After spending 10 days in Asmara, Eritrea, Lebanese photographer Ayla Hibri came away with a series of photographs of hand painted signs; some faded traces of an era gone by, others advertising modern life’s amusements – bars, play station halls and internet cafes, most bilingual and indicative of the country’s colonial past. She describes her experience of the capital for us.
“There was an aura of forgotten glorious days that was constantly felt. You can see it in the massive chandeliers, the opera houses and cinema theatres, the super advanced coffee machines, the very refined modernist architecture. All that still exists but it felt like the locals were experiencing it very passively and with a lot of aloofness. We understood though, that at the time, this glory did not belong to the Eritreans, it was for the thousands of Italians who occupied it during the colonisation. They were somewhat excluded from it.”
“I think what I tried to capture was the absence of nostalgia in a very nostalgic place.”
“Asmara is a modernist masterpiece and remains largely unchanged since its Italian colonisers left it in 1941.¬†At the time, Mussolini wanted to create a second Roman empire and all that coincided with the industrial revolution which inspired the western aesthetic that was modernism. Originality and innovation were extremely encouraged and architects had set out to Asmara to experiment with new technologies and construction techniques. They went all out and left behind some amazing gems.¬†The Fiat Tagliero building has wings and is in the shape of an airplane. There was a facade that looked like a radio. A lot of buildings had circular angles and pastel colours. There was even a cinema with a retractable roof.”
“The voice of the Eritreans is so unheard.”
“I remember asking Hanuk (a guy we randomly met there who ended up showing us around the city) what he does for a living and he said, “I’m a hustler”. And indeed, they all are.¬†Everyone there is trying to outsmart and outlive a very oppressive regime. There is no constitution, no functioning judiciary and no space for meaningful opposition or free media. The main problem though, is that young men and women are often forcibly recruited for an indefinite military service. Some have been in service for over 10 years. There is no way out of this so everyone ends up trying to flee the country. Eritrea has become a major source of refugees trying to reach Europe.”
“Learning about that and listening to the stories is something that will never leave me and I feel it’s my duty to talk about it and spread the word. I owe it to Hanuk.”