Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A conversation with author and poet, Emilio De Luigi


Issayas: As you know Eritrea is an old country . The National Museum of Eritrea states that there are 80,000 historical/archeological and paleontological sites in Eritrea. It has lots of rock paintings that are scattered all over the place. You mentioned  in your book that you found a cave (traces that may go back to prehistory) outside Asmara  whose wall was covered with pictures of hands. Do you remeber the name or the location?

Emilio: I am not sure about the name of the area, it could be Sembel. But I can tell you this: it was in an area on the opposite side of the city respect to the highway going down to Nefasit and then to Massawa. So, it must be roughly on the west side of the city. To reach the area, I usually took the road going up to the American Base. It was a very small cave. The paintings were represented exclusively by imprint of hands. When you entered the cave, the paints were on your left. I went there three times. The last time I went with a friend of mine that knew a bit more than me on prehistoric Eritrea, and he told me that they were probably of the same type and the same age of similar hands imprints found in the Sahel and the Sahara Desert. The last time we were there we cleaned the cave, because the floor was full of empty cans and other waste. Lonely persons, I was told by people of the nearby village, were sometimes taking refuge in the cave and they were warming themselves with a small fire, traces of which were visible. We also spoke to one of the elders of the nearby village recommending to him to explain to the children that the cave was an important testimonial of the Eritrean past. I can't remember if there is any mention  of the cave in the book "Guida dell' Eritrea"
published before WWII by the Touring Club Italiano (a precious book for the quantities of information on the territory).

Emilio two weeks before his escape in 1976.

Issayas:  In your book, there are lots of philosophical discussions with the fighters  who were helping you. What I gathered from reading about it, it feels  that the discussions were open and honest. Am I correct in thinking that?

Emilio: Discussions came spontaneously and  frequently because we didn't have much else to do. But they were mostly limited to a few people. As I said in the initial part of this interview, people of all walks of life had joined the EPLF, so most of them only spoke Tigrigna. But I met several educated folks along the way, like Fasil the accountant, first in Durfò and then in Fah. I also met a lawyer, and I met a veterinary doctor I already knew in Asmara, where he had an excellent rank in the Ministry of Agriculture. In Durfò I also met a woman fighter, Freinì. She was very much a reserved woman, but she was an educated person. When I was about to reach Fah, in a campsite where we were parked for a few days I also met people in charge of security, a couple of local commanders, and a man who looked like a politician. All those people spoke English. The discussions were normally originated by what was happening around us. Many times we discussed the political situation of the country. The fighters were never forgetting  their main aim of fighting the Ethiopians to build a free, modern society. Position of women in the future new Eritrea was also discussed. There was a variety of opinions on that subject. Another subject that frequently came up was the economy.

In the book, I have put those discussions that seemed to me more meaningful. For example, I described how one early morning a large number of children passed by, and from that we initiated a long conversation on education and aims in life that came back a few times around the campfire. Nobody seemed worried about respecting some ideological principles. As far as I could say, there were no  "official opinions" stressed or exalted. They were sincere.

Issayas: Also  how were you able to remember all those discussions?

Emilio: Well, Issayas, think of this: When I left Asmara, at forty five years of age I had to abandon my work, my house, and more than anything else a country I was in love with; in short I was leaving behind all my achievements, all the positive things I had won in twenty years of hard work. I had to go to Italy, I knew very little of that country, and there I had to start my life again. From scratch. Synthetically, I was a desperate. I plunged in a world of hardship where there were people that had lost or abandoned every thing they had! Nothing different from my own situation. But they were looking at their future with an inner smile, because they knew in their hearts  that eventually they would have built their free country, all new, enthusiastic, capable of aiming high! How could I have not learned from them? And how could I possibly have forgotten their words, and the greatness of their their example? You know, I may be boring and repetitive, but the feelings expressed around me,
and the behavior of the Eritrean fighters, were revealing that they were motivated by two wonderful drives: First of all, dedication. They were all doing things, many times hard and difficult, because they wanted to. They didn't need to be told.They didn't need surveillance. Therefore they were accustomed to operate with a large margin of freedom. Second thing, faith in themselves. They believed in their purpose, they had absolutely no doubt about the end result of their struggle.

In the field, I kept making comparison with the ugly atmosphere of depression, suspicion, fear, frustration, and worries about the future that was predominant in Asmara. The  rebels' society kept marveling me, because individual danger there was probably 100 times what it was in Asmara, but nobody seemed really worried or depressed.

Emilio's escape route with the help of the EPLF

Issayas:  Before he died, your father refused to leave Asmara while most of the Italians who resided in Eritrea were leaving?  Why?

Emilio: As I explained in the book, my father was an old fashioned man. Dedicated to his family, he was an old socialist, very attached to his job. When the civil war exploded in Asmara,  he told to the staff to leave their work, but didn't want the office to be abandoned. So he stayed.

