Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Conversation with Mr. Costas Stylianidis

Mr. Costas Stylianidis

Note: All pictures are courtesy of Mr. Costas Stylianidis.

Issayas: Can you tell us briefly about yourself?

Mr. Costas : I was born in Asmara in the mid-forties. My father was a Greek from the island of Lemnos who, at the age of 14 in 1910, arrived at Massawa to join an elder brother in search of a better future. Those days Greece was still suffering the burden of occupation and Lemnos was still under the heavy influence of Turkish rule.

At Massawa with his brother, he started by making ‘Greek coffee’, a trade he had picked up from his mother and father in his native land. With a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice, he managed to establish himself as a merchant, opening trade with Greece and Italy and establishing a cigarette factory and retail business. Sadly when Italy declared war against Greece during the Second World War, he saw all his wealth disappear from one day to the next after the devaluation of the Greek currency, leaving him a relatively poor man with broken dreams but still lucky to have a roof over his head and a family with a faithful wife and five children.

I grew up when Eritrea was under the English administration but Italian was still a dominant factor in the market place. I was thus able to pick up simultaneously three languages which were spoken at the time. Greek spoken at home, Tigrinia spoken with the people that worked with my family at home, and Italian which was spoken everywhere else.

During the first six years of my school life I attended the local Greek Elementary School. I then progressed to Comboni College which in those days was headed by Father Gasparini; an outstanding and educated personality who was able to deliver a speech in fourteen languages. Comboni was a microcosm of society as it was in Eritrea at that time. A blend of Eritreans, Greeks, Italians, Indians, Jews, Christians, Moslems.. all working together in love, respect and harmony. Regrettably I was not able to learn Tigrinia at School because after 1952, Amharic was the compulsory language instead. Upon completing my High School at Comboni, I started work in Assab as a ‘Shipping’ clerk. Languages being a catalyst for my employment.

In 1967 with a lot of soul searching I took the ‘heavy hearted’ decision to look elsewhere for my future and I came to the UK. My knowledge of languages and my experience in shipping enabled me to find employment with the Greek Airline Olympic Airways. Thus I had the opportunity of traveling around the world and meet with other people from Eritrea who shared the same background as mine.

I discovered that almost all those who left Eritrea, treasured three things; their love of Eritrea, their love of the people of Eritrea (both natives and expatriates) and their insatiable appetite for ‘zighni’.

Today, 40 years on, I take advantage of these friendships and with my website http://www.mybaobab.com I try to stimulate their support for various good causes that need the support of these good ‘Friends of Eritrea’.

Issayas: Many people are aware of the Greek presence in Ethiopia before 1974. If I’m not mistaken there were about 4000 Greeks in Ethiopia. There were also a large number of Armenians. But Greeks in Eritrea? Can you tell us briefly about the Greeks presence in Eritrea before? As a follow up, are there Greeks in Eritrea now?

Mr. Costas: Greeks may have been present in Eritrea from the fifth century BC when Aeschylus left the first known record of the Eritrean Coast describing its seas ‘gentle ripples that are a warm caress’. In the year 522 , the Egyptian Greek known as Cosmas Indicopleustes ‘the Indian navigator’ described the caravan route to Axum and other ancient cities. Today you can see the ‘Greek’ features in present day Eritreans. You can see a similarity with Greeks when it concerns their pride and their stubbornness!

In Eritrea Greeks arrived as early as the mid 19th century. They settled down in Eritrean cities such as Keren, Agordat, Massawa and Asmara and established various businesses. At some stage Asmara had about 400-500 Greeks leaving there. They run their own School and a Greek Orthodox Church and lived in harmony with the local community and its people. There were several Armenian families too who because of the similarity in their religion, were very close to the Greeks and a lot of them worked with Greeks and studied in Greek Schools. At the moment however, there are only a few Greeks left. The Greek Church is closed and what used to be the Greek School, now houses the Greek Consulate. Many children of Greek mix marriages now have Eritrean Nationality.

Note: For further history on Greeks in Eritrea, check out the following url:

D. SOUVLIS,was the founder of the famous DONGOLO WATER FACTORY.

The Greek Orthodox Church in Asmara, Eritrea

The former Greek school.. Now the Greek Consulate in Asmara, Eritrea.

Issayas: Eritrea as you know is a name given by the Italians based on the Latinized version of a Greek word for the Red Sea. It was a Greek merchant who wrote the "Periplus of the Erythrean Sea" in 1st Century AD. Therefore, the connection between Greek and Eritrea is long. Is Eritrea known in Greece today?

