Our Visits to Eritrea

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Asmara, the capital, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage City last year. In the 1930’s, when under Italian rule, most of the buildings were designed in an Art Deco manner. They haven’t changed, so when you drive around Asmara, there’s not much traffic, and you can look at the colorful and unique style of architecture. I had made arrangements for a private guide on the Internet. Sure enough, Philemon Kesete showed up at the airport and only charged us $15 for the ride to the hotel (in contrast to the $50 “mistaken low price” that we paid in Djibouti).

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The Asmara Palace Hotel is not a palace, but it was fine. The next day we stopped for coffee with Philemon in an old art-deco movie theater where the lobby has been transformed into a coffee/tea house. In the shop, there were dozens of men, and a few women, sipping their coffee and socializing. Philemon seemed to know them all and introduced us to many. We had a good time chatting with the locals, but not about local politics. The theater will also show classic movies and European soccer games at night. Later, we walked into a small park where a lady maintains a stand under a tree and prepares coffee in a traditional ritual. Ethiopia and Eritrea claim to be the origin of coffee, and that ritual is honored by locals and visitors alike. She takes about 20 minutes to roast the coffee beans in a small kettle, then prepares it according to a special rite.


The coffee is slowly poured into small handleless cups, accompanied by nuts or another snack. It was delicious, but we chose to leave before the traditional three cups were served. Starbucks, eat your heart out. Recycling is also practiced. There is a big area where small shops transform scrap metal into pots, pans, and other useful implements. Philemon asked us if we wished to go to a “tank graveyard”. Sure enough, he took us to a big “outside museum” where hundreds of tanks, trucks, vehicles, and other disabled rusting hulks left from the years of war are piled on each other. I was surprised they didn’t recycle them into eating utensils. No, wait, the Eritreans eat most meals with their fingers. Dinner with the Chief of Mission Natalie Brown is a tall, friendly, well-spoken lady, born and raised in Omaha. She graduated from Georgetown University, and has spent her career as a foreign service officer in the US State Department. She is currently the US Charge d’ Affaires (Chief of Mission) in Eritrea.


About a year ago, Natalie came to speak to a Breadbreakers lunch group I often attend. I couldn’t go, but Fran went, got Natalie’s contact info, and let her know we would be visiting Asmara. Eritrea has so few visitors that Natalie probably thought Fran was confused (we were her first tourists in two years!). However, we did exchange e-mails, and set up to meet her and an associate from the US consulate for dinner at an Asmara restaurant. Eritrean cuisine is a mixture of local tradition and Italian food. The natives eat with their fingers, putting the meat or veggies into injera, a spongy flatbread. Its kind of like eating burritos with a much thicker wrap. The Italian influence was added when Eritrea was an Italian colony. So the combo is generally pretty tasty. We enjoyed excellent grilled fish, pasta, and pizza too. No, Natalie didn’t reveal any diplomatic secrets to us. But she talked about her life as a peripatetic US foreign service officer, and we compared notes about some of the stranger places we all had been.


The recent treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia was a wonderful pact, and there were good results already. For example, Ethiopian traders were now setting up in an Asmara outdoor market, and food and other products were both more available and much cheaper with the borders open. One Synagogue with One Jew “When the Spanish Jews were expelled in 1492, they went all over: Palestine, Istanbul, Iraq, India, even Yemen,” so told us Sami Cohen, the only Jew left in Eritrea. “Most of the Eritrean Jews came from Aden in Yemen, and were businessmen and traders. They are not related to the thousands of Beta Israel, the Jews who lived in northern Ethiopia for many centuries. The Eritrean Jews numbered about 500 at their peak in the 1950’s. But most of them emigrated to Israel or Europe because of the Eritrean war and tough political climate. Although I have kids or sisters in Israel or Italy, I am the only Jew left here,” said Mr. Cohen. (At least he doesn’t have to argue with the Rabbi or the synagogue Board.) Earlier we had visited the lovely synagogue. It was built about 1900. On the outside its a beautiful white structure. There were no police guarding it, unlike many places in the world (remember, Asmara is a very safe city and there’s never been any anti-Semitism). A caretaker let us in to see the well-maintained Sephardic-style house of prayer. Some of the windows are colored, almost like stained glass, with Stars of David built into the wooden frame. Later, we went to Sami Cohen’s residence, a lovely white stone house with a garden surrounded by a solid white wall and tall thick vegetation. An old servant let us in through the locked metal gate, followed by a barking dog. Sami is in his 60’s, still takes care of the synagogue, his house, and his business of exports and imports. He visits his kids and sisters in Israel and Europe. And he’s full of stories about the Jews that were here in his country. “Queen Elizabeth II, when she was young and visiting here,” said Sami in perfect English, “personally awarded the B.O.E. to a Jewish man in Asmara”.


That’s probably the O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire), and could have been given when Eritrea was a British protectorate after WW II. Then Sami told a story more amazing than the famous movie, “The Great Escape”. The Irgun and other Jewish insurgents trying to get Israeli independence from Britain in the 1940’s were basically considered terrorists. So the Brits rounded up several hundred and shipped them without trial (shades of a modern Guantanamo), mostly to Eritrea and some to other parts of British Africa. One of those imprisoned was the future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

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The Jewish prisoners attempted at least 8 escapes. Sami told us that they dug two big tunnels, and all 400 prisoners escaped and successfully made it back to Palestine to fight. However, research indicates that while in 1946 there was a mass escape (54 out of 150 prisoners), almost all were recaptured. It wasn’t till 1948 that 6 Irgun prisoners tunneled out, got to the Belgian Congo, thence to Belgium, and back to Palestine. Even after Israel’s independence in May, 1948, the British didn’t want to release the prisoners to go back to Israel, but eventually they did. Whatever happened exactly, it’s still an unknown and amazing story. Finally, we asked Sami what happens to the Asmara synagogue after him. He looked at us, raised his hands palms up, and said, “It’s up to God.” And that’s probably the future of Eritrea too.