An excerpt from chapter six, “Rome’s Rome,”
I traveled as a kind of pilgrim. I wanted to witness the site of one of Africa’s greatest, harshest, and most recent revolutions for independence: Eritrea’s thirty-year armed struggle—the longest war in modern African history—to liberate itself from Ethiopian colonial rule, added on to Eritrea’s seventy-year struggle to liberate itself first from Italian and then British colonial rule before Ethiopia took over. Yet I also traveled as a literary pilgrim: to write about what I experienced and toting two of my books, published by Kassahun Checole’s Africa World Press, to personally deliver them to Arefine Tewolde, the manager of its office in Asmara and Kassahun’s uncle.
“Ah, Cantalupo. Benvenuto a Asmara. Avete un buon viaggio? Venga all’ interno e rendasi comodo.” (1) Arefine stood in a huge glass and iron open doorway under a red, yellow, black, and green sign with “Africa World Press/Red Sea Press” superimposed on an image of the earth with Africa in the center.
Kassahun had told me that after I arrived I should ask at my hotel, Albergo Italia, for directions to the post office, and I would find the press nearby. I stumbled down an iron and marble staircase that morning, after arriving in Asmara after midnight from Cairo. Built in 1899, the hotel only had two floors. The slightly dingy mirrors, the pink and white plaster walls with laughing putti and overripe grapes over the doorways, the marble, the restrained dining room with white tablecloths and wine glasses seemed strangely familiar and comforting, even though the trip made me feel dazed and uneasy. The bulkily sweatered but neatly dressed, middle-aged desk clerk didn’t understand what I was trying to say until I mentioned “Africa World Press.”
With an open hand held vertically and slowly chopping the air in the direction of the hotel’s front door, he said slowly and gently, “Diritto. Su. Su Diritto.” (2)
Walking on a wide cement sidewalk up a finely paved street, I quickly felt short of breath and stopped to look at a building at the first intersection: again two story, with two symmetrical and sloping staircases, their balustrades opening onto a street corner as if inviting a passerby to ascend into a pilastered, baroque temple conferring its dignity and importance on whoever would be lucky enough to pass through its portico and columns to have a meeting scheduled inside. I started uphill again and in a few minutes came to a line of small taxis: six orange Fiats from the 1960s, cinquecentos and seicentos, some of them battered, but their interiors—like the nearly empty metal dashboards with a few tiny dials and two black knobs—still gleaming, however worn.
“Buongiorno, signore. Taxi?” (3) Men older than the hotel clerk, gray haired but dressed similarly, exuded calm and confidence as they spoke an almost stately Italian.
“Per favore, signore. Dove desiderate andare? Benvenuto a Asmara. Prova la mia machina. Siete stanco ‘sta mattina. Siedasi giu.” (4)
I faced a man who looked like an African, older version of my cousin Charlie, who tended the bar at Fucci’s Italian Kitchen in Newark, New Jersey. The taxi driver held his car door open and slapped the torn green leather seat for me to get in.
“Africa World Press? Per favore, dove Africa World Press?” I asked wearily. (5)
Quickly closing the old Fiat’s door, which creaked and required an added push to fit back into the frame, the driver rubbed the three-day’s whiskers on his reddish brown face until it sparkled. He gently turned me around by the shoulders. “Diritta. Giu. Giu. Diritta. Siete vicini,” (6) he answered in a kind of melodious staccato, again with an open hand vertically chopping Asmara’s low-oxygen air laced with morning traffic fumes at seventy-six hundred feet.
“A la Posta Centrale,” (7) he said, and I kept repeating it to myself as I walked down the hill I had just come up. Where was I? Church bells began ringing down the street to the right, and I saw a Franciscan cathedral. Next minute I reached an open square and heard my mind saying, “Che cosa e questa piazza?”
A large archway in the middle of a one-story building painted avocado and lemon and lined with almost as tall, classically corniced windows crowned by a white frieze of veils and flowers looked like a fancy version of the back entrance to the courthouse where my father worked in Newark. I finally got my bearings when I saw “Central Post Office” in thick black letters in English painted across the pediment under equally thick characters that looked like the bones of the Hebrew alphabet—the Ge’ez script used for Tigrinya, Tigre, and Amharic.
Across from the post office, I saw a row of high-ceiling shops and watched an old man in a bulky wool, double-breasted three-piece suit tap his cane on the window where inside two men dressed more casually sat at a long, low, polished, light wood counter, both their fingers touching a picture in an opened newspaper. I took my books out of my bag and walked in, happy to have found the heavy iron gate over the top of the storefront pushed all the way up and the place wide open for business.