Mr. Costas: Because of its connection with Ethiopia most Greeks do not differentiate between Eritreans and Ethiopians. In Greece there is a considerable number of Eritreans and Ethiopians who live and work there. I have met with some of their children who now have Greek Nationality. There are also a number of authentic Restaurants specializing in ‘Zighni’ and other delicacies and to my surprise they are quite popular with the local community.

Issayas: People of European descent who were born in Eritrea and left Eritrea before 1974 have been meeting regularly since then. Do you have an organization? What are their numbers? Where do you meet?

Mr. Costas: In Eritrea many nationalities lived and worked in harmony with each other. It was a very Cosmopolitan environment where everyone respected each other both in terms of culture as well as Religion. Italians of course were the vast majority of this population but there were Greeks, Indians, Arabs, French,Jews, British and Americans too. The bond of friendship that was formed in Eritrea lingers on to this present day. An Italian bi monthly magazine called MAI TACLI which is distributed to its members throughout the world.

To check out the website of the magazine: http://www.maitacli.it

Mai Tacli Magazine

Mai Tacli organizes every year around May, a get together in Italy, generally a place near Rimini called Riccione. There have been 33 similar gatherings so far. Attendance to these meetings has declined in the recent years from the 500 to 600 people to a few hundred delegates at present. A similar gathering is organized by an Italian website called http://www.ilchichingiolo.it. At these meetings which take place over a long weekend people from all over the world as well all over Italy came to meet old friends and acquaintances and renew old friendships. There are various causes linked to present day Eritrea which are sponsored during these events such as the School at Massawa, the Church at Keren and various individual efforts to support local people in Eritrea.

34th annual Mai Tacli reunion held in Italy, May 2007.

There is an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia for the people and the country that was once their place of abode. Of course no get together is complete without the traditional dish of ‘Zighni’in its menu. I must mention that apart from these meetings, ‘Asmarinos’ take any opportunity to meet wherever they may be and many a time we have had ‘Zighni’ evenings even in Athens.

Issayas: If your common denominator is Eritrea, do you consider yourselves as "the other Eritreans"?

Mr. Costas: Most of the people have kept their European identity, however I know some who have since applied and obtained Eritrean citizenship. All of them however feel like part of the ‘Eritrean diaspora’.

Issayas: Have you been back to Eritrea?

Mr. Costas: The last time I was in Eritrea it was in 1971. I hope however to be able to go early next year in time for the inauguration of the project that I have co-sponsored …’The St Francis of Assisi School at Massawa.’ which is being built by Father Protasio.

Issayas: What is the main objective of your foundation, mybaobab?

Mr. Costas: MyBaobab is a website which is used as a platform for reviving lost friendships and its aim is to maintain contact and networking with ‘Friends of Eritrea’.

It is also a platform for sharing views, news and exchanging ideas, but above all one that will pass on to the younger ex-patriate generation the wealth of experiences that we have had throughout our lives and so to enable them to form a better identity of themselves which I hope, will give them a firm base on which to construct their future.

Mybaobab aims to contribute towards the well being of those less fortunate than ourselves, to sponsor various good causes in Eritrea and to maintain an update of the projects now in progress.

Issayas: What is the symbolism of the Baobab?

The Baobab tree, also known as the ‘upside down tree’ is known to live well over 1000 years. It is a tree which grew in the regions of the Eritrean savannah where Greeks once lived. One of them particularly in Keren is a shrine to the Madonna and is a landmark of the region with a long tradition of the Christian faith and its beliefs.

As the Baobab is able to live such a long time, it must have witnessed Eritrean History with all its hardships and its good times. I thought that ‘MyBaobab’ therefore would carry these attributes in its contents!!

Issayas: Can you tell us about the status of the School that you support in Massawa?

Mr. Costas: This was a ‘project’ that I decided to support with www.mybaobab.com after meeting Father Protassio at one of the MAI TACLI meetings at Rimini. An impressive commitment which started in October 2005 and which is nearing completion early next year. This wonderful establishment will educate about 400 students of all walks of life and religious belief. It will provide them with all their educational needs and train them as well in the Hotel and Catering Industry which will hopefully develop and flourish at Massawa. Of course ongoing help will be required also in the future and this regards people who may volunteer as teachers, trainers, craftsmen who may be willing to pass on their knowledge to these students who are so ‘thirsty for knowledge’ and who are so keen to learn.

Plan of the school in Massawa.

The present status of the school in Massawa.

Issayas: Mr. Costas, thank you for your time.

Mr. Costas: You're welcome.