Let’s start with one of my favorite songs: “Asmera Shkor, Asmera Bella, men kwedadera!” by Aaron Abraham. It roughly translates to “Nothing compares to you, sweet, beautiful Asmara”. Love knows no bounds, indeed. Nothing compares to the one you love most. It is poetry and the words are simply meant to express deep affection for a place and what it stands for – at least ideally. Now, does one fall in love merely with the brick-and-mortar buildings that make up a city, a town or a village, or is there more to it than that? Do the other aspects matter more? You know … the unique sounds and smells; the way people talk, wave and smile; the taste of a special treat from the corner store; the way a taxi driver looks at you if you slam the passenger door too hard? These are some of the intangibles that make up the vibes of a place, the spirit of a city; and Asmara, the city we Eritreans idealize and romanticize so much, may have a thing or two to teach us after all about the value of capturing this metropolitan spirit and use to build a better nation.
To say that we are at a critical juncture in the history of our young nation would be an understatement. As the regime crumbles at the height of its moral stagnation, utter arrogance and ideological bankruptcy, the winds of change are upon us. The opposition camp has never looked more hopeful and even more energized, though a cohesive and united voice and an inspiring leadership has yet to materialize. The dictatorial regime is counting on everything at its disposal to stay in power, weather the storm, buy more time and postpone the inevitable. It will use all its network of media, financial and political tentacles (propaganda, extortion and intimidation to be exact) to try and stay one step ahead of the winds of an impending revolution. But above all else, it will count on one thing: the fact that the opposition movement will not be united enough to be a viable alternative.
Let’s face it. The goal of the opposition camp should never be about creating a type of movement the Hgdefites would call united, which is basically the surrendering of individuality and personal freedoms to one cult leader and follow him mindlessly into oblivion. Heck no! What we are aiming at is the diversity of ideas and unity of purpose. The purpose of a revolution is nothing short of demolishing the old and the decayed and erecting a fresh and hopeful system in its place. Isaias Afworki and his cohorts know that they are standing atop of decaying and crumbling system, but they are also hoping that the rest of us do not have what it takes to unite around an idea, support each other, build trust, forgive transgressions, and complement each others strengths and weaknesses.
Can we get to that kind of synergy and quickly? You bet! But we all have to be ready to loosen-up a little and allow trust to take root; give a little, take a little and meet in the middle; focus a little more on the here and now and a little less on the past and gone; and last but not least, we ought to be ready to be a little more cosmopolitan and a little less provincial. To put it simply, to be provincial or parochial is to restrict your worldview and scope to a narrow sector. When it comes to seeking a solution for a nation with a complicated history and diversity such as that of Eritrea, none of us can afford to be regional, provincial and parochial about it. The truth is, all of us can proudly trace our roots to a particular religion, region, province, sub-zone, village, language, ancestry, custom, history and political affiliation.
On the other hand, to be cosmopolitan is to move beyond these attributes and to be familiar with and be able to comfortably associate with diverse set of people, cultures and places. Nationalism should be able to balance these dualities and recognize that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Activists should feel comfortable raising issues pertaining to their particular region, culture, language and customs (who else is going to raise it for them, after all?) and yet, the proposed solutions also need to be accommodating to the rest of their compatriots. Better yet, in an ever shrinking and globalized world where smaller third world countries are being reduced to the level of villages, we are left with little choice but to stand united, bound with one national identity giving us commonality and harmony. This should be a far cry from the PFDJ’s Hade Lbi, Hade Hzbi, which is an attempt to erase personal identities in lieu of creating allegiance to one man and his ideology. Instead, it should be about respectfully listening to each other’s fears, concerns, aspirations and dreams and learning that one group can not advance at the expense of another; and in this rickety boat called Eritrea, we are all on it together – sail, swim or sink.
