Ciao Asmara, by Justin Hill
I didn’t want to die, but I was dying. For the second of three times during a recovery that was more inexplicable and harsh than my accident. In the second of three hospitals in which I was clumsily dropped as a difficult case and not a patient. Alone in a room at the bottom of a long corridor, which for me penetrated into a mountain, such was the dark and silence. That night, I was dying again. The number of broken bones, the leaking of blood into my pleura, the ineffectiveness of several thoracenteses, all were bringing me to the edge of a fatal collapse – or so I felt. It was a period of my life and an accident not worth recollecting now. It was a hospital not worth mentioning too, crossed by two ideological and – I was sure – supernatural powers, the first of professional mercy (led by the doctor who pulled me up from a dead faint and accepted me into the facility) and the second of scientific laziness (led by the doctor, a woman, whose daily task was to avoid problems and responsibilities). It was she, who had decided my room, at the edge of hell, over there.
What does that have to do with Asmara and the inspiring book by Justin Hill (*)? I’m getting to it, please be patient. The link is that the architecture of the hospital was what Justin Hill calls Art Déco (Asmara capitale dell’Art Déco), actually a classical fascist style, somehow metaphysical, which uses art deco but also elements of rationalism and neo-roman classicism. The style of my room was out of space and time. And the nurse who appeared that night, after desperate calls with a mute bell, was Eritrean.
Reading Ciao Asmara, and before being submerged under memories and emotions, family accounts and flashes of African pictures and memorabilia (three of my uncles fought in Africa, and one of them died there, trapped in an Italian tank that was nothing but a tuna can powered by a Fiat engine, poor boy!), I immediately thought of that night, the hospital and her. She materialised as if she was our Holy Mary, immeasurably beautiful and immeasurably sad, our Lady of Sorrows, and even now I think she was, and also the people chosen by God, yes, Eritrean.
She saved my life by talking with me with a thin voice, the same voice that she would have used to accompany me to the other place, if my time had been over. My sense of guilty, listening to her story, was so strong and painful that it helped to anchor me to life.
And Justin Hill, who made another strange appearance. After two years of studying for a Master’s in Fine Arts at HKCU, after an entire seven-day session of tests with him (Hill was one of the faculty), discussing and sharing comments and judgements, after innumerable presentations, lectures, etc., I confess that I met Justin for the first time in Nuoro, early in the morning, on 7 October 2014. It was the second day of the writing retreat of the HKCU, which I had organised in Sardinia. Before the beginning of the day’s programme, I went early to a quiet bar in the Corso Garibaldi, far from the delegation’s hotel, to have a cappuccino. It is a habit I’ve had since my managerial youth, the first steps of my career. A moment for me, before the battle. And suddenly, unexpectedly, here was Justin with his short pants, desert boots and his bold pace, going who knows where. He, too, was used to waking up early and walking to see, to smell, and to absorb what a new world can offer. We had a cappuccino together, and bomboloni with cream, every morning of the week. Talking quietly.
I discovered a man different from the teacher I remembered, a curious, attentive and sensitive traveller, a hunter of the morning, a fine finder of signs, and a weaver of stories, feelings and characters. Justin is the right person to whom to say, out of the blue: “Let’s walk to the Supramonte.” His answer would be, without hesitation: “Ok. Now?” “Now.” “Let’s move then.” Because, in his veins surges the brave blood of those men who made Great Britain great, the pirates and the tireless explorers, the fearless fighters and eventually the writers by candlelight. The wall breakers, the pioneers, the dreamers and not the following hordes of bureaucratic and opportunistic colonisers.
Since that first cappuccino with bomboloni, Justin Hill has been one discovery after another for me: his wonderful family, his life and voluntary works, his determination… right to this Ciao Asmara, which he sent to me in an Italian translation.
Ciao Asmara struck me from the cover, from the picture of the 1500 Fiat, the street, and the sign ‘Impero’, maybe the name of a hotel or a cinema. And then the photos of this surreal Italian city, the logo on the Fiat Tagliero Building, built in 1938, and Justin’s catching descriptions. Yes, a surreal city for a surreal plan. We wanted to create an empire, a new Roman Empire, not using our ability to build infrastructure, create factories and develop agricultural projects (we were the first in the world to deliver challenging peace projects – and Eritrea was a good example – and this ability lasted until the 1970s) but trusting Piedmontese generals and their military school, from the big jackass Count Luigi Cadorna, Poleddu Mannu, up to the biggest one, the sublime Pietro Badoglio, and electing Fiat, Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, as the engine of our force, can you imagine? Why not a Lambretta scooter then to conquer the moon? In six months of war we lost our African Empire – and thousands and thousands of young men, of course, badly armed and trained.
