Asmara is itself a giant monument to colonial folly. When it comes to architecture, the Italians simply lost their heads.
—Michela Wrong, I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation
In early July 2017, Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hundreds of modernist buildings in the historic city center, built between 1935 and 1941 under Italian colonial rule, made it onto this prestigious list, along with the city of Asmara itself. This moment comes as Eritrea, which sits like a narrow, slanted pistol along the Horn of Africa, continues to face fierce criticism. Its government is considered one of the world’s most repressive regimes. This is a place where, in recent years, more and more young people have been fleeing, across harsh lands and seas, to reach the porous shores of the Mediterranean so as to escape the government. Asmara first became the capital city of Italian Eritrea in 1897. By the time the Italians left in 1942, they had built edifices with off-white petrol stations the shape of aircraft and pastel villas the size of spaceships, leaving a remarkable legacy of Art Deco and Futurist architecture throughout the city. Many Asmarinos now carry the burden of living with this displaced heritage — one that wasn’t even of our own making in the first place.
When I first heard about Asmara becoming a World Heritage Site, I felt overwhelmed. I have been there only twice: when my grandmother Berrezaf died in 1985, and to visit my estranged father in 2006. Unlike me, most of my family, now living in the U.S., retains strong ties with Asmara. I wondered how this news must have made them feel, since they had left the city in haste after 20 or 30 years. All that was left, it seems, were their stories, a few old photographs, and some curt phone calls to those they had left behind (the government was known to eavesdrop on such conversations). However, this time around, I felt as though the city’s long-forgotten modernist buildings had come back to life. But this only made me question why Asmara was given this designation, especially as the country is reeling from the effects of decades of political and economic hardship.
In the summer of 2006, I stayed for almost three weeks at Africa Pension, a majestic pastel pink hotel built in the early 1930s that sits on a calm hill overlooking the city. It had cold marble floors and wide mauve sunken sofas. Power cuts meant that showering felt like skinny-dipping in the Arctic Sea. Walking around the narrow, manicured sculpture garden at dusk, I could sense that Asmara’s architecture had escaped the brunt of war. Down the hill toward the World Bank building was an immaculate Art Deco villa, built in 1938. I would go there to read one of the few local English newspapers and surf the internet on broadband. All the newspapers talked about was President Isaias Afworki, a stubborn war veteran who refused to step down after more than a decade in power. Everyone, from street cleaners and journalists to armed guards and diplomats, had to give in to his omniscience. He was the only ruler the country had known since gaining independence in 1991.
It was only after 2012 that I managed to come to terms with Asmara and its countless murky stories of war, exile, and colonialism. After reading I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation by British journalist Michela Wrong, I came to understand why Asmara, which sits at an altitude of 2,325 meters, had managed to escape the ravages of the war for independence from Ethiopia, which lasted from 1961 to 1991. As Wrong also observed in a 2014 BBC podcast, “War, which so often razes beautiful cities, did the opposite in here, keeping Asmara safe.” I realized that my generation, living in exile, had lost out on the opportunity to shape Asmara’s modern history. I suspect this void has allowed the government to distort the stories of the city center’s modernist sites.
My cousin Dawit, who now lives in Colorado, calls Asmara, where he was born and raised, “the lost city.” He finds it odd that Eritrea’s repressive regime has been lobbying tirelessly for these historic sites to gain world recognition, while very little has been done to protect them since the government first came to power in 1991. He argues that while Asmara’s buildings “might still be there, [Asmara] has lost itself to tyranny.” Seeing some of these buildings today, looking decrepit on YouTube, has left Dawit feeling sad and helpless. Although he remains fiercely loyal to this “lost city,” he no longer believes in what he describes as the government’s “lost causes”: the way it takes credit for the country’s triumphs, while locals often suffer the cruel consequences of its stifling grip. This just goes to show how the government’s undisputed role in Asmara becoming a World Heritage Site can muddy the appeal of public spaces to local residents, even going as far as to alienate Asmarinos who have been forced to flee the regime.
But governments can’t dictate how the memory of public spaces echo our longing for a sense of home. Biniam, a close family friend and former Eritrean government official, insists that “even after dictatorship, life goes on.” He paints a rosier picture of Asmara, describing his best memories at one of the city’s oldest cafés, Bar Vittoria on Itegue Zehaitu Street. Hearing him talk from his new home in California, I realized that landmarks can carry the weight of history, but it is people, such as the young waitresses in olive green aproned dresses whom I spoke with while I was there, that fill places with life. Biniam longs to go back to his family in Asmara, to savor the aroma of fresh coffee and cake as vintage Millecento cars drive past Bar Vittoria. He emphasizes that Asmara meant a great deal to him and so many others long before it was designated a World Heritage Site: “it’s home; it doesn’t matter what others think,” he said. The Italians might have built those sites, he said, but Eritreans have always owned the memories that continue to live inside them.
Memory and politics alone don’t determine how citizens and government officials memorialize monuments. There’s a strong sense in which the people of Asmara now “own” the buildings themselves, too. My cousin Eirmias pointed out that Asmara, where he went to university in the late ’90s, could now reclaim its place and dignity within colonial history. Furthermore, preserving and promoting these landmarks could help improve tourism and possibly even the economy, leading Asmara to a better future. Eirmias told me this as he described the joys of student life, drinking cold Melotti beer — also known as Asmara birra — at the small bar in Selam Hotel (built in 1937) with a handful of fresh roasted peanuts and a chance to watch some television. I walked past this Art Deco building often on the way to my father’s office. From the outside, it looks low, pale blue, and rectangular. I could sense that Eirmias was quite conflicted about these historic sites now coming back to haunt us. On the one hand, he was proud to embrace them as legitimate Asmara landmarks: “Now we own them,” he said, speaking from his home in Houston. Yet he couldn’t help but feel that “Italians used our forefathers as slaves to build this city… They enslaved us, but we still love them.”
I don’t believe Asmara can ever reclaim its place in what began as a rigorous colonial construct. Inhabiting public spaces isn’t the same as owning them, and these buildings will always be a bold reminder of Italian rule. If anything, this historic designation has forced me and some members of my family to come to terms with the pitfalls of memorializing public spaces for political reasons, as the government has done: parading this historic moment as a triumph for the people of Eritrea, as well as the struggle for independence, while the country suffers the consequences. That’s usually why our own personal stories become skewed and monotonous, told only through the misleading eyes of power and propaganda. What I find even more disturbing is the apathy, coming especially from those of us living abroad, far away from the regime. We’re still struggling to reconcile our colonial past and unsure of our role in the future of Asmara, especially under Afworki. I wish we could learn from the Italians, for whom, as Wrong said on the podcast, “Asmara was a gift… There was room to stretch, [and the architects] could be as daring as they liked.” Only if Asmarinos become just as daring can we possibly begin shape the future of the country’s many endearing modernist sites and our lives inside them.