“Whenever I land in Rome from a plane trip to Eritrea, I feel like I am still in Asmara,” said my grandfather. “Not that Rome looks like Asmara, far from it, but there is something Asmaran about that city which you don’t get from other European cities like Frankfurt or Paris. Or should I say there is something Roman about Asmara.” he further adds.
“Che ore sono, Signore?” would shout young girls from across some of the narrow streets of Rome.
“Granddad, in English please!”
“What time is it, sir?
And I wonder, leaving the old man talking to the background, how these girls talk to strangers like that without any inhibition.
It is said, in Paris, they don’t talk to strangers. In Germany, they don’t look at strangers. In England, they don’t acknowledge your existence. In Italy, the ice-cream vendor can talk politics for hours, of course, punctuated with vehement insults with anybody.
In the movies whenever I see houses built in Rome, I see the ‘seranda’ (shutter) that go vroom as they slide shut or open. I think I have heard that sound somewhere else. My grandparent’s house here in Asmara has the same window shutters to this day. In Asmara, you have also bars that sell pastry. You have the people who shout in buses, and drivers who like to chat.
Upon starting a conversation of old Asmara with my grandfather, I found out the Asmara postal office used to dispatch mail using the Graff Zeppelin.
I never knew that dirigibles or blimps landed in Asmara. Or did they? Anyway, my granddad even told me a magazine produced by a grandson of Zeppelin had once listed Eritrea as one of the countries that availed it of these airships which disappeared with the ignition and burning of Hindenburg in May 6/1937 in New Jersey, USA.
I did a little Google digging in the infinite World Wide Web and what do you know, he was right. I actually found pictures of postal stumps used during those years. (See picture)
When the Italians were here, they used to live in Geza Kenisha in rented rooming houses. Just like the indigenous people. Or may be like their brothers in the narrow streets of Napoli. In Dekemhare, they celebrated Festa Del Vino using their own grapes from vast vineyards. It was then that from almost every Italian house gramophones blared out nostalgic music like:Violino Zigano, Vola Colomba, Biancha Vola, Mamma,etc( thanks to Google).
The majority, however, lived in palazzo and villas and went to Theatro Asmara on Sunday nights to watch French can-can performed by Eritrean beauties or gawk at a Dr. Cicarelli’s majgico-hypnotic shows.
Do you know that in the 1930’s Asmara boasted car and horse racing? The car race used real Italian sport cars such as Maserati, or Bugattis, and the Biggis, and Barones were the aces of the day. And you know what? There were Ferris wheels at the present Bahti Meskerem, and cabarets abounded where Italian singers came all the way from Rome or Milan to croon and entertain.
In 1928 Umberto II visited Asmara followed by Emmanuel III in 1932. Behold the news of the Day! Some old man told me that Mussolini came to Asmara secretly. I didn’t believe him. It is also said Queen Elizabeth, Marshal Broz Tito of Yugozlavia, Seku Toure of Guinea, and the Queen of Holland (Yolanda) came to Asmara, not to mention Van Johnson (American Movie actor), Gordon Mitchel (Italian Movie actor), Claudio Villa(Italian Singer),etc.
The Italians occupied Asmara in August 1889. By 1938 Asmara had its complete city and administrative plan.
Asmara became the capital city of Eritrea after Massawa.
It is said that when the Italians moved to Asmara from Massawa, they never erased the decree by which the port city became the capital city. But Asmara already existed way back during the Middle Ages, as some old maps confirm. It became Eritrea’s capital city most probably due to its cool climate.
In 1945, Asmara was reportedly nominated along with Yalta and Tehran as a conference venue to be attended by the then President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) of USA, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Premier Joseph Stalin of the USSR. Yalta took the honour.
But when Soviet Russia’s Khrushchev confronted USA in 1961, Asmara was among those targeted by the Soviets in case war erupted. The Kagnew station in Asmara, the biggest US intelligence network in Africa could only be stopped with a direct hit by a nuclear bomb. Well, instead of getting nuke out of existence, Asmara got its first TV and FM, thanks to Americans.
“Some of the Ferenji (White people) even brought ski boards with them” continues my Granddad.
“Who could be the idiot who brought these all the way from Italy thinking he could ski on the slopes of Arba Robu?” I asked.
“I don’t know”
“Probably a Tyrolean who thought every mountain was covered with snow,” I said.
Speaking of mountains, the ropeway (Teleferica) that stretched from Asmara to Massawa was the longest in the world. Can you imagine sending your products directly to Massawa by rope?
No trucks, no trains, no drivers, no pinhead curves, no falling off….But sometimes(I don’t know how much truth there is to this) intrepid and enterprising baboons would jump on for a pleasant ride from Arabia Robu, to Gindae, treating themselves with sugar and whatever the sacks contained.
It is also said that Asmara was the first town in the world to use electric-driven trucks. The Asmara municipality bought them for collecting garbage. The Derg officials didn’t like them. If they are real trucks they have to take fuel and make noise, they reasoned. Something that moved without making noise aroused suspicion. And then the people who killed them in the streets made no sound at all except when they pulled the trigger.
What else can I say about Asmara that only few people knew? I asked my granddad. That the main streets were washed every week? That the Municipality Band (Composed of old Italians) played for the strolling public in front of the Marcato Del Pesce (Enda Assa) every Sunday? That it was once the capital city of Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa) with its air force base in Gura?
Well, in the final analysis only one thing can make Asmara happy, of course, among lots of other things, and that’s to call it the world’s capital city of Art Deco. And now Asmara is A UNESCO World Heritage Site. I hope this will keep it happy, until we rummage through our clutter of memories or in this case that of our grandparents and find something more interesting to apply to it.