Now, how on earth are we going to create such utopia and in time to create a united front against our despot? Well, it certainly does not have to be that perfect and certainly not such a dreamland. In this issue of the Flipside, I will argue that we already have such a place, such as state of mind, which can be claimed to belong to everyone, yet to no one; such a metropolis of diversity, variety and tolerance, where individuality and personality matter more than other tribal identities. That beautiful place is called Asmara. Yes, “Asmera Shkor, Asmera Bella, men kwedadera!” Am I kidding you? No, no… but you have to get into the spirit of Asmara, the Asmara state of mind, if you will, to understand it. So please go ahead, indulge me and go with the flow; I promise you this hodgepodge will make sense.
Of Cities and Villages
Let me make one thing clear though. I understand there are at least two problems with this claim. First, one might argue that this is a bigheaded and boastful view which arrogantly claims there is no other city that compares to Asmara. Second, it might also sound so exclusive and limiting. Actually, it is to the contrary. A lot gets lost if we literally translate it into “Nothing compares to you, sweet, beautiful Asmara” or if we make it about the place and not the people. That would be to miss the point. Little Asmara is indeed no London, LA, Vancouver, Dubai, Las Vegas, Chicago or Frankfurt. What we are talking about is the unique culture of Asmara and its “residents” who affectionately call each other Asmarinos.
Notice the “residents” in quotation marks? You see, not everyone who is born or raised in Asmara automatically becomes Asmarino – for that label is a badge of honor bestowed upon those who carry themselves up to standards of the unwritten but well known principles. Therefore, even those who have never been to Asmara can have Asmarino attributes (we will get to those shortly). Asmara the place is just a backdrop to the attitudes that are expected one to have when they associate themselves with the city. There are many aspects to these attitudes, but one key feature is that the notion of “Adi” or “village” has no place in Asmara (no pun intended). A neighbor, a friend, a colleague, a student, a merchant is treated almost entirely based on merit. Tribalism and regionalism (or villagism) are all frowned upon, as is any sort of fanaticism; religious or otherwise. So, would it be wrong to rally around this modern, hip, civilized and forward looking attitude when we gather around round tables and discuss our issues? Especially at this critical juncture in our history when we need to huddle in tight circles and motivate each other, we badly need the spirit of Asmara, our largest city, to ground us and pull us toward each other.
Many great songs have honored Asmara; from Yemane Baria’s lamentations “kemeAlka Hawey, Ebay nay asmera” and “baburey baburey chekan amora, abey gedifkyom meteabytey qolEu asmera” to Alamin Abdeletif’s “dHan kuni aba Shawl”. The great songs are about people, about friends and about neighborhoods. The truth is, the same can be said about any city, any town. At the end of the day, we are all from somewhere. Our hometowns help shape our world outlook and we in return shape the characteristics of the villages, towns and cities we live in. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. Even if one grew up in any of the shanty towns or mud and straw hut laden villages in Eritrea, we all have fond memories of the place we called home. May be all the songs can be summed up in Joe Cocker’s more humble classic: “You Are So Beautiful … to me”.
As someone who grew up in Asmara (clue: Asmarinos never say they are Asmarino; that is for others to decide), my opinions are definitely biased. But lest we lose track of the main point of this article, it is about looking at the issues facing our entire country and trying to solve them in a more cooperative spirit and genuine camaraderie that pays homage to the core culture of our capital city. We all have ancestral villages and belong to one of the ethnic, religious or linguistic groups; no one can erase that. The majority of Eritreans still live in rural areas. Very likely, every person who lives in Asmara or other major town has their kin still living in the countryside, leading desperately poor farming or pastoral lives. Our lives are so intertwined, there is no ‘us’ versus ‘them’ here. After all, city residents (PFDJ likes to call them “inhabitants”) are villagers themselves who ended up in cities perhaps looking for better opportunities. As they dust off their clothes and adapt to the hustle and bustle of a city, they are bound to give up a lot of their biases and blend into a more urban and metropolitan lifestyle. Before they know it, they have produced kids who can barely name their great grandfather; hardly pronounce the name of the very villages their own parents where born; tell the difference between a mule and a horse or between a cow and an ox. (Seriously, I wouldn’t ask Asmarinos to milk any farm animal!)
