[dehai-news] Shaebia.org: ERITREA: Taking in the sights and sounds of Abba Shaul

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Thu Feb 05 2009 - 11:35:44 EST



ERITREA: Taking in the sights and sounds of Abba Shaul
Sophia Tesfamariam, Feb 5, 2009


My visits to Eritrea have always taken me outside Asmara, the beautiful
capital… not this time. Arriving there just after Christmas, in time for the
New Year, I spent almost all of my two weeks in the city, walking along the
famous promenades, relaxing with friends in the many outdoor cafés and of
course-shopping in the open markets in search of authentic Eritrean arts and
crafts. There was one place that seemed to elude me in all of my past
travels-that place is the famed neighborhood of Abba Shaul. In the center of
Asmara and in the hearts and minds all Eritreans who were born and raised
there, and even in those like me, who had never visited it but had come to
know and love Abba Shaul through others-it was my focus during this trip- I
was doing Abba Shaul for New Year and nothing was going to stop me…


I didn’t want to just pass through Abba Shaul as I had done many times
before on my way to CherHi, the famous restaurant perched high on the hill
atop Abba Shaul. On more than one occasion I had looked at Abba Shaul from
my look out point and wondered what lay hidden below the odd patchwork that
served as the rooftop for so many homes beneath. There were corrugated metal
sheets, stones and mud, wood, tires and other materials spread out over the
rooftops, keeping the neighborhood and its secrets well under cover. So what
was the secret place below? I could not wait to go there and immerse myself
in it all...


Unlike poor neighborhoods in some countries where crime and violence is
rampant, Abba Shaul is a poor but it’s a place where camaraderie,
compassion, creativity, pride and dignity call home. It is a place you can
visit all on your own and not worry about your safety or that of your
belongings. I didn’t want to just drop in, I wanted to experience it in its
totality and feel completely at home. Visiting with someone who knows the
ins and outs of the place or grew up there helps. I got lucky, I got both. I
had the pleasure of having my special friend Girmay Yohannes (Sandiago), a
veteran fighter and a renowned comedian/historian/linguist/intellectual
accompanying me for the day. Sandiago had promised to show me everything
that Abba Shaul had to offer and I was ready…I had to see it all and
experience it totally. I didn’t know what to expect but I decided to just go
with the flow and enjoy myself fully.


We got up early in the morning and headed towards Shuq-the market place. We
parked our car on a side street and entered Abba Shaul on foot, making our
way through the narrow streets of oddly placed stones separating the row
houses on each side while keeping them close, so close that you could hear
conversations taking place inside the one and two room homes. The homes
extended to the street side and children lingered on doorsteps waving to
passersby, whilst the adults peeked out to offer a brew or more. The smell
of fresh coffee and the variety of sounds- the laughter of children, the
clicking of pots and pans, of running water and of course music, all kinds
of music, that seemed to flow from every corner-all added to the flavor of
this lively neighborhood. Abba Shaul was already awake and it was beckoning


No doubt that traveling with Sandiago has its perks…but it can also be very
distracting-literally everyone, young and old in Abba Shaul seemed to know
him and throughout the day we heard them calling out to him. “Sandiago”,
“Sandish” and more… He waved and called out to all, greeted the young
children and chatted with many along the way…On more than one instant we
were left hanging on the side streets waiting for him while he made house
calls, greeting the residents and promising to return. I took in the views
and relished in the warmth and thrill of being in the midst of it all. My
friends back in Washington always talked so fondly about this place and now,
being there, right smack in the middle of it all, I could see why Abba Shaul
was so revered…it seethed with life.


Sandiago told me about the many foreign and local artists and writers who
come to Abba Shaul seeking inspiration, to live amongst its dwellers and
bask in its heartbeat- the joie de vivre that defines Abba Shaul 24-7. Abba
Shawul is home to a number of talented and renowned Eritrean artists,
musicians and intellectuals. Many trace their roots to this nostalgic
neighborhood... For them, Abba Shaul is not just about the past, but very
much of the present, real and emotive, to selfishly guard and defend. Abba
Shaul casts a dreamy spell on all whose paths have brought them there.