Issayas: As you know Eritrea is blessed with the pristine sea life. As you mentioned in your book,  Luciano Perino established a tropical fish trade (a business venture which was unheard of  in Eritrea at that time) and was very successful at that. He had a business who had 50 employees who knew all the fish by their Latin names. It's an incredible story, I won't go into detail here, but I wish he could go and re-establish the same business in Eritrea (since the business investment opportunities
are good). Given the age and health factors, do you think former Eritrea resident Italians would go back and establish businesses?

Emilio: Luciano Perino managed to rebuild his business in the Hawaii, where he still lives. Due to the age, I don't think he would go back. As for the old Italian entrepreneurs, they are too old! But their children keep in touch with Eritrea, where they regularly go for tourism. For them Eritrea is the true homeland. They also promote local charities. For example, St. Francis Institute for Hoteliers in Massawa has been patiently built by Father Delfino Protasio over the years, with the money raised by former Italian residents of Asmara and Addis Abeba. Other Italians, former  residents of Asmara, support local schools in the city, or in remote rural areas. All small repayments for the hospitality, the opportunities, the possibilities of life and economic achievements that Eritrea has offered to so many Italians.

Issayas: Leaving the details for people to read, the stories of  Drs. Mario and Nino Daolio and Lorenzo Saliviati was courageous and incredible. Where are they now?

Emilio: Dr. Nino Daolio passed away in 2001.Dr. Mario Daolio lives in Italy, near Conegliano Veneto. Lorenzo Salviati is an invented name, The doctor was afraid to have problem, because he works for an international company and he was deeply involved with the Eritrean Fighters and didn't want this to be known. He works in Europe, has great mobility because of his work. I have no contact with him since I asked him if I could use his name in my book. I suspect he has still part of the family in Ethiopia.

Issayas: You mentioned that you met (briefly) Issayas Afeworki during your escape in 1976.The fighters told you who he was after he left. What were you thoughts after they told you that?

Emilio: I was not too much surprised. The fighters on the fields didn't have real division of work at the "operative" level, even though obviously there were ranks. He was following with great attention our conversation, but he never spoke. I remember that we were chatting with an Eritrean pilot who avoided participating to the war in Eritrea landing in Somalia, where in any event after landing he crashed the plane to avoid its use by the Somalis. He managed to reach the fighters.

Issayas:  Emilio, thank you for conducting this interview.

Emilio: You're welcome.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A conversation with author and poet, Emilio De Luigi

Part III

Issayas: I like the way you wrote the book. Congratulations! Your book reads like a film. The people are real. Your description is so vivid, that one smells the dirt, even though one is reading a book. I also like the way you narrate your story. One could have a good story, but if the narrative style is bad, the story gets buried. However, your narrative is great. You start with the present (for example, discussion you had with your granddaughter) and then you go back to the past in flashbacks. Did you do it as a style? 

Emilio: At the beginning the reason of this “style” has been mostly practical, even if I soon realized that I liked the alternation of present and past. I had a lot of episodes to tell about the civil war and the trip to Sudan, but also I recalled many other stories that I had told around the campfire to my fellow refugees escaping with me from Asmara, and to the fighters that traveled with us. This abundance of storytelling hours was mainly the consequence of the way we made our journey: Usually we traveled only during the night, because the Ethiopian air force didn’t fly after dusk; and then we had to hide under the trees or in the shadows of big boulders during the entire day. Add that we were sometimes forced to stay put in a place, waiting for the Army to leave the areas we had to cross. So for long hours, and frequently for days and days, everybody had plenty of time to tell his or her stories. Mostly this happened to me in the Durfó valley, in the area of Mersa Culcub, in Fah, in Karora, in Tokar in the south of Sudan. To balance a bit the various parts  of my book, I decided to put some of the stories in the "contemporary part", even if they had been narrated during the trip.

Issayas: Reading through the book, your granddaughter keeps pushing you to tell your story. This is really remarkable because she is very young, but also in this time and age of iPad and other gadgets, I suppose she really has conversations with you. Am I correct?

Emilio: Lots of conversations! Still the situation is similar, but not as much as when I wrote the book. She is now almost 17, and is every day more and more immersed in her world of North American teenager.

Issayas: Have you ever thought that Eritrea would get its independence in your lifetime?

