Babylon Square, a name Asmarinos gave to a corner of their city, is just a few metres from the Administration of Zoba Maekel in Asmara. Now sweater factories, electronics shops, coffee bars ring the place. A friend, who has an intimate knowledge of Asmara of the 1960s, says bars on both sides of the streets lined it, and blaring music (rare in other parts of the city) issuing from them.
I don’t know why or when Babylon Square got its name.
But, I have this ‘theory’. In the Eritrean imagination, especially in the Christian highland population, Babylon stood for a place that gave itself to wild living – unrestrained dancing, and drinking, and prostitution. In their imagination, Babylon of the Bible (which lent its name to a corner of their city) was the city full of filth, indiscriminate sexual activity, and ungodliness. Full of noise and uproar. A mix of noise, sin, and wild living. Full of confusion. In the words of an acquaintance, it is a place where someone asks for cement but gets water, or asks for hammer, and he gets a nail. It is a place in which, in a moral sense, people cannot understand each other.
Babylon Square symbolized a majority of Eritreans’ rejection of such (in their eyes) an improper behaviour as extramarital sex, prostitution, and drunkenness, all associated in their imaginations to the Square. Such an attitude is understandable taking the fact that Eritreans had customary laws that discouraged and even punished extramarital sex, let alone prostitution, which, according Dr. Tibebu, came to Eritrea and Ethiopia with the coming of the Italians.
The Customary Laws of Eritrea, which still imperceptibly hold sway on the life of the people, treated adultery as a serious offence against a spouse. In a number of ethnic groups, an adulterer face serious consequences if he was caught in the act. In others, an offender paid heavy fine. In the Bilen, an adulterer paid about 10,000 Nacfa if the woman got pregnant. Similarly, the woman’s family paid the same amount to her husband if she was guilty of the act. In the Afar, the Nara, the Saho, and the Rashaida the adulteress was made to pay wedding expenses and the amount of money spent for the purchase of common property. In the Tigrigna, for example, in the Adgna Tegeleba Customary Law, the adulteress or adulterer can claim and take only 1/4 of the property they owned together, while the spouse got the other 3/4. In another Tigrigna Customary Law, if a man was proved to have committed adultery for a second time, he made no claim on their common property, and got nothing. The influence of the customary laws can be traced to the Transitional Code of Eritrea which has decreed that adulterer can legally claim only 1/4 of their common property [Higtat Indaba Bimenxir Zemenawi Higi Nxotawi Maerinet, Muluberhan Berhe, 272-276]).
It is not, then, surprising that prostitution (more offensive to the Eritreans than extra-marital sex) didn’t affect Eritreans as much as other people from the region. In The Making of Modern Ethiopia 1896 – 1974, Teshale Tibebu suggests how Eritrean attitudes to work and prostitution saved them from this social scourge.
In rural Eritrea, where most villages have no bars, no such places as pubs exist. However, suwa (a local alcoholic drink) is an important part of a peasant’s life, and drinking it is encouraged in the highlands. People don’t need to be invited to visit a village celebrating a feast in honour of its patron saint, a nigdet. After a day’s work, a farmer’s wife, if available, puts a melelik of suwa before her husband as he sits at the table. In fact, a woman’s house-making skills are evaluated by how successfully she can brew suwa and prepare delicious dishes. Often, families invite one another as they brewed suwa in honour of the family’s patron saint. In short, drinking suwa is part of the Eritrean highland culture so much so that children as young as ten are allowed to drink. On such occasions, women drink as much as men but are not expected to get drunk in public.
In towns, men drink in bars and spend hours drinking. The culture that allows women to drink at negdet or weddings, or other social occasions, through its undocumented rules, silently excludes them from bars. Therefore, the only women one sees even in Asmara are either the bar owners or the waitresses. Dr. Tibebu attributes Eritrean attitudes to work and their work ethic (p. 158) to Italian colonization of Eritrea. He suggests that such an attitude shielded Eritreans from the scourge of prostitution. But as I have tried to show through the quotes from the Customary Laws, which the Eritreans had before the coming of the Italians, it is hard to accept this as unqualified fact.
It is true the Italians introduced modern technology and reluctantly ‘taught’ the Eritreans how to use modern technology, but they certainly cannot take credit for the work ethic of the Eritreans. It is common knowledge that the Italians limited education to Eritreans to grade 4, and none of this was technical. The technological know-how Eritreans got, they got as employees of Italians. The Fascist Government, and the other Governments before it, had a policy that restricted knowledge to Eritreans. In short, the Italians didn’t teach Eritreans any work ethic the Eritreans hadn’t already had. In fact, the Eritreans worked very hard through the different seasons to feed themselves and their families. This culture of work – backbreaking summer work, tilling the land, fertilizing their fields, weeding, and harvesting – was the daily routine of the Eritrean farmer.
In Eritrea, work is sacred. Self-sufficiency is a creed. Our proverbs, which have shaped our attitudes on a number of issues for generations, express this belief. He who hopes to secure something for free will be like a tattered shoe, a Tigrigna proverb warns. Another Tigrigna proverb expresses the possible psychological consequences of accepting a free lunch. A free lunch renders a beggar like an ugly monkey. The person who begs, despite his or her attractive physical features, cannot be but repulsive to the giver. It is these beliefs that deterred Eritreans from sliding into unacceptable choices.