Abba Shawl : Submitted to the Asmara Heritage Project

Abba Shawl

Written by Alemseged Tesfai

(Submitted to the Asmara Heritage Project in 2015)

One cannot speak of Asmara’s unique heritage without giving due credit to the zone that helped it acquire its exalted status. For on the hill to the northeast, overlooking the very heart of the city, the Campo Cintato, were the cluttered houses, the narrow alleys, the mud huts and agudos – the living quarters of the indigenous population.

True, none of these will claim the architectural worth that Asmara’s “historical perimeter” is now famous for. But, Campo Cintato would be bereft of the culture and colour that Eritreans have given to it, if the central role played by Abba Shawl (pronounced Shawul) in its construction and preservation is not considered worthy of a parallel treatment. Abba Shawl and Campo Cintato still retain their respective original forms; they still complement each other.

Prior to Italian occupation, the hill on which Abba Shawl is constructed was known locally as, Gnbar Abba Awts. It was a thickly forested, uninhabited wilderness of cypress trees and thorny bushes where wild animals roamed at will. The first settlements began on the eve of the Italian arrival, when a feudal lord, Kentiba Desta, from the village of Tse’Azega brought his family and troops to set up camp at the top of the hill. Kentiba Desta had a vassal from Tigrai in Ethiopia, a man of wit and abilities who helped him in administrative chores. The latter had a horse called “Abba Shawl”, which was also the vassal’s battle cry.

The name Abba Shawl thus comes from the man and the horse that, in the fulfillment of the vassal’s administrative duties, had become ubiquitous neighbourhood fixtures. With the growth in population in Italian times, Abba Shawl expanded enough to create extended administrative districts such as Geza Banda (Habesha), Haddish Adi, Geza Berhanu and new adjacent settlements like Edaga Hamus, Edaga Arbi, Mercato, Kidane Mehret… But the honour of having been the original hub of Eritrean urban settlement incontestably goes to Abba Shawl.

If the houses of Abba Shawl were cluttered and crowded, the rooms in every house were swarming with family members, visitors, renters and even passersby. The legendary Abba Shawl hospitality, still in many ways retained by Asmara residents, was bred of necessity, of the habit of sharing that a life of proximity and common needs brings about. It was this good neighbourliness that has left a lasting imprint on the culture and character of Asmara.

People shared everything; above all they shared their secrets. In rows of housing where cardboard, corrugated sheets or porous walls were the only partition between families, there could be no privacy. A culture of openness thus evolved and common solutions were sought for common problems. Sharing, materially and spiritually, became the norm. Self-help groups (the ekub), and religious gatherings provided forums for discussion. Street safety evolved into a community concern as did child discipline and education. The practice of arbitration and the settlement of disputes within the neighbourhood and inside these associations prevailed over police intervention and court adjudication, a much later development.

It was, above all, an egalitarian community where district chiefs, judges and native officers of the colonial military and administration freely mixed with less fortunate subjects with mutual respect and devoid of class antagonism and acrimony. Every Eritrean ethnic group was represented in Abba Shawl, as was every religion. Inclusiveness and tolerance to ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, traits that Asmara still holds dear as its special heritage, was bred in Abba Shawl and its later offshoots. It is significant and a great credit to the zone, that in spite of all the disparity in faith, class and ethnicity, it never registered any home bred strife or sectarian violence.

With all its unlit narrow streets, blind alleys, and dead ends, Abba Shawl has all the characteristics of a ghetto. In fact, recent Tiginya literature is using the word “shawl” to mean ghetto. Its inhabitants insist that this is a misnomer. True, Italian colonizers used Abba Shawl to confine natives to a restricted area: to keep them off the territory that they had reserved for themselves. It was therefore a ghetto in the sense that it resulted from a policy of discrimination and exclusion similar, say, to the Jewish ghettos in the European capitals of the earlier centuries. But the discrimination came from a colonial master with a different political system, religion, morality and culture. The mass confinement of Eritreans to Abba Shawl and other subsequent zones was a physical phenomenon. It could in no way establish the spiritual superiority of the European colonizer. Nor could a European culture and set of beliefs penetrate the established customs and religions of an old society.

