Interview with Alessandro Pellegatta, author of “Eritrea – End and Rebirth of an African Dream”

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Dear Alessandro Pellegatta, first I want to thank you for your availability. I also want to apologize for the delay, since your book “Eritrea – End and rebirth of an African Dream” made its debut over a year ago.

What strikes me about the book is it is a mixture of genres: novel, wise, and even a guide for tourists. Why this book and why on Eritrea?

Eritrea is a wonderful, complex country, which few know. It is also the symbol of African resilience. To know it, it’s necessary to abandon prejudices and false certainties. Then you will fully grasp a land of extraordinary beauty, the crossroads of peoples and ideas, reading a journey from the mythical Land of Punt to Adulis, the Aksumite civilization, the advent of Christianity, Islamic colonization of the lowlands and Dahlak islands, the advent of the Portuguese and the Italians, and the charm of Asmara and Massawa. Few know Eritrea, and the Italians have lost historical memory. What, until yesterday was coarsely defined as the “North Korea” of Africa today can once again become an “African dream”: the historical heritage and archaeological and naturalistic beauty of this country is enormous, and there’s still much to do. Peace has finally returned with Ethiopia, and new processes must begin. Massawa, which for years has been lying derelict with the wounds of bombing, will return to cover its ancient role as a strategic port and window towards Ethiopia and Sudan. However, its fragile architectural memories must be preserved. Asmara, the most beautiful African city, the “little Rome”, has achieved UNESCO heritage status and requires protection and enhancement.

In your book, you make it clear how the very complex cultural and historical nature of Eritrea mixes with the nations and with the problems of the neighboring regions. Therefore, you place a strong emphasis on its strategic nature, but also on its potential to still be explored. In this sense, what role can Eritrea play today and in the future?

Eritrea, with its resilience, can act as a trailblazer for African peoples who are today debating between old and new colonialisms. There is still a great sense of community in Eritrea. As Pasolini wrote (“The Grace of the Eritreans”), the Eritreans have grace and dignity and endured suffering and deprivation of all kinds. Muslims, Catholics, and Copts co-mingle and integrate with each other. Stable and nomadic cultures coexist. In Eritrean farming villages, there is no private land ownership but collective usage, and the rotation of possession of the fields is exercised. For centuries, the Eritreans have been unaccustomed to possession, giving them a certain detachment of things. They have a strong national identity and have fought for decades for freedom without international support. They underwent a forced federation in 1950, were annexed by Ethiopia, fought for independence and endured years of challenges and unlimited military service. The country was “besieged” and subject to international embargoes. Despite this, Eritrea has guaranteed public health, food and water to its people, free public school, and combatted terrorism. There are no religious or ethnic struggles, while in Ethiopia the civil war has touched many ethnic groups, many of them long repressed.

One thing I noticed is your wanting to underline, and I find it very shareable, the natural plural of Eritrea. There is not only Asmara, but also Massawa, and then other minor centers can also be added that you mention in your book, such as Adulis, Keren, or the Dahlak Islands. These places have great historical importance but few in Italy know. And then there is also the immense historical legacy of D’mt and Axum, which in a certain sense lives on today with the rapprochement between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. How would you describe and summarize all this diversity?

Nine ethnic groups with different languages and cultures coexist in Eritrea. Semitic, Nilotic, and Cushitic culture have mixed over the centuries. Through the caravan routes that departed and returned, Adulis, the Mediterranean, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and India were mixed. The “Eritrean space” is complex and articulated, with an economic-social projection not only towards the interior of historical Ethiopia. Eritrea has had, since its antiquity, a relevant geo-strategic space as it combined different territorial, terrestrial, and marine dimensions, all within a complex macro-region. Therefore, over the centuries Eritrea has been a real laboratory of social, economic and legal experimentation that has anticipated modern times.