Yet Justin Hill is always thoughtful and never visceral. On the contrary, he makes continual efforts to understand, to go deeper into the situations, the reasons. Not in a passive way, by thinking while sitting at his desk, but by talking with a multitude of people, by travelling from one city to another (and each name for me opened wide many family memories), by learning the local language and by composing an historical puzzle, which is unknown to almost everybody.
His efforts to understand the language and to penetrate the meaning of the words hit me in Sardinia too. Usually, a native English speaker is fundamentally racist. Anything that is not included in the strict circle of this dominating language is only worth a smile: it doesn’t matter if we are reading the poems of Verlaine (how is it possible to appreciate the musicality of the French poets if not in French?), the magical prose of Gabriel García Márquez or Borges or Calvino or Saramago, etc. After two years of a Master’s in Fine Arts in English at HKCU, I understand why they warned us about racism so often, in a very strange way for me: yes, because provincialism and cultural racism are a real problem in those circles, almost a physical barrier.
On the contrary, Justin’s goal in Sardinia was always to grasp more, to discern by going to the roots of the things – and to elaborate, of course, because Justin is not an anthropologist but a sensitive artist.
Ciao Asmara is a travel book in the best tradition and meaning of the term. But it is at the same time an historical book, clean, never morbid or special-effect-like, honest and educational too.
The mistakes of the Italians, the English and those of the international community, and an incredible widespread blindness towards the destiny of an entire nation (how many people have been abandoned, sacrificed and forgotten only in the last two centuries?), everything is told in a very professional and passionate way. Ciao Asmara is about an endless war, a generation of African leaders who were paranoiac criminals, and about the resulting practical genocide, still untold.
Justin Hill reached Eritrea in 1996, soon after Eritrea had emerged from its long and devastating war of independence against Ethiopia, at the dawn of a historical period that should have been one of hope and reconstruction. A multi-ethnic country but with a strong national spirit, tempered by thirty years of destruction but at the end a victorious fight, and thus with a splendid future ahead of it – back then.
Hill speaks about this hope, about the practical difficulties, and the ghosts and shadows of a terrible past. Until the tragic end: the dream is broken again, Eritrea is at war once more, and this time not because of external aggression, but mainly because of internal problems and an increasing slide towards authoritarianism.
By the way, in a few years Eritrea has become one of the world’s most secretive countries, a ‘black hole’. It doesn’t have any privately owned indigenous media, and sits alongside North Korea in global media freedom rankings. Eritrea denies entry to the UN rapporteur investigating human rights, and it is said that abuses include extrajudicial executions, torture and forced conscriptions.
Also for this reason, Hill’s book is meritorious and important. Eritrea (that is, good Eritrean people and not its government), deserved this book, and certainly I cannot imagine anybody more adequate for this task than Hill.
I spent two nights without sleeping, catapulted from York to Asmara, Keren and Massawa, pulled by Hill’s descriptions and considerations, as if the book were a thriller. And now I’m exhausted: I feel the same sense of estrangement that Hill felt returning home, after his forced evacuation. I should be elsewhere, maybe walking thoughtfully on Massawa’s beachfront. Such is the power of Ciao Asmara.
(*): Justin Hill’s most recent novel, Shieldwall, was a 2011 Sunday Times Book of the Year. His internationally acclaimed first novel, The Drink and Dream Teahouse (chosen by the Washington Post as one of the Top Novels of 2001) won the 2003 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, a 2002 Betty Trask Award, and was banned by the government in China. His second novel, Passing Under Heaven, won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for the Encore Award. Ciao Asmara, a factual account of his time in Eritrea, was shortlisted for the 2003 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.
Ps: The translation of Ciao Asmara from English to Italian is embarrassing. Not only the job is made with guilty superficiality, but also there are grammatical mistakes. This kind of poor outcome is becoming usual both from English to Italian and from Italian to English (I remember horrible Penguin translations of Italo Calvino, for instance): this is not a good sign.