Many have sung about and written about this beloved neighborhood and there
is no doubt that many more will sing her praises in the future. Edward
Dennison, one such visitor wrote about Abba Shaul in his guidebook on
Eritrea. He wrote:


“…Further north, beyond the Market square and Afabet Street, is the old
“indigenous’ quarter where the houses, to this day, are considerably more
modest in their construction and size. The disorganized narrow lanes and
humble mud walls of the densely populated dwellings here are by no means a
slum. This area known as Abbashaul, is where the local population was herded
under the Italian rule and little has been done since to combat the negative
impacts that were instilled then. It remains a deprived area, with no
running water and poor sanitation, but there is an electrical supply and,
above all a very strong sense of community. It is as enjoyable to witness
this part of Asmara where the city’s heart really beats, as it is to the
shabby chic aesthetic of the old European quarter…”


Dennison is right, Abba Shaul’s strong sense of community is what defines
this neighborhood and it has been the cultural source for all the wonderful
poetry and music produced by those who grew up there. A very famous song
about Abba Shaul by legendary Eritrean musician Al Amin Abdeletif speaks
volumes of the affection and longing this uniquely diverse group I will call
Abba Shaulians, have for the neighborhood that nurtured them in their
childhoods and young adulthoods. More on Al Amin, his thoughts and his
tribute to Abba Shaul later…


Abba Shauls unique and historical aural and visual identity is unmatched by
any other neighborhood in Asmara, rich or poor. Sandiago had promised me a
day of discovery and fun and it began with a visit to what looked like a
private home for a taste of Sewa-the local brew. It would be a first for
me-drinking Sewa for breakfast. We tasted a few varieties and decided that
we needed to search further for just the right taste and a few winding roads
later, we found it in a house… up a few stairs with the doors ajar with a
privacy curtain adorning the doorway, blowing in the soft wind. We heard
happy sounds coming from the inside and decided it was just the place for
our early morning escapade.


We peeked in and the lady welcomed us to her place as she engaged in
familiar chit chat with Sandiago. We sat on wooden benches against the wall
facing a group of young men who were sitting across from us. We greeted each
other and soon we were drinking her special brew and sharing conversations
that seemed to invite everyone to partake in. This was no place for private
talks…it just didn’t feel right to keep the conversation within our own
tables…it’s a shared experience in every way. The ones leaving were replaced
by new comers who went through the same routine as we did. The folks seemed
to be doing what we were doing- bar hopping…only they looked like they were
at much longer.


I was enjoying each ‘melelik’ full and we listened to the various songs that
played over the loudspeaker. The songs varied; there were love ballads whose
lyrics seemed to tell everyone’s story of love lost or found. One of the
guests asked us a question on love and soon a discussion on whether love
hurts or not began spontaneously. We each offered our take on the
subject...if there was someone in the room hurting because of a lost love or
a found one…it was a perfect place to bounce off and share anonymously. We
listened to Gregory Isaac’s ‘Night Nurse’ and then there was the love song
‘YefiQir Gedam’ from Neway Debebe (Ethiopian singer). But it wasn’t all pain
and hurt. There were many other songs played and when we liked the song we
had the owner turn up the volume and when we were deep in our conversations,
we turned it low.


There was one song that had to have the volume turned up…the young men in
that home were obviously great fans of Tedros. ‘Segum’, his song of valor
and courage-the lyrics that even my children have managed to memorize-
seemed to be one of their favorites too. They sang out loud and the message
was loud and clear…it was about staying the course, not being bothered by
those who quit midcourse…it was about doing your part…carving out your niche
in the journey…it was about reaching seemingly unimaginable goals-like
landing on the moon, crossing the Atlantic were at that time etc. etc. and
they seemed to agree.


We invited them for more drinks and soon we were swaying to the music and
enjoying each others company as if we had known each other for years. Some
seemed a bit shy…didn’t say much, but there were those who couldn’t stop the
chattering and laughter. They spoke for every one of us. We spent the entire
morning sharing and building new friendships. Sandiago told us several jokes
and soon they were telling us some of their own. Abba Shaul was just the
place to gather ideas for creative persons…the social culture was inviting
and warm…it was hard to say goodbye and move on...around the corner and into
someone else’s home…which also doubled as a rent earning business.


After wondering around a little bit, we decided that it was time for
breakfast. There was a stoic woman standing outside her house and Sandiago
called out to her. He told her that we wanted coffee. We found the perfect
spot. We sat in her cozy living room as she hurried to gather everything she
needed to make us coffee. The room soon filled up with the aroma of the
roasting coffee and eTan (incense) and we listened as the owner told us
about her life in Abba Shaul. She had a sense of elegance about her and I
was sure that she was must have been quite a looker in her younger days. Her
slim lips and straight nose sat on her lightly wrinkled face. Yehdega was
generous in her reception and made us feel quite at home. While the restless
Sandiago went to the neighbors in search of the famous Asmara yellow eggs
for our breakfast, we sat back and enjoyed our conversations with our new


She told us that she was a mother of two martyred children, one died in the
war for Eritrea’s independence and the other during the 1998-2000 Ethiopian
war of aggression and invasion. Her pain hidden by her defiant spirit…she
told us that she was proud to be the mother of two brave sons who died
fighting for their country. She said that it was better to be the mother of
a jigna swue (valiant martyr) than to be the mother of a kedae (runaway
traitor). She said she was able to walk with her head held high, her sons
were a source of great pride and dignity for her and the rest of her family.
She showed us pictures of her only two sons and the official plaques
displayed proudly over her bed. Next to her sons were stunning black and
white pictures of herself in traditional attire. There were many other
pictures of family members plastered on all her walls.


