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Eritrea, End and Rebirth of an African Dream

New book “Eritrea, fine e rinascita di un sogno africano” – A beautiful book to be read in one breath, almost a novel, more than a guide, perhaps even a bit of a travel journal. An exciting reading, to be done before leaving for Eritrea, to get to know the country, its past and present history. A book full of anecdotes, stories, and practical information. EritreaLive interviewed the author, Alessandro Pellegatta. Excerpts of the interview posted on follows:

  • -First of all, where does your passion for Eritrea come from?

Eritrea is a complex country. To understand it you must go back in time. Learn about its colonial history to arrive to its contemporary one. You must learn to know the other which, as Kapu?ci?ski said, is a complex thing, sometimes a dangerous one, but, which also helps you find your own origins. Unfortunately, nowadays fears and ideologies, which prevent you from seeing and understanding, have replaced a culture of diversity and comparison.

  • -In your book, you say that you were not born as a writer, it was travelling that led you to write. Travels “to lose yourself”, travels “to find yourself”. How come you found yourself in Eritrea?

Travelling for me means to lose myself, to rediscover my curiosity for the world. Above all for the South of the world, which represents the future of humanity without a doubt.

  • -Why Eritrea?

A journey to Eritrea is an extraordinary experience. Eritrea is a small country, with very ancient history. From the land of Punt to the port cities on the Red Sea, in a particular Adulis.

Today Eritrea is a country that is looking for its own way for a development far from old and new colonialism. Far from the appetites of the great powers and multinational companies. Despite the Red Sea offshore platforms, oil, gas, gold fields …

As Pasolini wrote, Eritrea is a completely different country than how we imagine it. And then you have Eritreans. They have elegance and dignity. In this elegance of popular gentlemen, Muslims, Christians, and Copts … These are nomadic and peasant populations.

  • -How does an Italian tourist feel like in Eritrea?

There is no hostility towards Italians. In Eritrea, there is a natural predisposition towards others. Historically, geographically and culturally, the different Eritrean ethnic groups have had to learn to live together. Plateau and lowland. The former has an agricultural and rural culture that reflects the Coptic Christian tradition. The lowlands, on the other hand, have a nomadic culture which corresponds, by and large, to the Islamic religion. In the country these two elements coexist peacefully, indeed they tend to mix. Travelling in Eritrea means to learn very different realities, Asmara, Keren, Massawa.

  • -How is Massawa, a port city on the Red Sea?

Walking through the streets of Massawa, despite the destruction it suffered, still leaves us to imagine the beauty of buildings such as the Bank of Italy. There are small streets lined with buildings constructed of madreporic material. You see Turkish infrastructure, Indian merchant palaces … with an incredible melting pot. Even here Italians have been careful in the design of buildings. They respected the local tradition, taking into account what already existed.

  • -On July 8th, 2017, Asmara became a UNESCO world heritage site …

Asmara is the most fascinating city in all of Africa, with a combination of Western, Arab and Islamic elements. If the realization of Italian colonialism has become a heritage of humanity, it must be recognized that the Eritreans knew how to preserve its modernity.

Beyond the labels, the buildings of Asmara have incredible charm and beauty. This is a credit to the Eritreans for having understood and valued a heritage that could have been destroyed. The entry of Asmara in the heritage of humanity will not only be of great importance from the architectural and urban point, but it will represent a milestone in the history of Eritrea.

Cultural heritage always expresses the culture of a community and connotes it. And the need to rebuild the national identity of Eritrea still remains a priority. In fact, since the end of the nineteenth century, the country has been subject to processes of conquest, occupation, militarization, colonization, and spoliation, including a cultural one.

Behind the result achieved by Asmara UNESCO heritage, there was a huge job. Dozens of engineers, architects, surveyors, the municipality of Asmara, people I have met, all of which are very capable.

  • -In your book, you also talk about Eritrean archeological sites

Yes, Adulis in particular and the Axumite cities on the Eritrean highland.

Few people know that the development of the Axumite kingdom has been made possible by the very maritime exchanges of the port of Adulis. The port was in fact connected to Axum through caravan routes that went up the Haddas and Komailé courses and, with a difference in height of over 2,000 meters, reached the Axumite towns on the Qohaito plateau.

From here, the tracks crossed the Ethiopian Tigray passing near the monastery of Debra Damo and Yeha. Finally, arriving in the capital of the Axumite Empire which has been famous, since the ancient world, for its spectacular stelae.

  • -I found the description of the arrival in Asmara in your book rather beautiful. From the airport toward the Hamasien hotel …

I arrived in Asmara at night, a misty, dark atmosphere. The city, 2,350 meters above sea level, presented itself with clear sky and stars. Awesome. After the airport, after one or two roundabouts you arrive in front of an airplane-shaped building. At this point, you feel as though you were inside a painting by Sironi or De Chirico, in those symbolic outskirts. It is instead the Fiat Tagliero service station. And you ask yourself, how the wings may stay up. As they have done for the past 70 years …

Then you get to the Hamasien hotel, a hotel of the 1920’s with a Tyrolean style dome and the question here is: “where have I ended up?” If it wasn’t for pepper trees it could be Baviera. The Hamasien is a hotel now almost decrepit, a former CIAAO hotel, (Ed. Italian Hotel Company of Eastern Africa) with 80 rooms and great charm. A particular suggestion.

  • -What can you appreciate and what should you not expect?

If you are looking for the comforts of a 7-star hotel, you are in the wrong place. But the fascination of living in a hotel of colonial architecture, seeing the sky from Lombard style windows … the feeling a building like this can give you … is priceless. You find yourself in a timeless dimension. The Hamasien is also in the district of villas, the old center of European residences, full of bougainvillea, flowers, palm trees.

Asmara is an enjoyable city, without skyscrapers, where everything has remained people-friendly. Asmara’s modernity lies in the very absence of skyscrapers, everything is very soft, calm. You can walk by day and by night without any disturbance.

I have visited many cities, but none is like Asmara. Asmara is truly a jewel.

Walking through the center you arrive in its pretty venues, such as Bar Vittoria, where you can drink cappuccino or coffee. It’s incredible. A thousand miles away from home is like being still at home. On the way, you can meet the children of old Ascari, people who want to talk in Italian. For the pleasure of communicating, knowing, remembering.

  • -Marilena Dolce



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