Naturally, in cities, kids grow up knowing their neighbors and schoolmates better than their own blood relatives who don’t live nearby. As diverse people get to know each other and lifelong friendships are cemented, the backgrounds that separate them become less important.
For better or worse, youngsters typically tend to value independent-thinking and counter culture and they generally hold more liberal and less conservative outlook. The traditional value or “Adi” attitude valued more by parents than their children gives way to some city-centric relationships which is less focused on kinship, tribe, religion and language. Of course, we can not assume all these happen uniformly and seamlessly. We also have to consider the fact that Asmara does not equally represented all of Eritrea’s ethnic groups. But the argument remains: If we want to chart a road that looks beyond our current predicament, beyond the dictatorship that has crippled our country, beyond the mistrust that lingers in the opposition camp, the spirit of Asmara is our best hope. Yes, Asmara, where most people care less about your background and which group you represent and a lot more about what kind of person you are and what you have to contribute.
That is exactly what most people love about Asmara; not the pseudo superiority inducing “Italianesque” features of the city that may help some people cover their own inferiority complex. Personally, I am not too crazy about the oft too exaggerated “art deco” nature of the city – though I love Cathedrale and the Fiat building as much as the next guy. But no doubt, people matter more than places. What should be treasured above all else is what most of us take for granted: the organic and genuine harmony among the city’s residents (not inhabitants, dammit!) and especially among its young, progressive hipsters who have inadvertently created a sub culture that the rest of the country can benefit from. That is what we celebrate when we happily jump to “Asmera Shkor, Asmera Bella, men kwedadera!”
Needless to say, Asmara is now controlled by neo-communists who despise the Asmarino culture. The ethos from the mountains of Sahel and streets of Asmara simply don’t mesh well. The Sahel culture which was used to instill strict discipline in a guerilla army that was tasked with the burden of winning a protracted war against a much better armed and financed enemy, outlived its usefulness and after independence went on to mold all of Eritrea’s customs and values in its image. What Eritrea needed more was what cities like Asmara have already naturally developed; a dynamic, aspirational, friendly, family-oriented, unique and entrepreneurial atmosphere. Instead, the unenlightened Isaias and his yes-men chose to break that spirit and desperately prepare for another backward looking protracted war.
If the spirit of Asmara is about diversity and flexibility, the opposition camp (not necessarily any organization in particular) has a better sense of it than the PFDJ. The National Conference for Democratic Change sounds like a good start toward that goal. The true measure will be if the gathering can be translated into actual cooperation and synergy in the coming weeks and months. The sheer number of political and civic associations reveals that we are still suffering from mistrust and parochialism; but being able to congregate under one roof is a hopeful step. However, there is such thing called Shitara in Asmara; which is almost the currency by which an Asmarino is measured. If you know a lot of Shitaras no one can fool you. So in the end, dealings based “wink-wink nudge nudge” shitara codes are not going fly. Remember, today’s youth no matter which corner of the country they originate from, they are all Asmarinos at heart. It would be a huge mistake to try to outwit them.
Finally, I believe I owe my Amiche friends an apology and an explanation. The Asmarino spirit I keep referring to is equivalent to the Amharic slang “arada”. But then again, those of you who are “arada” have already figured this out, didn’t you? If so, you definitely deserve to be called “Asmarino”. If not, you are just a nice Amiche (a term of endearment given to those Eritreans who were born and raised in Ethiopia).
It’s been more than ten years since my last visit to Asmara and I can’t wait to go back and tour the very places that give meaning to the spirit of the city. But first, let us get rid of this mafia regime that is eroding our values and undoing the fibers of our society. If 2011 was a headache for the regime, 2012 is shaping up to be a migraine, nausea and an ulcer combined. Sooner or later, the PFDJ will be gone and God willing, a government of the people by the people will be set-up in which the Eritrean people’s representative will debate and deliberate national issue in the heart of the city; where Asmara can remind them of the ideals they should aspire towards.
