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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Colonia Primigenia 10.IV.2010 05:20
I've never been so shocked when entering a country as I was at Asmara International Airport in Eritrea's capital. After filling out the usual myriad forms, declarations and what have you, and exchanging money at a rate that can only be described as extortionate, we made our wait out of the airport building. There was, as they always is, a gaggle of people gathered awaiting passengers. But when we got there, no one took any notice of us at all. Not one taxi driver tried to convince us to get immediately into his cab, not one person yelled at us about rides to downtown or cheap hotels - nothing of the sort happened at all. In fact, even as we were clearly confused, having been mentally prepared to fend off aggressive drivers left and right, not one person volunteered information as to how to get to the capital. And when we found the taxi stand, the taxi drivers observed the order of arrival scrupulously - they all called over to the next driver in line to take us rather than jumping ahead for the extra fare. Honestly, I can't imagine a single place in the world where the airport is like that.

Eritrea is one of those countries that's often forgotten even by the relatively well-informed. One of the world's youngest - it broke away from Ethiopia in 1994 after a bloody and prolonged war of independence - it rarely makes the news, and has an isolationism about itself that doesn't make for easy foreign engagement. Like so many countries in Africa, it is essentially a European creation - it was the centrepiece of Italy's efforts to establish an empire to rival those of its neighbours, and the jewel in the crown of Mussolini's Second Roman Empire. Colonia primigenia they called it, the mother country's first-born child. Whereas Ethiopia's never having been colonised is a huge part of the national identity here, conversely, the Italian influence is omnipresent and unmistakeable, with Asmara showcasing some of the finest fin de siecle and modernist architecture in the world.

The country is actually sort of a mirror-universe Ethiopia, with just enough familiar elements that you know you're in a country with a shared heritage, but with everything else completely switched around. Whereas Addis Abeba is a sprawling village, where even a slight deviation from the main road leaves you wondering if you're in a city at all, and dust and garbage dominate the sidewalks, Asmara is immaculate - walking through it feels more like a European city than a third-world capital (though not a real European city - more like the kind seen in a Fellini film). The awareness that you're in Africa revolts against the art-deco and futurist buildings that line Asmara's streets, incredibly well preserved from Colonial times before the second world war. A walk down Asmara's gorgeous high street leads you past such landmarks as the Cinema Imperio, which would not have looked out of place at all in an establishing shot in Roman Holiday.

In a perverse sense, though, Asmara's time capsule quality is a testament to Eritrea's tragedy. For history's greatest enemy is development - the sometimes slow but inexorable encroachment of the modern world over the old - and there has been precious little of that here. No UNESCO money has been needed to preserve the buildings here, because no money was available to build something on top of them, and so no ruthless developer schemed to tear them down. Liberated by the British during World War II it was promptly given over to Ethiopian dominance, as Emperor Haile Selassie, Elect of God and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, decreed it his country's inalienable right to have an outlet to the sea. For many Eritreans, whose long separateness under Italian oppression created their nationality identity from nothing in much the same way that the Palestinian nation has come into being since the founding of the state of Israel, Ethiopian rule was just another form of colonisation; and so began a war of independence that outlasted the Empire itself as Haile Selassie's Stalinist successors, the Derg, carried on his policies in Eritrea. Only when they were overthrown by the Tigray rebel leader Meles Zenawi (now the Ethiopian prime minister) did Eritrea, where the Tigrays are the dominant ethnicity, gain independence.

It was supposed to have been a new dawn for Africa. Isaias Afewerki, the Ethiopian rebel leader turned president, was held up by many as an example of the enlightened African ruler, and his friendship with Zenawi promised good relation between the country and its former master. Alas, it was not to be. Eritrea got into several border disputes with countries such as Yemen, and a full out war broke out between them and neighbouring Ethiopia that remains unresolved to this day - the border regions in both countries are off-limits to tourists. Slowly, the government tightened its grip on the country. Elections have been scheduled almost a dozen times since independence, but never held, and the ruling party suffers no opposition to its rule. On Transparenty International's index of journalistic freedom, it ranks not only lowest in Africa - which is an achievement in itself - but lowest in the entire world, its isolationism earning it the sobriquet 'the North Korea of Africa,' which can hardly be considered flattering. The unbelievable cleanliness of Asmara's streets testifies to the government's control of every aspect of life - third-world cities are dirty because people who are surviving day-to-day have better things to do than sweep sidewalks and mow lawns, things we considere chores in the west without realising the level of luxury such chores represent.

What makes this so galling is that it's hard not to immediately fall in love with the country. For something like the first time, as tourists we're not even an object of curiosity; we're simply ignored as people go about their daily business. Whereas walking down an Ethiopia street is essentially a constant siege of people trying to get your money - including such shamelessness as charging for pointing to a hotel you can see from where you are - here you're left alone and never charged anything but the local price. The atmosphere in the bars is European as well, just a few groups of people hanging out and having a few beers (groups of men, of course - one aspect that is familiar from Ethiopia is that any woman in a bar is either a waitress there or a prostitute.)

As a matter of fact, I cannot overstate what a relief it is to be able to just go out and have a beer. In Yemen, where all alcohol is smuggled and beer is near-impossible to come by, a dynamic comes about not unlike that of underage drinking - you have to put a lot of effort into doing it, so when you do, you do it hard. There's no just having one or two drinks - you almost invariably get trashed and go out to the one nightclub, the so-called 'Russian Club', which is exactly as sketchy as it sounds. Here, we definitely intend to spend quite a few nights over a couple beers, just relaxing and soaking in the wonderful atmosphere of the city. I really think we couldnt've picked a better place to take a break from Yemen - it's different in all the right ways. I'll be spending the next ten days here, travelling over as much of the country as the government will allow (read: a small portion of the country) before, no doubt somewhat reluctantly, heading out and back to Sana'a.

Asmara, Eritrea Er

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