Eritrea: Trying to find some truth in the absence of a free press…

Like too many African states, Eritrea’s borders were imposed during the Scramble for Africa in around 1870. But unlike most it only took its name in 1890 — pretty recently when you consider that it hosts human remains from nearly one million years ago, was invaded by the Ottomans and has been Christian since 400 AD. Since it was named (after the red sea) it has been occupied by the Rubattino Shipping Company, Italy (trying desperately to get a foot on the colonial ladder) and Ethiopia (who recognised Italy’s occupation in exchange for guns and ammo). In a sense it is still occupied by Isaias Afwerki whose one party state system has ruled since they gained independence in 1991.

So all is still not happy in this beautiful land which Reporters Without Borders gives the lowest rating of all the 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index. All of this makes it pretty tricky to find reputable information on which to base this week’s journey. This week’s film, for example is Passolini’s Arabian Nights, which was partly filmed in the deserts of Eritrea. It is one of the oddest films I have ever seen, I would probably describe it is a hardcore Italian Carry-On Round the Horn of Africa. As well as having some small scenes in Eritrea, it stars the Eritrean Ines Pellegrini who now runs an antique shop in Los Angeles. When I told a friend I had watched it he responded “but Passolini is a cancelled paedophile.” So be warned and watch Heart of Fire instead!

I was a lot more successful in finding a book as Hannah Pool, one of my favourite ex-Guardian journalists is Eritrean British and, more importantly, has written the book My Fathers’ Daughter: A story of family and belonging, about returning to Eritrea to see the land she was adopted from as a young child. Even though the entire memoire is from the perspective of a chronically disorganised 29-year-old who has barely travelled as an adult, the story is remarkably focussed. Whereas I would have got distracted by history, politics and food, Pool focusses on the multiple competing emotions that she feels as an adoptee coming to terms with the life she could have had. She also brings colour to the country though, helping relate the feeling of wandering the Italianate Art Deco streets of the capital Asmara, then finding yourself in the mountains, then the desert where so many people still go hungry.

Asmara is also this week’s drink! A delicious light beer that which I am proud to say is imported by a Birmingham company. As with many such beers, it is hard to distinguish it from the other summer lagers produced all over the world, but that doesn’t make it bad! The brewery also makes Zibib a liquor that tastes almost exactly the same as sambuca. Delicious!

But how, I hear you ask, did you get to try a shot of an Eritrean liquor? The answer is that Birmingham has several Eritrean/Ethiopian restaurants. One of them, Keyih Bahri, seems to be owned by an Eritrean man (he told me which of the nine official ethnic groups he is, but I have forgotten his answer), who kindly shared a shot with me. But what is Eritrean food, and if the beer is like Peroni and the liquor like Sambuca, is the food like pizza? The answer is both yes (you eat it with your hands, it is flat “bread” and it is circular) and a very definite no! Everyone in the restaurant, including us, seemed to order injera, a sour pancake topped with a variety of delicious toppings whose names I have no way of remembering. I would recommend it though, especially for vegans! After Equatorial Guinea last week we are really finding the African countries that know how to spoil plant eaters.

I have been a fan of several Ethiopian artists for a while (you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to find out who), so I was looking forward to finding some Eritrean gems to add to my playlists. Sadly I have not yet found anyone to die for so I will leave you with this playlist I found as I head back to Europe for Estonia.

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Armchair traveller

Armchair traveller

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Zero carbon lockdown travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.