I’m starting to write a new book on the history of Massawa, and every day that passes I remain amazed by its extraordinary social stratification and diversity. Even the Italian “old colonialism” prior to fascism and the creation of the Empire sought to understand this diversity to administer it. Eritrean colony and post-colony remain symbolic spaces and identities in continuous movement, and Eritrea remains an extraordinary country to study and learn. It presents transversal readings on multiple memberships in the Horn of Africa and on the many crossings that derive, today like yesterday, from diasporic and transactional movements. Then there are the Italians of Eritrea, a group now endangered that preserves an extraordinary collective memory. The Eritrean region, including, in particular, the coastal lowlands of Massawa, over the centuries has represented a point of contact between different “frontiers” located between the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula, the valley of the Sudanese Nile, and the plateaus of northern Ethiopia. Massawa’s society perfectly reflects this melting pot, this historic cosmopolitan configuration, reflecting as a kaleidoscope the extraordinary ethnic-cultural variety that sees intertwining different populations, which over the centuries have learned to live together. In this land, the nexus of boundaries and memories follows paths that are neither univocal nor linear, and the problems of historical identity refer to plurality, to the overlapping of collective memories and solidarity, which interact and coexist. The Red Sea was not just a transit space but a region full of different cultures and identities, a region integrated by multi-layered and interconnected circuits and networks (marine and terrestrial), on which cultural and archaeological research is still only beginning. Despite the mixing between the Cushitic and the Sabaean culture, there is still no archaeological evidence to support the myth of Aksumite urbanization. Rather, the colonization of the Horn of Africa was born thanks to the indigenous kings and the Aduli tana civilization.

In general, talking about the politics and society of Eritrea, also about the latest and welcome news, what do you foresee for the future and what role could Italy play for the general situation of Asmara and the Horn of Africa?

Currently, China, overcoming the traditional paradigms of colonialism, is renewing the scramble for Africa, infiltrating even the territories of the former Italian colonial empire. After years of inaction, loss of historical memory and disinterest in the study of the colonial period (often improperly confused with fascism), our country seems to rethink and renew its relations with the Africa. Italy still has some influence in the Horn of Africa, and the peace dossier between Ethiopia and Eritrea re-emerged after many years of inactivity. Italians have done and are doing excellent things in Eritrea in the cultural, restoration and archeological fields.

Today we still carry a past that does not pass. The scandal of Cagnassi Livraghi di Massaua; waste and lascivious behavior during the military administration of the Eritrean colony before Ferdinando Martini’s arrival; the brutal expropriations of Baratieri in Eritrea and the most uninhibited work of the Benadir society in Somalia; the deportation of the population of Cyrenaica and the use of the hyprite during war in Libya and Ethiopia; apartheid, the racial laws and against the madamate; the concentration camps of Nocra in Eritrea and of Danane in Somalia; and the massacre of Addis Ababa and of the monks and deacons of Debra Libanos in Ethiopia by Graziani. Political colonialism is a stain that today most would like to erase without even knowing.

As Angelo Del Boca wrote, “[…] the lack of debate on colonialism and the persistent apologetic reading of African companies have not only allowed all the major perpetrators of African genocide to be absolved, but have also greatly influenced the elaborated policy towards the former colonies, which is characterized by roughness, improvisation, defaults and delays. Italy has lost a great chance. He could go back to Africa to generously repair his wrongs and develop […] a fruitful collaboration “.

Even in front of the historical distension between Eritrea and Ethiopia of 2018, Italian politics has remained almost totally absent, and on social media, as well as in the collective imagination, we are witnessing the continuous celebration of convictions and justifying theories. Italy, sorry to say, on Africa continues in its petty politics, without programs or organic visions, adding new injustices to the old. Somalia still remains the scandal of Italian cooperation and the history of 24 years of misdirection that still prevent solving the yellow death of Ilaria Alpi and Miran Hrovatin.

In a world that seems without ideals and hopes, where the instincts of violence and the bacteria of new fascisms, nationalisms and colonialisms are changing and spread like wildfire, where geographical distances are getting shorter and the media are limited to giving only superficial and sensational news. Following the adventures of Manfredo Camperio and of those who accompanied him in his African explorations of the 19th century help us to better understand the continuous evolution of Africa. This continent, for centuries at the center of international political and economic appetites and impoverished by its waves of migration to the West and continually looted of its material resources, is laboriously trying to get out of old and new colonialisms to embark on the road of development and independence.

As Romain Rainero wrote in 1960 [1], “[…] it’s up to all (us) and especially to the former rulers, the Europeans, to understand the new realities, and only to think of them in the future in a serene and constructive vision of cooperation and sympathy towards a rising continent “.

And above all, as Conti Rossini wrote, “remembering is strong”. 

Sources: www.dehai.org