Asmara, Eritrea: Beneath the paving stones
08 Sep 2015 01:53 (South Africa)
One of Africa’s least known countries, Eritrea is probably one of her
richest in terms of history and culture. RICHARD POPLAK reports.
Beneath the paving stones, the beach — Situationist slogan, Paris
student revolt, May-July 1968
1. The death and endless life of colonialism
Asmara, capital city of Eritrea, 2015.
The dateline is a reluctant concession to the tropes of journalism.
Time, more than one Asmarino tells me, means nothing in Eritrea.
2. The art of the car crash
During a thunderstorm on a recent Thursday afternoon, a man and his
bicycle are crushed beneath the wheel of an ancient lorry. The
cyclist’s body, removed just minutes before we arrive, leaves a
ghostly smear in the grit. Twenty yards away, there is a second
accident: two cars melded into a single heap of metal.
We are on the outskirts of colonial Asmara, heading into the old
'native' neighbourhoods, where smooth boulevards give way to roads of
Our destination is a house belonging to a man named Daniel. By the
time we arrive, his wife has already lit the coals for the coffee
There are almost no traditional coffee shops in Asmara; restaurants
are instead outfitted with gleaming Gaggio espresso machines, often
inoperable because of frequent power outages. Given that the coal
braziers on which traditional coffee is brewed are by nature
'off-grid', the old method would seem preferable to the new.
When I share this observation with Daniel, he shrugs inscrutably. The
Italians colonised Eritrea in 1890. The United Nations and the Big
Western Powers betrayed Eritrea in the early 1950s, allowing Haile
Selassie’s Ethiopia to annex (read: colonise) the country under the
guise of a federation.
Which is the old method, his gesture seems to ask? Which is the new?
3. Winged Victory of Samothrace
On 15 October, 1908, the Egyptian-born Italian poet Filippo Tommaso
Marinetti, swerved his Fiat in order to avoid a cyclist, and ended up
in a ditch. Upside-down, leaking fuel, he invented Futurism:
We want to sing about the love of danger, about the use of energy and
recklessness as a common, daily practice. Courage, boldness and
rebellion will be the essential elements of our poetry.
Two Asmarinos stare with resignation at the broken cars steaming in
the afternoon rain. Marinetti considered just such a situation more
beautiful a work of art than the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the
greatest extant masterpiece of the Hellenic era, and one of the finest
sculptures ever carved by human hands.
The drivers do not appear to share his outlook.
There is much of Marinetti’s ethos in the colonial-era architecture in
the centre of Asmara. There is probably no city on Earth with so many
examples of rationalist, modernist and Futurist architecture. But
Marinetti’s ethos has not weathered well. Quite the opposite: here,
the buildings race backwards into a future belonging to the past.
Isn’t this is what the Surrealists tried to magic: a hole in the
space/time continuum, a portal between the waking world and a
Asmara no longer belongs to the Futurists. It is the capital of
Surrealism — a melted clock hanging from the bough of a dead tree.
5. Tinker, tailor
The photographs are carefully removed from an old folio, and placed on
wax paper before me. They depict President Isaias Afwerki smiling amid
a gaggle of his subjects.
The year is 1994, and Afwerki is watching a car race. The president is
a tall man. He smiles in one photo, and laughs in second. He does not
stand in front of the crowd, but behind it.
As far as presidents-for-life go, Afwerki doesn’t do grand gestures.
There are no billboard-sized portraits in Asmara celebrating his
achievements. He doesn’t give fiery speeches in front of the military
on Independence Day. There are no stadiums named in his honour.
This doesn’t render him invisible. On the contrary, his absence
registers as a vast, indomitable presence — it allows those who cannot
see him to conjure him, to build him.
He reminds us that the strength of the powerful is derived from the
imagination of the powerless. His information ministry inhabits the
highest point in town, staring down at the city, ceaselessly watching.
6. Soldier, spy
The photos of Afwerki at the car race belong to a man named Giovanni
Mazzola. They are among the greatest treasures stored in his spotless
tailor shop nearby the great St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral on Harnet
Avenue (once called Viale Mussolini).
Mazzola is the son of an Eritrean mother and an Italian father and an
insabbiati, “one who has been immersed in the sand”, as the Italians
put it. Mazzola and his family were left to fend for themselves when
his father fled at the end of the Italian era. By day he learned how
to be a tailor, by night a bicycle racer.
Mazzola, in his mid-70s, is very much on the ball. He still crafts
suits by hand, using imported British linen. His store, full of bike
and car race memorabilia, functions as a reliquary for Eritrean
I ask Mazzola if Afwerki enjoyed the race.
“Very much,” he says, smiling. “Everyone enjoys such things here.”
Afwerki. Man of the People.
Unlike many poor countries, the poverty in Eritrea doesn’t hit you in
the face, but creep up on you — an insidious scourge that peeks out
from behind all the rotting modernism. By your third day in Asmara,
you can’t help but have noticed how many thin, frail-looking kids are
pushing delivery bikes laden with jerry cans, building material, cases
of Coke. Outside the city, outside the bars where the 'middle class'
drive what exists of the consumer economy in the bars, restaurants,
and internet cafes, any pretext of a functional state disappears.
The poverty is brutal, medieval.