“Buon giorno. Mi chiamo Carlo Cantalupo. Un amico di Kassahun. Ho portato questi libri. Ecco. Sono per lei. Vi ha detto che stavo venendo?” (8) I had not planned to introduce myself in Italian. It just came out, as if the streets, the buildings, and everyone else whom I talked to, who also spoke Italian, made me forget my English.
Small framed, trim, with a head that seemed too large for his body and wearing oversized, plastic aviator glasses that, when they would slide down his nose, he would push back up disconcertingly with his middle finger, Arefine naturally responded in Italian. I quickly used up most of the Italian I could remember, but as I listened to Arefine and only understood half of what he said, I wondered how I could feel so comfortable here, after ten minutes in the streets of Asmara? Arefine looked up, his glasses sliding down his nose, to see how I would reply.
“Per favore, Arefine. Ho dimenticato il mio Italiano perche io solo parlo Inglese nella America. Possiamo parlare Inglese?” (9)
He smiled, “Certo. Non e una problema, Charlus.” (10) He pronounced my name CHAR-lus.
“When did you get into Asmara? How was your flight? Kassahun has told me you are staying at the Albergo Italia. E bellisima.” (11) He brought the fingers of his right hand together and kissed them.
I joined the old man with the heavy double-breasted suit, who went into the bookshop before me, to sit at the counter. His two hands resting on the top of his cane, he didn’t say a word, as if he had sat down to watch a play, in which I was now a background extra flipping through a stack of newspapers. At first finding two versions of the same paper, one in Tigrinya and one in Arabic, going three weeks back, at the bottom of the pile I eventually found the English editions, titled Haddas Eritrea, meaning “New Eritrea.” I also looked through the most recent Ethiopian Airlines in-air magazine, featuring a glossy picture of the Rock Church in Lalibella, and a year-old issue of the Italian magazine Oggi, with a similarly glossy picture of Pope John Paul II, crowned and mitred, and seemingly cringing as he was giving a blessing. Meanwhile, Arefine stood in the doorway and held court with a near constant stream of well-wishers greeting him warmly in Tigrinya frequently laced with Italian as if he was the pope or at least the mayor of Asmara. The severity of the titles of the books about Eritrea in the shop window—some of which I also had back in my hotel room — Against All Odds, A Painful Season, Even the Stones Are Burning, Never Kneel Down, Riding the Whirlwind—seemed to belie the easygoing atmosphere.
It rolled on for the rest of the morning until a little boy in a school uniform came running into the shop and scooted around to the back of the counter to hug Arefine, only reaching his waist. Arefine hugged him back, bent over, whispered in his ear and straightened up to make a kind of announcement.
“Ah, look who is here. We have an American from Kassahun. Meet Charlus.”
The boy ran over to me, kissed the top of my hand, placed it on his forehead for a second and ran back to Arefine. I turned to look at the old man, but he had left without my realizing it.
Arefine continued, “Charlus. We close for lunch. Come to my house for some pasta. Then later we will make plans for you for tomorrow.”
“Grazie molto, Arefine, but I’m still tired from my trip and need to go back to my room to take a nap. Is there somewhere near where I can get a sandwich to bring back with me?” (12)
We repeated this exchange around four more times, in varying mixtures of Italian and English, until he told me about a small market called Senay, a block past the piazza and toward the cathedral. Passing through the market’s doorway piled with plum tomatoes, beans, peppers, apples, mangoes, and bananas, I waited at the counter as two Italian nuns in full habits that I hadn’t seen since the 1960s in grammar school filled their bags with meats, cheese, vegetables, olive oil, bread, pasta, and two bottles of wine, Lachrymae Christi, red. I took one off the shelf myself. When my turn came, I ordered what I never expected to find in Africa, the same kind of sandwich I could have had at Fucci’s in Newark: prosciutto and provolone. The owner behind the counter nodded, quickly sliced the prosciutto, cut the provolone, and, taking the roll, pulled out the doughy inside: “gutted it,” as I would say at home, the same way as I learned from my father. Both men even looked the same and could have been brothers.
Nearly half a million refugees. Famine. ELF/EPLF civil war. Eritrea versus the superpowers. Civilian massacres. Emperor Haile Selassie. Lion of Judah. Hundreds of thousands of troops in months-long battles. Round-the-clock bombing. Mengistu. Human wave attacks. Napalm. Chemical weapons. The third, the sixth, the seventh Ethiopian offensives. Red Star. President Isaias Afwerki. “A handful of bandits in the hills.” Back in my room at the Albergo Italia, I read about an Eritrean reality as invisible but at least as important as God—only it had be to be believed in because it happened—in the almost painfully bright Eritrean air. It gilded the deep red wine. But as I drank and read more, my experience of walking in Asmara in the morning felt like a kind of false cheer: shredding, going crooked, haplessly hanging like the flimsy banner I saw when I arrived the night before in Asmara airport, proclaiming “Welcome to Free Eritrea.”