It is not surprising therefore that no significant subculture of undesirable traits developed at Abba Shawl or the other similarly restricted areas throughout the country. The Italians set up modern government, effective administration, and introduced up to date technology to an essentially traditional African setting. But the dominant culture was what the “natives” took to Abba Shawl and what they brought back when they came to the Campo Cintato as the artisans, masons, surveyors, accountants, junior clerks, guards, household servants and daily labourers whose land, toil, sacrifice and acquired skills form an integral part of the Italian architectural finesse that Asmara has to offer.

From start to finish, Italian culture stayed superficial. First, Eritreans were too deeply rooted in their respective customs and faiths to fall for the alien norms and beliefs introduced by the colonizer. Orthodox Christianity had entered Eritrea in the 4th Century AD. Islam had found its first converts when the Prophet Mohammed was still alive in mid 7th Century. These were thus religions that had coexisted side by side for centuries, too entrenched for European missionaries to penetrate easily. Even Catholicism had preceded the Italian arrival by several decades.

But, equally significant, was the fact that the Italians did all they could to insulate themselves and their culture from extension to their colonial subjects. Eritreans were denied modern education beyond the 4th Grade; their access to modern technology was limited by design to the rudimentary skills the masters were willing to share for their own expediency; with the advent of fascism, Eritreans were subjected to apartheid-type discrimination…

The outcome of this policy of conscious discrimination and aloofness was that European culture in Eritrea largely remained a culture confined to an alien enclave. What trickle effect it had on zones like Abba Shawl, barely two kilometers away from the hub of the Italian presence, although significant in instilling a feel for urbanization, industrialization and modernity in the minds of the populace, could not alter their traditional ways, faiths and senses of worth and identity.

Eritreans thus did not succumb to a culture of alienation and depression or of anger and hatred that their circumstances would otherwise have imposed on them. Rather than harbour resentment and antagonism to the modernity and relative affluence in the European sector, therefore, natives of Asmara adopted an attitude of acceptance, even a sense of ownership of the city that was evolving in their very midst, with much of their own labour. Ultimately, Eritrean love and pride for the beauty and dignity of Asmara was to form one of the bases for the upsurge of nationalism that was to see the country through to full independence a century after the city became its recognized capital.

Abba Shawl’s bond with Asmara’s historic perimeter is such that one could not have existed without the other. The preservation of Asmara’s rich architectural heritage cannot be imagined without the local sense of attachment and ownership first established at Abba Shawl. In short, just as Asmara would lose its lustre, beauty and attraction without the preserved European environment, it would similarly lose its culture and essence without Abba Shawl’s indigenous and, indeed, jealous guardianship and protection of its heritage.

In the 1960’s, during the illustrious tenure of Mayor Haregot Abbay, Abba Shawl was marked for destruction and urban reconstruction. Its residents were notified to that effect and provided with choices for an alternative outside of the district. The outpouring of grief and indignation that ensued was startling in its immediacy and intensity. Reconstructing Abba Shawl to suit the demands of urbanization and improve its amenities was not in itself objectionable. But the resettlement of its founding residents would eliminate its defining tradition of inclusiveness and tolerance. A development that would alienate and render homeless the deprived and unfortunate, would almost amount to an act of cruelty.

So Abba Shawl and its environs live on, in many places pretty much in their old, original form. The few asphalted streets crossing the zone are still fed by the narrow alleys of a century ago. Neither have the few villas, rows of modern houses and one story buildings totally done away with the crammed shacks that gave to Asmara many of its personalities and luminaries. Famous historical figures – freedom fighters, politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, artists, footballers and wits – learned their respective trades in that melting pot.

Indeed, Abba Shawl has a magical hold on Asmarans in general. Its inclusion in the historic perimeter of Asmara is therefore deeply rooted in the psyche of the city. The need to restructure and modernize it cannot be put into question. Asmara’s further growth as a cosmopolitan capital has been demanding it. But, how to accomplish this without destroying the social, cultural and psychological balance that is based in Abba Shawl and its sister districts will remain a challenge for urban planners and decision makers.

One thing is clear. The possible recognition of the Asmara “historic perimeter” as a world heritage site will be incomplete if the indigenous culture, as represented by Abba Shawl, is not included in that recognition.