Indeed, it’s tempting to say that the people living on the Massawa
Road or in the countryside live in the past, and that the beAfro-ed
hipsters in Asmara dwell in the present. But that would be getting it
backwards. The Asmarinos are the residents of a Gilded Age belonging
to a distant past. The rangy kids on bikes, and their shoeless
counterparts in the mountains, are the true representatives of the
8. From Pyongyang to Havana
Eritrea is often described as the North Korea of Africa, but this is a
lazy analogy. Afwerki’s country has almost nothing in common with the
successive regimes that have kept Pyongyang preserved in formaldehyde,
except perhaps an appreciation for secrecy, insularity, silence, and
There is no bomb here, no sabre rattling at the Great Satan and his
Western handmaidens. No, Eritrea does not resemble North Korea.
It resembles Cuba 15 years ago.
This is the sort of country in which every page in every menu bears an
official stamp and signature; where the only brand of beer is
unlabelled; where there are no billboards, no advertisements, no
obvious concessions to commerce.
Like Cuba before the Americans cancelled the embargo, everyone in
Eritrea is waiting.
This waiting results in an untethering from time. When the
Jurassic-Age internet finally downloads a Twitter page, the site
reveals itself to be an obscenity, an affront to the pace of life
Does this make Eritreans happier, better adjusted? I have no idea.
Some insist that it does. Others laugh off the question. Although I
suspect that time has been transformed into the wrong type of narcotic
— a sleeping pill that does nothing to bring sleep.
Havana was once the same way. Now, old neon is making way for golden arches.
Three thousand Eritreans flee the country every month, most into
scorching Sudan, and then out north, across (or into) the sea. Most of
them, if we are to believe the news reports, are escaping compulsory
military service, which in some cases has dragged on for decades. The
United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) calculates that as of December
2014, there were 416,857 Eritreans on the hop — almost ten percent of
the country’s 4.5-million citizens.
Everyone is waiting, but almost half a million have chosen to wait
10. Radio City
Eritrea’s colonial-era treasure cannot be seen, nor can it be touched;
it cannot be pumped, or mined, or sold on a bourse in Belgium.
Up here on the Hamasien plateau, 2,400m above sea level, out of reach
of the tropical storms that rage along the Red Sea littoral, it became
clear to American spooks during World War II that Asmara was probably
the best place on the planet from which to receive and transmit radio
signals. A natural phenomenon called 'ducting' sends waves bouncing
off the troposphere and down through invisible tubes to hit the
plateau thousands of miles from their source.
The Americans built a facility here, and called it Kagnew Base. It was
so strategically important during the Cold War that there was almost
nothing Washington wouldn’t do to keep Eritrea’s Ethiopian masters in
the fold. “No other military base in black Africa would ever be deemed
as vital to American national security,” Michella Wrong writes in I
Didn’t Do It For You: How The World Used and Abused a Small African
You can likely guess how this story ends. Satellites were launched
into space, Kagnew was mothballed, the Derg junta overthrew Selassie,
the Americans lost Ethiopia, the Soviets bought the Derg, the Soviets
lost the plot, Ethiopia lost Eritrea. And in 1991, Independence was
declared. Kagnew is now Den Den, a low-income housing compound near
the centre of town.
The radio waves are still around, bouncing off the troposphere
worthlessly. The whole world yammering away incessantly, while Eritrea
pretends to be distant.
11. Beneath the paving stones
Beneath the Parisian paving stones, insisted the Situationalists, lay
the beach. Underneath the city, something else. Those early
psychogeographers understood that planned urban space functioned much
as a prison did — a fact that was especially true in Asmara’s case,
considering a number of the town’s planners were actual Fascists.
Asmara’s distinct character is derived from erasure — the wiping away
of the old 'native' neighbourhoods in order to build the new. The
centre of town was during colonial times called the campo cintato, the
closed area, off-limits to Eritreans after work hours “for reasons of
public order and hygiene”,
When Afwerki disappears and the economy liberalises, will it matter to
Asmarinos that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organisation is scrambling to preserve the city as a living museum? Or
will the locals wipe the colonial structures away, in order to forget
Beneath the paving stones, more paving stones.
“Sadly, the oppression that marks so much of Asmara’s recent history
has provided a negative impact on the city, which needs to be
redressed. During the years of the Derg regime, people retreated into
their homes and fortified their properties with high perimeter walls,
often topped with barbed wire of broken glass. Many of these still
exist today, though many have also been replaced by shrubs and bushes
such as bougainvillea—a more pleasant solution in providing a barrier
between public and private property.” — Asmara: A Guide to the Built
The effect of leaving one of Asmara's cinema palaces and emerging onto
the rain-slick streets. Every afternoon in August, the storms come in
from the mountains. The rain is often accompanied by a lightning show
— huge cracks of sky-splitting electricity leaving garish, acid-trip
burns on the retina.
One evening, I stand out on my balcony, it's going to be a long time
before the storm peters out.
Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He
trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia
University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music
videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior
contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a
frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a
member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction
His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White
in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was
entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in
the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the
experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop
Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014
election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was
collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle
(Tafelberg, 2014). Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton
Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg
Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now
Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing
Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.
Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the
catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury
metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is
called The Shift.
Received on Tue Sep 08 2015 - 22:10:33 EDT