted until World War II, when the British ousted the Italians. Luckily, during the Armed Struggle Asmara experienced little demolition—or new construction. Like Havana, it became a city of faded beauties, threatened by decay but also protected from the soulless, boxlike developments that have overtaken so many Third World cities.
Inevitably, soulless boxes began sprouting in Asmara once the war ended. A plan to demolish one block of the historic center and erect a 14-story tower was averted after protest by preservationists, but other projects went ahead, such as a sprawling nine-story office building (a colossus for Asmara) that dwarfs the finely wrought Modernist buildings nearby. "This was a wake-up call," says Naigzy. In 2001, CARP created a historic zone and halted all development there until preservation guidelines were drawn up. The embargo ends later this year.
As a result, walking through Asmara still feels oddly like strolling through a midsize European city on the eve of World War II. There are few cars, and the villas and apartment buildings have room to breathe. Naigzy's passion for the city is infectious; he sighs rapturously at an old Alfa Romeo office being converted into an arts center, and he cringes and mutters "Leprous, leprous building!" at a stone wall painted a shiny black and white. He proudly shows us what is perhaps Asmara's most famous structure: the Fiat Tagliero. A former petrol station, it was built in 1938 to resemble an airplane, with a rounded glass-paneled nose and cantilevered white wings.
When the government asked Naigzy to head CARP, the job posed difficult questions. Some people wanted to remove all colonial-era buildings. "Is this really Eritrean?Is it fascist?Is it Italian?" Naigzy asks, stopping at a villa with a grand curved entryway and clean steel balconies. "I am at peace with myself. There may have been a few Italian architects overseeing it, but it was the sweat and blood of Eritreans that built this."
Judging from the literature I pick up at the Ministry of Tourism, Eritrea is eager for visitors. Glossy brochures show prehistoric cave paintings, spectacular mountains, ancient archaeological sites, and a pristine coastline with 300islands. But the government does not seem to have thought through coastal development as carefully as it has architectural preservation. Offering me sweet tea, the minister of tourism tells me that Eritrea's door is open for any investor to build anything, anywhere along the coast. A few areas, including the country's last virgin forest, are marked for protection, she says, but the coast and many islands are available to the highest bidders.
Eritrea has yet to excavate promising archaeological sites such as the ancient port of Adulis and the mountaintop city of Quhaito. However, one development already attracting travelers from abroad is the Eritrean Railway. Built by the Italians, it used to crisscross the country, but during the Armed Struggle the tracks were pulled up to build trenches. Once peace was declared, retired railway workers in their seventies, eighties, and nineties—the only people old enough to remember how it all worked—emerged from retirement and began to refurbish the aged locomotives and restore the tracks.
British and German railway buffs, obsessed with the steam engines that most industrialized countries junked decades ago, make pilgrimages here each year. According to Amanuel Ghebreselassie, manager of the Eritrean Railways Rehabilitation Project, they arrive at the airport in a frenzy. "Without going to sleep they just wash and come straight to the train yard and say 'Where is the locomotive?'" he says, laughing.
We see why when we take our own ride, in an open car propelled by an old Soviet diesel truck. The track hugs the mountains or breaks across them with tunnels and bridges that even today are marvels. We stand at the helm, exhilarated. Fog drops down the mountain and chills the eucalyptus-scented air. Children wave from the embankments, and a teenage boy races along till we let him on, then shyly wedges up front with us to watch the cliffs shear off into oblivion.
The city of Massawa looks like an elaborate wedding cake from afar, with cream-colored mosques and Moorish houses. When we arrive at midday, its pointed arches and carved balconies shimmer in the heat. At our hotel, families are splashing around in the Red Sea. We chat with an anthropologist from Asmara and an Eritrean businessman who now lives in Virginia. The anthropologist's young son squeals delightedly as a local man in a turban leads him around the beach on a camel. Not until after dark does anyone muster the energy to go into town.
Nighttime is when Massawa awakens. The city was built by the Ottomans on a small island connected to the mainland by causeways; most of its buildings were constructed from coral blocks. The coral held up beautifully for centuries, unaffected by the humid salt air; then, in 1990, Ethiopian bombers accomplished what the elements could not. Now many buildings show gaping holes and piles of pulverized coral. CARP plans to rebuild part of the old section, and developers have their own plans for large resorts with casinos and tennis courts, which could start springing up as early as next year.
Today, though, Massawa exudes a languid small-town atmosphere. After a meal of buttery red snapper from an outdoor restaurant's tandoori oven, we wander the narrow, sandy alleyways. Crows caw above the palm trees. "Allah-u-akbar" rises from the spires. Women in colored robes braid each other's hair and slow-cook coffee on little braziers. "Want a braid?" one asks. Another invites us into her house, a beautiful, two-story coral structure. She looks at the second floor ceiling and throws up her hands; it is blasted away. "But I'm lucky," she says with a soft smile, indicating her still-intact rooms. Beyond the broken arches, the moon rises behind a silver filigree of clouds.
"You're driving to Aseb?"
