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The Bullet Ring: Asmara, Eritrea

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I couldn’t take my eyes off her fingers.

They were draped in bands of metal, dirty, gritty and dull, with scratches and bumps, uneven on the sides, carved from discarded bullets gathered in a place of war.

Some were thin bands, others majestic constructs jutting into the air, ready to poke out an eye with the slightest gesture.

She was northern European, her pale hair and crystalline eyes standing out amid the dark skins of Asmara, Eritrea. As she waved her hands, punctuating her sentences with a finger, those metal stubs glinted in the sunset.

We were sitting at an outdoor café, wicker chairs and marble tables and espresso cups topped with froth, the aroma transporting me to somewhere between Rome and Naples. Around me the skyline, blissfully highrise-free, slowly etched itself against the falling night as I listened to her drone about the war. Not the war in Eritrea – that 30-year adventure had ended with Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia several years ago – but the war in neighboring Sudan, the war which had slammed the border shut and ended my overland cross-Africa journey abruptly, stranding me here.

As she slapped the table with the palm of her hand, I couldn’t help but wonder whether those metallic bits had pierced human skin before ending up on her fingers. Was there someone’s blood or viscera scratched into those rough edges? Some long-ago DNA that could be scraped off if the cold case squad flew into town?

Behind me the espresso machine hissed and howled, like a steam engine pulling into an Agatha Christie book. A meter long, made of copper and other shiny metals, its pressure dials and intricate tubing gave it the look and sound of an engineering contraption, perhaps a locomotive that would soon pick up and chug away. Beyond the terrace I could see the floor was tiled, as it might have been in Italy, filled with cigarette stubs and crumpled sugar wrappers, the hot air stuck indoors looking for ways to escape. Those of us fortunate enough to have snagged an outdoor table rested comfortably, watching the tall palms weave back and forth in the evening breeze.

Asmara is a most Italian city. For more than 50 years until 1941 Italians ruled here and many older Eritreans could still understand the language, speak it even. Italian architecture stands proudly, much of it Art Deco from the Italian colonization, strangely preserved these past decades from destruction by a war that prevented the country’s development and modernization. The best espresso in Africa lives here (although Ethiopians would debate that) and the meal of choice was often excellent pizza and pasta, along with the foul – a bean dish – ubiquitous to this part of the world.

Chenna, let’s call her Chenna, wore clothes as strange as her jewelry. If the cut had been different I would have called it army fatigue chic meets zuria hood, a zuria being a light, bright fabric throw draped easily about the head. She was an aid worker, the kind of humanitarian with a mission to ‘save the world’ and whose knowledge sat above all other knowledge (I recognized this immediately, having been guilty of this myself at times). Certainly Chenna’s work was stressful, dealing as she did with refugees and hungry people who had lost everything on the fringes of Africa. But here on the Horn, she came to relax. To some of us, Asmara was the tip of the known world, the end of it. To Chenna, it was the beginning of civilization, a place where hot coffee and even hotter showers were to be had.

I spent a month in Asmara before setting off to see the rest of the country and Chenna would waltz in every weekend, as though this tough little capital were her personal resort, her happy place. Exhausted by 30 years of guerrilla warfare against Ethiopia, Eritreans were certainly happy to be here, happy to be alive, happy not to be shooting anyone. Eritreans who had left during the fighting were swarming back, and the country was poised to develop, or do whatever countries at peace with an influx of aid money usually do (sadly, a repressive government would eventually smash this promise).

Sitting at my café I looked down the street as the traffic light turned red. Then green. As far as I could see this was Asmara’s only traffic light.

As I walked the streets by day I felt I was in a Hollywood movie, Silent Era. Much of my time would be spent in the shadows of Art Deco buildings standing proud as new, their rounded facades and pastel blues and greens and beiges offset by palm trees and yes, graceful avenues, because there’s no other way to describe them. The Odeon, the Impero, the Roma, the crumbling Augustus, cinemas built during Italy’s reign and some still showing films, their plush seats a bit lumpy but unchanged since Italian behinds sat in them all those decades ago.

Asmara City Hall

City Hall (or Governor’s Palace) in Asmara, Eritrea, an example of the kind of architecture scattered throughout the city. Charles Fred courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The café was the gathering place, as it is in Italy, where jobless young men would congregate for the price of a cup to remember the war, the hated war, the victorious war, sometimes the regretted war, when they all felt they had a purpose (and two legs and two arms, not always the case in these post-war days). Other than amputation the only sign of war left in Asmara was the use of huge spent artillery shell as flower pots.

Everyone was curious, unaccustomed to seeing post-war foreigners, foreigners not in military uniform (unless you call jeans and a backpack a uniform). Why are you here? Do you like Eritrea? I have a cousin in Canada.

We foreigners would gather at our chosen café each evening. Chenna the aid worker, but also Tim and Nica, a traveling couple whom I’d periodically bump into on my African travels, and a scattered group of expats and Eritreans, many of whom had returned to help rebuild their country after the war, a country of desperate poverty once you left the city limits. Many hours were spent discussing just how to do that. Looking at Eritrea some years later, closed and angry, clearly those conversations went nowhere.

We eventually dispersed but I still envision Chenna slapping the air with her cannibalistic adornments: her bullet rings are my second memory of Eritrea. My first is always coffee.