by Ayanna Yonemura
On Saturday, July 8, the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, added Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, to its list of World Heritage sites. Despite the wars that have plagued Eritrea’s short history, Asmara’s modernist and art deco architecture remain amazingly well-preserved. For six months in 2002, from the moment I woke up, during my walks through town to teach at the University of Asmara and while I ran errands on its main avenue, Asmara’s architecture dazzled me. However much I admire it though, this extraordinary aesthetic beauty doesn’t prevent me from thinking of my Fulbright months in Eritrea as my time of teaching and living totalitarianism.
Living in the Italian totalitarian era-constructed environment added a bizarre twist to my surreal and disturbing experience of Eritrea’s totalitarian political environment. Teaching about Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin’s regimes as part of a modern world history course was part of my unplanned participant observation of living under a totalitarian regime; as was lodging for four months in a government-owned hotel, the Emba Soira. Experts describe much of Asmara’s notable architecture with words like “futurist” and “bold” and, while the hotel hasn’t garnered the same amount of attention, they would be similarly impressed with the Emba Soira’s interior.
The hotel interior’s main feature is streamlined, light, wood furniture coordinated in every room throughout the hotel from the restaurant, lobby and bar on the main floor to the two stories of guest rooms. Pastel-trimmed Italian linens and modern light fixtures gently accent the furniture. Visually, it was like living in a dream. While the phones were tapped, at least the hotel staff let me know if I had gotten phone messages—a courtesy I did not enjoy when I rented an apartment and shared a phone line with my landlady.
Located on the Horn of Africa and with a lengthy Red Sea coastline, Eritrea is the world’s third youngest country after East Timor and South Sudan, and government officials have spent many years of the nation’s short history lobbying UNESCO for Asmara’s World Heritage site status. Italian architects and Eritrean laborers built most of Asmara’s remarkable architecture in the 1930s during Italy’s totalitarian years under Mussolini (1922-1943) and while Eritrea was an Italian colony, 1889-1941. Italy lost Eritrea in WWII.
After Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962, Eritrean guerrilla fighters waged a thirty years war for independence that ended in 1991 when they defeated Ethiopian forces. In 1998, Eritrea fought a border war against Ethiopia. I set off for the Fulbright on New Year’s Eve of 2001, a year after this latest war’s ceasefire, having postponed my original departure date after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.
I had postponed my trip, because while most of the world focused on New York in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Eritrea’s President Afewerki seized the opportunity to crackdown internally. Students of the University of Asmara, his nation’s only university, were among the groups whom he targeted. The university students spent several months under armed guard in an Eritrean desert, literally one of the hottest places on earth, doing forced labor. Teaching at the university was a condition of receiving a Fulbright in Eritrea, and I had looked forward to it. I delayed my departure until the President released the students.
Once I reported at the University of Asmara, I was given the assignment of teaching modern world history to former guerrilla fighters who were, then, government employees at the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs. I knew that my students could quickly report every word I said during lectures to the authorities. Following my predecessor’s syllabus as the department chair had instructed, we spent weeks on the German and Italian totalitarian governments of the 1930s. As I lectured about these historical European regimes, I could not help but think of that I was living in a very similar moment. While I described the characteristics of totalitarianism, the parallel examples of Eritrea immediately came to mind. Each time I mentioned “totalitarianism,” I preceded it with “German” “Italian” or “European” making an effort to implicitly but, consistently, stress that I wasn’t talking about Eritrea. I’m sure that at least some my students made the connection but, of course, we never discussed it or anything that was happening in Eritrea.
Having been a German Studies major as an undergraduate, East Germany was my only reference point for navigating Eritrea. I had learned about its secret police and its state-controlled economy and propaganda through East German literature and some day trips into East Germany, but my studies were limited. As an American who had grown up in West Germany and California, my understanding of anything like a police state was superficial. Still, that limited knowledge gave me some context, some framework, for understanding when the Eritrean government banned Ethiopian music, listened to my phone calls, and I strongly suspect, sent a spy to chat with me at a cafe. Even in friends’ homes and cars, we whispered any unflattering comments we were brave enough to make about the president. I even averted my eyes the time I had to walk right by him to get to the restroom at a restaurant.
My research agenda suffered. The paranoia of librarians kept me out of the main archive for most of my stay and, trained to take copious ethnographic notes, I wrote down almost nothing, aware that government agents had showed up at the home of a previous foreign researcher and confiscated her notes. My notes, in the wrong hands, could lead to the imprisonment or death of Eritrean friends or colleagues. A U.S. security officer had warned me, “Perception is reality.”
For years, fear for friends and colleagues prevented me for publishing anything about Eritrea. Now, it seems that almost every Eritrean I know has escaped. My graduate school buddies successfully sought political asylum long ago and recently, while living in Kenya, I met young Eritreans whose affluent parents had bought their escape and bribed their way into Kenya. Still, during their flights, they were beaten up. In Kenya, they ran businesses but had no legal rights to own a business as they didn’t have legal papers to live or work there.
Since its people voted for Independence in a 1993 referendum, Eritrea has been a one party state and has had the same president, President Afwerki. In 2015, the UN accused the Eritrean government of pushing its people to migrate in order to flee human rights abuses yet also punishing those who try to leave the country without government permission. Then as now, Eritrea is high among the countries of origin for people applying for political asylum in Europe, in the US and, even more so, in East African nations like Ethiopia. Eritreans also make up a disproportionate amount of the African refugees crossing the Mediterranean and in many European camps.
“Cynical political travesty” is how the Eritrea government characterized the 2015 UN report. In 2016, the UN released another report on Eritrean human rights violations to which a New York Time’s opinion piece responded with, “. . .things aren’t as bad as the report claims.” In June 2017, Newsweek published an article on Eritrea called “Africa’s North Korea” citing the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.
The UNESCO decision to place Asmara on the World Heritage list is rare positive publicity for the Eritrean government, which responded with a celebratory press release. I doubt if anyone who has been to Asmara would argue about its incredible beauty. Recalling it, I feel in awe of how architecture and design can lift the human spirit, but my strongest memories are of living and teaching totalitarianism.
Ayanna Yonemura holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning, a M.A. in African Studies and a B.A. in German Studies from the University of California. She has been honored with two Fulbright Fellowships and a Civil Liberties Public Education Fund National Fellowship. Currently, she teaches Ethnic Studies at California State University Sacramento.