Our Eritrean friends' eyebrows are raised in disbelief—but also approval. Eritrea is small, but most people here have never driven down the coast to its southernmost port. This is partly because, until recently, there wasn't a drive to be made. The coastal road was completed this year and it requires an SUV. For us it also requires two guides—one who speaks English and Tigrinya, and another who speaks Tigrinya and Afar, the local language. Abandoning thoughts of hotels, phones, restaurants, or toilets, we set off down the elephant's trunk for a two-day journey through Dankalia, billed as one of the hottest and most inhospitable regions on earth.
It is also one of the most spectacular. If it sounds shocking to be able to find 750 miles of untouched coastline anywhere in the world, it is all the more so when that coastline is graced with white sand beaches, limpid water, green cliffs inhabited by baboons and eagles, and pristine coral reefs that shimmer with tropical fish. Every half-hour the horizon transforms itself; a windswept desert dotted with camels and acacia trees gives way to a grassy yellow plain populated by ostriches and then to a stark lavascape that spills down to the sea, its blackened peaks rising in sharp relief against the turquoise water.
Afar villages consist of a few twig huts. The men fish and the women tend to children and livestock, dressed in the vibrant sarongs their ancestors wore. But if the war didn't have much obvious effect here, the new road will. Resorts are planned for some of the most beautiful coastal spots, and some villagers have already moved their huts from the beaches to the roadside in anticipation of the traffic that will arrive. Ishmael, a village leader who wears a loincloth and a thick, curved dagger at his hip, also wears mirrored sunglasses and has opened a "café" along the road. For now, it sells only Coke, and the cars that pass each day can probably be counted on one hand, but the entrepreneurial spirit is willing.
In Beylul, an oasis of palms, we stop to buy douma, a sweet, fermented palm liquor, sold by boys who tap it from the trees. In a spot called Askoma, we swim at an otherworldly crossing of volcano and sea. In a small hut in the stark desert village of Soroito, we drink hot tea with three generations of Afar women. Twenty-year-old Aisha, a slim girl whose smooth cheeks are striped with ceremonial scars and whose front teeth are filed into sharp points, stands with a year-old baby slung on one arm as we talk.
I ask Aisha and her mother whether they are worried about their traditional way of life being lost when the resorts come. They shake their heads emphatically, saying the resorts will bring jobs. I don't like to imagine Aisha in a crisp maid's uniform. Still, I get the feeling that the Afar, a fiercely independent group known to make good use of their daggers, will not be pushovers for the arriving visitors. When I ask what message they'd like to send to outsiders, a sweet old woman begins a speech that soon becomes a diatribe. Our translator turns to us. "She says white people always come here with their cameras and notebooks and ask questions. They always promise to send the pictures to us but they never do. My message to them is to stop coming here to take pictures if they're not going to send them." The translator adds, "She's right."
We finish our tea. Aisha kisses my hand and I kiss hers. We take a few pictures, and promise to send them.
The weather in Eritrea is at its best in the fall and spring, when it's warm enough to swim but not too hot or rainy. For day trips and longer excursions, contact Travel House International (291-1/201-881; firstname.lastname@example.org). Owner Solomon Abraha is an expert on Asmara, and his colleague Tedros can lead you through the rest of the country. Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) and Eritrean Airlines (www.ertra.com) fly to Asmara from key European cities.
WHERE TO STAY
A high-end hotel with marble bathrooms and tennis courts, between the airport and the city. DOUBLES FROM $162. WARSAY AVE., ASMARA; 291-1/150-400; www.ichotelsgroup.com
Centrally located on a tree-lined street, this spare 50-room hotel has 1960's décor and balconies with garden and city views. DOUBLES FROM $58. 30 BELEZA ST., ASMARA; 291-1/123-222
A former mayoral villa with colonial charm and a beautiful garden. Be warned: bathrooms are shared. DOUBLES FROM $10. 25 KESKESE ST., ASMARA; 291-1/121-436
WHERE TO EAT
Ristorante da Silla
This new restaurant, co-owned by a young Eritrean man who lived in Italy, does justice to the cuisine of both countries. The lasagna melts in your mouth. DINNER FOR TWO $32. 195 SIXTH ST. (END OF LIBERATION AVE.), ASMARA; 291-1/121-909
Asmarinos flock to Ghidey Abraha's house for an array of stews and salads, served with home-brewed mead. DINNER FOR TWO $30. 44 RAHAITA ST., ASMARA; 291-1/124-950
The menu here has everything from spaghetti to injera (spongy bread) served with zigny (a spicy meat stew).
DINNER FOR TWO $15. 48 SEMAETAT ST., ASMARA; 291-1/117-965
Fresh fish Yemeni-style—sprinkled with berbere spices, cooked in a tandoor oven, and served with chapatis. DINNER FOR TWO $10. END OF THE MAIN ROAD, MASSAWA; 291-1/552-187
Who Said Merhawi Is Dead? Edited by Charles Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash (Hedri Publishers, Asmara).
Translations of contemporary Eritrean poetry, including works by Saba Kidane.
Asmara, Africa's Secret Modernist City, by Naigzy Gebremedhin, et al. (Merrell Publishers).
A coffee-table book that surveys the capital's striking 1930's architecture.
Two Weeks in the Trenches, by Alemseged Tesfai (Red Sea Press).
Short stories about rural life in Eritrea, plays about life under Ethiopian occupation, and a moving account of the writer's experiences during the war.