Journey to Assab

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Some 750 Kms away from Asmara, you find the gracefully designed city of Assab. One of the two ports of Eritrea, it proved its strategic prominence in the 19th century, long before Eritrea became a free state.

Assab is located in the Southern Red Sea region. The journey is pretty exhausting and sleeping seems to be the only way to escape the effect. But then it’s unwise to miss interesting encounters with nature and so you fight with all your might to stay awake holding your camera. The weather gets harsher as you drive farther but you are completely taken by the unusual, yet fascinating, exhibition of the region’s rich endowments you see through the car’s window, especially for first timers from the highlands. The view of the beach follows you until your final destination on one side and on the other side it seems as though the mountains are racing with your car. It’s quite exhilarating to be a first hand witness of such a wonder.

As you set foot on the land, you would be rocked back and forth by the excitement of having the privilege to visit such a beautiful place, and the warm air sends you words of comfort saying “it won’t take long until it gets cold and you can then celebrate the soothing reception offered in the evening”. The fatigue from the long bumpy ride fades away as you feel accepted by the gentle whisper and you head towards the beach after taking a bath.

The blue gold totally relieves your mind from being obsessed with the hot weather and the scorching sun. The dignified motion of the tide giving birth to foams is a beautiful display of nature at its best and the palm trees give it a rather delightful atmosphere. It gets one wondering “if it has this kind of effect on those who observe from far, how is it for its inhabitants who live in the limitless riches of its great being?” One completely goes oblivious of the world and travels to celebrate the essence of infinity at the mysterious ends of the sea. Lost in the desire to live in the moment forever, you wish to build a shack right there and right then and live at the beach. Before you know it you find yourself swimming and soaked wet.

Assab looks its best in the evening when its residents and visitors are all over the town to have fun. Most people choose to spend the evening at recreational centers close to the sea. The refreshing air, the sound of the calm tide, the trees dancing to the gentle wind and the reflection of the moon on the sea are just a heavenly scenery in which one rejoices.

Another majestic encounter one should never miss while visiting Assab is “the sun rise”. It looks as if it’s making a grand entrance to a show with its piercing rays right from the sea. This panorama testifies to the enormity of creation, and the soul rejoices in the look of this breathtaking view that looks like a work of art.

The main residents of the port city of Assab are from the Afar ethnic group. Other ethnic groups Tigrinya, Tigre, the urban-hafa (descendants of the Rashaida that migrated towards the area long time ago) also live in the city.

The Afar’s mainly earn their living by fishing and herding animals. They are very attached with their land and the sea and they thankfully receive what it serves. Rice and fried fish is almost their everyday food, and they like to eat together. They shop for the day, which is peculiar and uncommon in other regions and communities of Eritrea. I asked an old man why they like it that way, and he said, “Tomorrow is not ours to worry about but God’s; we merrily live for today”. This is practically their motto and it has always shaped their life style.

Afar women are equally strong and dazzlingly beautiful. Most are moderate in height, slim, dark skinned, cheerful with captivating smiles. They are great dancers too. Their traditional dressing, jewelry and hair styles (braids) are so amazing, with a potential to be adopted as fashion in Eritrea and even abroad. The most common dress is called “deri’e”, a plain two-layered dress. It’s amazing how a garment that big could look great on their slim bodies. I was surprised to see that globalization failed to make an impact on their attire despite the great influence Arab countries have on the area.

A traditional liquor called Doma, which is extracted from palm trees, is popular among the Afar. It is sweet with a little kick of alcoholic taste. “Abaeke” is also another traditional drink and is alcohol free. It’s served at weddings and on religious holidays (Eid). Dessert is a big part of the Afar meals which they never skip. Their dessert incudes dates and mukbasa (bread with banana or honey).

The wedding ceremonies are very festive. The Arar are very serious about arranging the best servings at their weddings. People dance “keke” (it’s danced by lifting one leg at a time and the right hand with it). The bride sits with her groom the whole day and covers her face so that no one could see her. They don’t go out but people visit them in the room they are in. Almost half of the wedding ceremonies’ expense is covered by the groom. It is his way of showing his in-laws that the bride is in good hands and that he can be trusted. It is common for the groom to live with his in-laws after the wedding unless he can afford a house.

Apart from the long and tiring journey, every part of Assab is a pleasure to the eyes and to the heart. I was compelled to write about it after I witnessed what Assab could offer.