Soon our breakfast of eggs mixed with onions, hot peppers and spiced to
perfection was brought in by a neighbor. With it came hot baked thin
breads-kitcha. We sat around the big plate and ate together-Yehdega and the
neighbor too. Our conversations continued as we drank the many rounds of
coffee. Her two room dwelling was large in contrast to those of the others
in the area. Her house was scantly furnished but had everything-even a
television that sat covered with lace atop a cabinet. She moved elegantly
around her tight quarters, reaching for coffee cups in a glass cabinet
packed with other valuable ware. She was a natural talker and didn’t need
much prodding. I liked her attitude, she was brutally honest-blunt if you
will, and made no apologies.


Sandiago and Yehdega took turns telling us about the old and new Abba Shaul
and the warmth and communal atmosphere that seem to have transcended
generations and several authorities-from the Italians in the early 30s, to
the British in the early 40s to the Ethiopian colonization that began in the
early 1950s and lasted until Eritrea’s independence in 1991. Many have left
Abba Shaul and moved to other neighborhoods in Asmara and beyond, but none
have forgotten the spirit of Abba Shaul. It was exactly what Al Amin was
singing about in that famous song of his he said, “ade kulu d’ha, alay
zektam nerki”-lossely translated- a mother to all the poor and a caretaker
for orphans.


In was sometime in the early 70s that Al Amin Abduletif, a famous Eritrean
musician sang his farewell song for Abba Shaul. It was a song of great
fondness, longing and fear of what the proposed demolition of some part of
the neighborhood meant to long time residents of the area and the
generations of Eritreans that had blossomed in her midst. In his song, Al
Amin captured the spirit of Abba Shaul, the fond memories of all those whose
childhoods were played out on the narrow streets and one room dwellings, of
the poor amidst the culturally rich, of the orphans surrounded by families
for all, all living in Abba Shaul, building lifelong memories.


In an interview with the Eritrean Profile in 1999, Al Amin described his
feelings when he explained why he sang that classic song- a tribute to Abba


“…I sang the farewell song Dehan Kuni Abba Shaul (Good bye Abba Shaul)
because the city administration in the 1960s was planning to demolish that
part of this city quarter in order to create wide streets. I felt sorry for
the people of Abba Shaul who lived in love and harmony. To me destroying
Abba Shaul meant destroying the long standing cultural ties, value systems
and social fabric of the inhabitants. I felt sorry for the broken hearts and
shattered dreams of the young lovers and old acquaintances of that place. Of
course I was not against developmental projects in general but I felt that
it should not have been done at the expense of the poor and the needy who
were left homeless and uprooted following the demolition project.
Fortunately, the demolition work stopped right near my house…”


Al Amin prided in the sacrifice and contribution of his beloved neighborhood
was making towards the beautification of Asmara. For him and others like him
who have sung about this place, it was not about the real estate as much as
it was about the aura, the sounds rather than the sights, the welcoming
neighborliness and the optimism and fervor of those carving out deep and
meaningful lives amongst the poverty and meager stone dwellings. The fear of
Abba Shaul’s gentrification still exists today and residents there tell me
that they are afraid that developments in the area would destroy Abba
Shaul’s distinct historical character and charm... I agree. It would be
close to being sacrilegious…for Abba Shaul is a living phenomenon and not
simply a place of multiple dwellings packed one on top of the other.


We continued our walks through the narrow alleys and back streets and
stopped to chat and take pictures. Sandiago posed with the children and soon
there were others who wanted to pose with him. I was only too happy to keep
snapping. Sandiago introduced me to several people. There were the women who
were hailed for their culinary skills. Some made their living by cooking for
bachelors in the area who came in daily with their own ‘silTania’-container
for carry out food- and got homemade food for a few Nakfas. Sandish pointed
out some of the the best known bars and more. Much of Abba Shaul remains
intact today…to enjoy and visit over and over again…and to share with the
next generation of young Eritreans who know Abba Shaul only in song.


For me, this is just a beginning of what I know will be a long and
never-ending love affair…where the variety of sounds that define Abba
Shaul’s uniqueness and laissez faire spirit will remain with me...and keep
me coming for more and more.



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