Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Conversation with author and poet Emilio De Luigi

Author and poet Emilio De Luigi

Issayas: Would you briefly tell us about yourself?

Emilio De Luigi: I had a rather complicated life. In 1933 my parents moved from Italy to Libya when I was 18 months old, then from there they moved to Eritrea in 1938. In 1942 I moved back to Italy with my mother. 1951 I was  back in Asmara. I moved to Addis Abeba in 1961. I left Africa in 1976, and from that moment I was on the move for 8 years: Libya, Nigeria, Perú, Chile etc. In 1983 I finally landed in Canada for good. During those 8 years of "diaspora" it helped both the fact that by nature I am a calm person (I hardly recall having ever lost my temper), and the fact that I had the "gypsy" example of my larger family, peppered around the world on five continents. I mean that for us moving around ended being a sort of family habit. As a person I have very simple habits: I love my work,  I love cooking, I must read or die, I have friends everywhere, and of course I have kept writing all my life. Last but not least, I have been blessed, so far, with good health.

Issayas: Have you been back to Eritrea since you left it in 1976.

Emilio: No, never.

Issayas: You escaped Eritrea illegally with the help of the EPLF  (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) in 1976. As an Italian citizen, why did you find it necessary to do that instead of leaving legally through Ethiopia?  No matter how long it took or tried?

Emilio: I had a business in Addis, they wouldn't let me leave. When I had to travel for business, Mengistu Administration wanted my family in Addis. When my family went to Europe for vacation, I had to be in Addis. No exception. My book has all the details of my long agony trying to get an exit visa.

Issayas: You mentioned that your Indian friend in Canada said that Eritrean people come out of the book with flying colors.

Emilio: He did! He told me that not too many people were so lucky to escape from a war and get such a disinterested support. And that is even more relevant because I didn't have any particular recommendation, nor was I an important person. As Italian, an invader, I could easily have found hostility. I found warmth and kindness instead. In Fil Fil I was even invited by a family for dinner! The fighters were always helpful, and as a group they showed a civility that is hard to imagine in the middle of war. Same treatment got another Italian that followed my example.

  The front cover of Emilio's excellent book

Issayas: Did you agree with him? If yes, would you elaborate?

Emilio: I did! In my book I described how I felt living with the Eritrean fighters, and how they didn't treat me differently from the way they treated all other refugees found in the fields.I hope to have  shown in my book how Eritrean fighters and Eritrean people alike, a socially heterogeneous mix of men and women, appeared to me as having already put down, may be unconsciously, the foundation of a just society. I don't want to repeat what I wrote in my book, but I mused a lot, for years, on what I saw. And it was not a show put up for the benefit of the ferenji!(foreigner) How much all that is reflected in modern Eritrea, I can't say. I fervently hope it is not lost, because to me that was the core of the Eritrean Resistance: a unique, admirable "society" with a universally shared aim: the freedom of the country. The real wonder, to me, was that such dream, in the territory the EPLF controlled, appeared to be already implemented among the fighters and the people that supported them!

Issayas:  What do you mean when you mentioned that "Same treatment got another Italian that followed my example”. Would you elaborate?

Emilio:In Italy I met one day an Italian guy that had a big mechanical workshop in Asmara, with lathes, large welding equipment, big drills, and dozens of well-trained Eritrean workers. When young, he had been a student in the school where I taught. During the war he kept his shop working, but then he decided to phase out his activity, because there were times that he had to make delicate mechanical jobs he couldn’t refuse, for retrofitting equipment of the Army and the Police, and he didn’t like that, because as all the Italians he sided with the Eritreans. He felt guilty. Also, it was very dangerous for him, because members of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) roaming around the city spying on the Military could report him as a collaborator. The EPLF could decide to kill him. At the time the EPLF was quite effective in eliminating collaborators! It happened frequently in Asmara.  But this guy soon discovered that he couldn’t get an exit visa. Months after me, he finally found a connection with the EPLF, and left illegally. He made the same itinerary I made. We chatted a bit about our trips. He told me that his trip took much more time than mine. In fact along the way he got stuck for weeks and weeks before reaching Fah, because of a big battle that was going on between the EPLF and the Ethiopian Army. To kill the boredom he managed to convince the fighters to give him a gun, and he went around almost every day, hunting gazelles and big fowls to feed the people of the camp.

Issayas:Have you ever thought of what your life would have been if you had not left Eritrea illegally with the help of the EPLF?

Emilio: No, I never do "re-runs" Why? I consider that kind of exercise a waste of time.

Emilio's two books could be purchased from :

                                                                             The back cover of Emilio's book.

Next, part two of my conversation with Emilio De Luigi continues.