Perhaps then, we can all relax and enjoy the modest pleasures of touring the city. I for one would start from my neighborhood in the Gheza Banda/Mai Jah Jah area and head toward downtown passing Palasso (palazzo) Aba Hebesh on the left and the Fenilli building on the right. After stopping by at Bar Ugo for an ice cream treat, I would resume walking past the main branch of the Commercial Bank of Eritrea. Back in the Derg era, the Ethiopian soldiers use to cordon off the sidewalk and prevent people from walking close to the building (jackasses!) Nowadays, they have an old retiree guarding the bank with a stick – and somehow it works. Heading farther into the heart of Combishtato (Campo Citato), I would pass the government buildings that function as city administration. I hope one day, Asmara will have an elected mayor and a city council. Across the street is the covered fish market (Markato); which over the years probably sold more fruits and vegetables – and beef – than any kind of sea food.
Lazily strolling down this main avenue and window shopping use to be a favorite pastime for kids. Looking at the coming attraction posters at Cinema Impero and arguing who would win the hypothetical bout between actors Bud Spencer (of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill) and Amjad Khan (of Bollywood) needed knowledge and debating skills. I heard now people are watching more domestic films than imported ones at movie theaters; and I think that is welcome development. Isayas Tsegai is a one of the talented writers and directors. In 2001, a few months before his arrest and disappearance journalist Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes told me that he and Isayas are friends and mentioned a film project they were working on together. I hope Isayas Tsegai has not totally forgotten his friend.
Going past the historic and iconic cafés once known as Moderna, Royale, American and Mocha; and their inviting coffee aromas and ever busy espresso machines; one is tempted to come in for a quick macchiato and chit chat with friends. All sort of conversations go on; but any critical discussion about the government of the day better be in whispers. That’s how it was during the Ethiopian occupation and sadly, “20 years of independence” did not change that.
It’s hard not to notice Asmara’s most iconic building, the brick-walled Cathedrale and its church bells. It is a catholic church, but the small soccer field in the backyard is what I would fondly reminisce about. During the summer months, kids of all religions and neighborhoods enjoyed rooting for their soccer team to win the tournament (Gironi) trophy, gaining life time memories in the process.
A tour would not be complete for me if I do not go to the compounds of Enda Mariam church and recall the days when I use to study hard and cram for exams. My friend Mensour Sadiq (RIP), would be along-side me, except he never needed to study as hard. He was simply a gifted student who scored 100% in everything; including the Bible study all students were required to take at Geza Kenisha elementary. To this day, I find it amazing how many Muslim families willingly sent their children to good schools in spite of the requirements to studying the Bible. If that is not a measure of civilization, I don’t know what else would be.
My dear father (RIP), thought I should be civilized as well and registered me to learn Arabic at the madressa adjacent to the main mosque (Mesgid Jamié ). Ustaz Ahmedeen was my enthusiastic teacher who predicted my Arabic would be fluent soon. I am afraid he would be disappointed at how little I have progressed since then, but perhaps happy that I am still learning; as will my children.
At Geza Kenisha (its proper name was Evangelical School, later renamed Isaac Teweldemedhin), we had so many loving and excellent teachers, who stressed “The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge”. But one of them stood out, for she was beautiful inside and out. Her name was Memhir Ida; my third grade English teacher, a Kunama-Eritrean who made me fall in love with the English language and reading. The current plight of the Kunama ethnic minorities is really sad. I would never want to belong to a country that does not respect and protect Memhir Ida or her people.
These are the flavors of Asmara that those who don’t want to admit we already have a solid foundation to build upon, can not ignore. As we form alliances to topple the regime, and return the power to the Eritrean people, let us all ensure that the spirit of Asmara Shkor is part of what we do. It won’t hurt to put on our Asmarino hats now and then, chill and relax a little, stop being so paranoid and uptight, welcome people who are different and think differently; add warmth to our hand shakes and smiles; and learn to laugh at our selves.
Now, go ahead turn the volume real high and enjoy “Asmera shkor, Asmera Bella, men kwedadera!”