Sunday, August 09, 2009

CIAO ASMARA: Justin Hill

My earlier entry was about a book that relived the experience of the Hippie Trail. The current one stands stark contrast to the kind of life that is portrayed. Here the author is trying to relive the experience of the freedom struggle of a nation, that honestly speaking, I did not know, existed.

Ciao Asmara is the story of Justin Hill's two years in the tiny African state of Eritrea, the people he met, and the astonishing country he discovered. He describes a nation rich in history: the ancient reign of the Queen of Sheba, the rule of both the Turks and the Italians; the golden age of the 1950's, when the capital Asmara was the most industrialised part of Africa. He depicts a modern Eritrea that is a country of the extremes: from the burnt ochre landscape littered with war, to Asmara's art deco delights; a population that has spent thirty years fighting Ethiopia in a struggle that the West has largely forgotten.

Glimpses of prehistory

The language spoken in Asmara is Tigrinya. Tigrinya is a Semitic language, The tribes of the Ethiopian highlands claim descent from the Ethiopic, grandson of Noah. Their greatest ruler was the legendary Queen Makeda. Queen Makeda lived in the 11th and 12th centuries, owned a fleet of 73 ships, and sponsored caravans of over 500 camels that traded as far afield as Palestine and India. But it is through the name of her capital that Queen Makeda is known to us: the Queen of Sabea or as she is now called, the Queen of Sheba.

The young Queen Makeda decided to visit King Solomon to learn kingship from him. She is known to have lived as a guest of King Solomon for six months. And the sweet verses of Solomon's Songs in the Bible talk of their love. The son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon founded the dynasty of Solomaic kings that ruled Axum until the 10th century AD. The Axumite peoples, once unified, separated into the ethnic group that now make up the Muslim and Christian peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea: the Amhara, Tigrinya and Tigre. That's the pre-historic background of the Eritrean kings.

While searching for more information on Eritrea, I came across Hillary's blog. Though there isn't any information about the author as such, there is some indication that she works with the United Nation’s efforts to promote education/other services in various African nations. Her blog has quite some insights on the life in Eritrea. There is significant information regarding the beverages of Eritrea, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, especially the Melotti beer that Justin has also mentioned in the book.

Modern History
Eritrea was colonised by the Egyptians first, then the Italians, followed by the British (after World War II) and finally by Ethiopia which took away almost everything that Eritrea has gained during the European colonial rule -- including the only railway lines that Eritrea had connecting two of its key cities. I feel pity on the Eritrean freedom fighters who fought the communist Ethiopian regime which has been looked upon as pro-people, while it actually was otherwise. And since Ethiopia was a communist nation, no communist country including the Russians and the North Koreans accepted Eritrea's pleas for help. Instead, the Eritrean freedom fighters were further suppressed with Russian and Korean support. Therefore the outer world didn't even know of the Eritrean freedom struggle.

The Book
After a long session of intermittent reading of the book, I actually fell in love with an African nation I didn't know existed. Therefore this book to me was more an eye opener than a text book of history.I tried to contact the author Justin by sending an e-mail from his website, but somehow it bounced back and I had to write this entry without having the permission from the author himself to excerpt his glimpses of the silent African nation from the book. A good read.