I looked out my hotel window. The old man who had disappeared in the bookstore sat alone in a shaded doorway across the street and chewed his handkerchief. He looked up at me and had no eyes, but tears poured out of his empty eye sockets.
I turned away, but when I looked again, he was gone, and I was standing in the stationary store that also sold books where I had stopped on the way back to the hotel. Flipping through an Italian-language catalogue of reproductions from Asmara’s National Museum, I saw a picture of a headless body yanking out its left limbs with its right. Another by the same artist pictured bodiless huge bones breaking each other into tiny pieces. A photograph captioned with “EPLF” showed the face of soldier with a slash running from his eyebrows to a rifle butt, or was it a donkey’s hoof where his chin should have been? Another photo had two lonely tanks exploding at each other across a grove of papaya and oranges. A headless soldier’s body flew at a sixty-degree angle above it. I could smell sulfur and burning meat, and the heat felt like an overwhelming kiss of half laundry bleach and half flies. What I thought at first was an abstract painting became mashed up tendons, blood, bone and marrow, titled Martyr. A painting labeled “materials: berries, clay, canvas, battery acid” showed a parade of skeletons marching across a broken bridge. Some chewed straggly hair and others dropped along the way into an open graveyard already too full of corpses, many of them half stuffed in ragged sacks and ammunition crates perched on by crows. Two men with gasoline cans dowsed the scene and another two men ran away, their uniforms catching and ripping on thorn bushes, the only vegetation. A dark acrylic diptych of an Eritrean woman, her head tightly braided on top but loosely unfurling down her neck—traditionally dressed in a kind of white gauze shawl and dress trimmed with green and golden ribbons—showed her on one side running into the shadow of a palm tree. On the other side the same woman emerged from the palm’s shade in fatigues—with a big Afro and short shorts. She carried the bloody head of an Ethiopian soldier as if she was a kind of biblical Judith having just slain Holofernes. I turned to a landscape of salmon, tangerine, fuchsia, and white bougainvillea, bamboo, mimosa trees, and cypress. In a kind of time-lapse effect repeated across a green and blue sky, something like a sun but really a bloody flag rose and set.
Why was I hearing constant machine gun fire? Muffled drums, hoof clatter, rumbling iron wheels? The cathedral bells wouldn’t stop. Where were the men in this city? Why were piano wire and tin cans strung across the sidewalk? How did it get to be dawn? Was that the beautiful teenage girl whom Arefine had spoken to this morning in Africa World Press doorway now lying half in the street and half on the curb? Her dress was bloody and pulled up. Was she dead? Why were all these broken dishes, jugs, and smashed ovens all over the street? She was alive. She had a grenade and was pulling the pin. My face was wet. She exploded like a sack of grain. Why was the page wet?
Rain? I opened my eyes and rain was coming in my hotel room’s window. A pink puddle filled the bottom of my wine glass and rain splotched my books. I heard thunder. I looked outside and huge cumulus clouds rolled up as far as I could see from the square, deco rooftops with laundry left out and satellite dishes everywhere. A jackhammer or maybe just two men with sledgehammers were knocking out a wall down the hall. Obviously the break for lunch was over by now, and I remembered my appointment with Arefine.
As I walked there, I wondered why I had not noticed this street full of tailors before. I saw one in a creamy silk jacket that contrasted his dark olive and bronze skin as he fit four boys with suits. Their mother, her gauzy shawl thrown back over her shoulders, her sleeves and dress trimmed in purple and brown satin, sat on the tailor’s stoop, hand in chin, wide eyed, her teeth like so many of the other Eritrean women’s, pinched and prominent beneath her narrow lips. Shops with a hundred slight variations on what she wore lined the next street. I was lost, having gone left instead of straight when leaving the hotel, but I felt no fear and kept aimlessly walking.
I heard a kind of drumming kept getting stronger and closer. If I had only read about Eritrea and the wars and destruction it suffered, I wouldn’t believe it could exist anymore. What was I now seeing, getting brighter and brighter after the afternoon’s shower? Epic survival in an old wife wiping her face on her husband’s shoulder and in a blind young man’s counting and measuring out dried chickpeas in a bowl? A nation stripped of every myth except of itself: unsure but not in fear, beaten down to nothing and almost as if in the middle of nowhere since nearly everything around it had been destroyed, too: a nation taking a few steps back to leap an absolutely unbridgeable valley and landing in a place of nearly total disrepair, where every sign fell down or hung only by one hook, or a string, or the symbol of a hook or a string, and where the fast and epoch deal that led to such a situation seemed equally lost and alien in that gesture I remembered: the schoolboy kissing a friendly hand and touching it to his forehead? No longer walking aimlessly, I was following the drumming.
I came to a towering brick gate, crowned by three arches and a balustrade through which the blue sky poured while a tight flow of trucks clogged and squeezed into the gate below. From behind the gate, the drumming expanded louder and louder into one all-out, deafening pounding that would imperceptibly fall apart into a thousand different rhythms washed over by the huge diesel engines of the trucks and their grinding gears. Two palm trees on either side of the gate exuded an unthreatened sense of harmony and order, whatever might be heard.
As I squeezed between the gate’s left side wall and a truck piled high with metal mattress springs, a hanging wire hooked my shirt and began to pull me. I had to run for a few seconds until the truck stopped, although I couldn’t hear it since the drumming drowned it out. Pinned to the truck and looking up into the wiry, rusty chaos of the mattress springs, I panicked, ripping the wire out of my shirt and afraid that the truck would start up again without my knowing. When it did, and as my palm felt the wire scrape it and let go, I looked into a labyrinth of nothing new or wasted under the sun, and all metal: pounded, sawed, folded, heated, blowtorched, snipped, welded, soldered, sanded, steel-wooled and polished into something entirely different from what it was, to be made new. Tire rims, air ducts, surviving window frames and doors, wheel-less barrows, car hoods, legible and illegible business signs, chests of drawers, beams, bailing, presses, gutted couches, balconies and stairs without buildings, ingots, shields, rails, and an endless supply of shell casings and cartridges drummed and drummed by old men and young intent on hammering “swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4): a cannon into a bucket, a lamp, a pair of crutches, and a washboard; an ammunition box into a school desk and chair; fuel drums into shiny coffee pots, pans, platters, and bowls; sledges, axes, hoes, shovels, and a stove out of machine guns.
I listened, my ears ringing, and put my fingers into a three-inch divot of rainwater on top of a thick shaven stump used as an anvil as if it held holy water. But I smelled more than fire, propylene torches, sweat, and the steam off burning metal, as if they still longed for something else. I looked around and saw a circle of stalls with faience beadwork doors, women and children. As I walked closer to one, the drumming quickly subsided, and I smelled spices. Inside I sat down in the dark amid bowls of mint, oregano, garlic, nutmeg, almonds, cumin, ten shades of pepper, sunflower seeds, and so much more I couldn’t name. A laughing woman appeared. She had broken teeth, skin seared like meat, and golden wheels in her ears. She wore a dress the color of spring grass with deep blood red and purple folds enclosing patches of sea and sky. I kissed her hand and touched it to my forehead, which made her children laugh too. She brought tea with a drop of fermented honey. I bought Arefine some oregano.
Excerpt published with permission of Michigan State University press from Joining Africa: From Anthills to Asmara by Charles Cantalupo (2012)
Charles Cantalupo is Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies at Penn State University. His latest book is a memoir, Joining Africa – From Anthills to Asmara, (Michigan State University Press, 2012). His translations include three books of Eritrean poetry, We Have Our Voice: Selected Poetry of Reesom Haile (Red Sea Press, 2000), which is also available on CD (Asmarino.com), We Invented the Wheel (Red Sea Press, 2002), and Who Needs a Story? – Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic (Hdri Publishers, 2006). A monograph, War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (Mkuki na Nyota, 2009) is based on the poetry in Who Needs a Story? His other books include two collections of edited essays, The World of Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Texts and Contexts (both published by Africa World Press); two collections of poetry, Anima/l Woman and Other Spirits (Spectacular Diseases) and Light the Lights (Red Sea Press); and A Literary Leviathan: Thomas Hobbe's Masterpiece of Language (Bucknell University Press). With major grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the World Bank, and the Norwegian Agency for Development, Cantalupo co-chaired Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century, a seven-day conference and festival devoted to the presentation and critical discussion of the languages and literatures of all of Africa, held in Asmara, Eritrea, in January 2000. He is the writer and director of the documentary Against All Odds (African Books Collective, 2007). He is also a co-author of the historic “Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures."
(1) Ah, Cantalupo. Welcome to Asmara. Have a good trip? Come inside and make yourself comfortable.
(2) To the right. There. Right.
(3) Good morning, sir. Taxi?
(4) Please, sir. Where do you want to go? Welcome to Asmara. Try my car. You seem tired this morning. Sit down here.
(5) Where is Africa World Press, please?
(6) Straight. Here. Here. You are close
(7) At the Post Office,
(8) Good morning. My name is Charles Cantalupo. A friend of Kassahun. I brought these books. Here. These are for you. He has said I was coming?
(9) Please, Arefine. I have forgotten my Italian because I only speak English in America. Can we speak English?
(10) Sure. No problem
(11) It’s beautiful.
(12) Thanks very much.