Emilio: After a couple of weeks in the "field", I realized that most probably Eritrea would have become an independent country. In fact I could now compare the steely determination of the fighters with the low morale of the troops on the Ethiopian Government side. I soon realized that the fighters were not what the Ethiopian propaganda in Asmara was daily proclaiming, lying to us, that the fighters were just a bunch of outlaws (bandits)  dedicated to sporadic and disorganized assaults to the Army, within and without the city perimeter. In reality, in just few days I discovered that the fighters were a well-structured organization, with proper military ranks, strategic points in the territory, deposits of weapons and food, and a capillary, efficient network that included the cities, i.e. Asmara, Addi Ugri, Ghinda, Kheren etc. Also, I discovered that the majority  of the fighters were people that had abandoned their work, sometimes in excellent positions, and their families, to join the Eritrean People Liberation Front because they all had that big dream, the freedom of their country. On the contrary the Ethiopian Army was made of people  from the most remote areas of Ethiopia, selected by the Army on purpose, to keep them well distant from the Eritrean population. They didn't speak the language, they were mostly poor uneducated farmers, and they were looked at with great disdain by the Eritreans.But the most important thing was that the Ethiopian soldiers didn't believe in what they were doing! Menghistu had betrayed them too; he had shattered their dream of freedom and peace that all populations throughout the Empire were longing for. The Ethiopian soldiers felt isolated, and were suspicious of everyone. To be added that the Ethiopian Army in Eritrea was a big one, quite heavy on the territory. Not so the fighters, that would even abstain from buying anything where they were, if they thought that this would have increased the prices, or reduced the availability of food for the local population. But all this is described in greater details in the book.

Emilio's escape route with the help of EPLF

Issayas: When you were traveling during your escape, reading the book I felt that you had visited places before, most of the places, if not all. For example, Fil Fil and other places. Is that right?

Emilio:Yes, it is. In Eritrea for years and years I had been around a lot, mostly with friends that were hunters, even if I have never been a hunter (I always refused to buy a rifle). So I knew all the territory from Asmara to Agordat and Barentú, but short of Tessenei; from Asmara to Addi Caieh, and from Asmara to Massawa. Also, I had visited several times the entire coastline from Massawa to Mersa Fatma, Mersa Culculb, up to Mersa Teclai, near the Sudanese border. In the other direction, south wise, I knew the territory from Massawa to the Buri Peninsula, but short of Adulis; and up the mountains to Coaitò, and beyond it to Axum. I also knew many places in the Saberguma, Solomona, Ailet, and Dongollò areas. From Asmara toward North-East I had visited several times the farms in the Filfil valleys, along the mountains up to Addisghi and beyond, but short of the Rore highlands (it was too isolated at the time, and not so friendly). I also made several times long trips beyond Cheren in the direction of the huge expanse of the territory down to the Red Sea.

Issayas: You are also a great poet. I read your book of poetry "Once Upon a Time in Africa". The poems were originally written in Italian in the 1960's. You wrote down poems of places where you have resided, or that you visited. They are all great poems. Even though you have a lot of poems about Asmara, Assab, Addis Abeba, Woliso, Sebeta and other places, I'm curious as to why you have not written about Massawa(since you lived and went to school there). Also you have written about Agordat, Sebarguma, Dongolo, Danakil and Debre Sina. Agordat got two long poems. What was it about Agordat that tickled your pen?

Emilio: Saberguma and Solomona were like Agordat, even if not so majestic. Debre Sina, perched on the edge of the highland, was the place where the greatness of the land, so vastly open in front my eyes, was almost scary. I can't explain why I didn't write anything about Massawa. Most probably because when I resided there I was too young. But Massawa has remained very dear to me, because I spent there my early years, the best part of my entire life. I knew all corners of that strange city. I will remember forever its wind gusts, loaded of the salty, foul smell of the water in the bad corners of the port where it gathers discharged oil, grease, gasoline, empty boxes, algae, dead fish and rotten branches. A smell that I rediscovered only in Port Sudan; I can still see in my mind its long causeways connecting Massawa island to Taulud island, and Taulud to Otumlo and Moncullo.

During the night those causeways have so many illuminated street lamps,lined up on their edge curbs and reflecting on the calm waves, that they make the port shining and looking from a distance as if it were a clean and vibrant resort. But in the same time,and for me is not a contradiction, Massawa has always been for me the best symbol of all decrepit things. Because no matter the numerous repairs, all buildings there appear like run-down and rusty. Even the many small boats that were at that time everywhere, looked always patched and in need of new paint. If a brand new boat was added to the flock, six months were enough to make it look old.

Agordat! Agordat for me is still the real symbol of Africa. I went there regularly with my uncle. He had been able to obtain in Italy, after a long fight, an authorization extending to Eritrea the monopolistic privileges that Somalia, as an ex colony, had obtained in the supply of bananas to the Italian market. With that precious authorization in his hands, my uncle went to Agordat and with the help of De Nadai, at the time a big name in the Eritrean agriculture, he created a cooperative among farmers for the export of the bananas, and then of fresh vegetables. My uncle lived in Agordat 8 months a year. I was his steady travel companion. This went on for years.

We had to go around a lot, visiting the various farms along the big Barca and Setit rivers. It was a fascinating life for me, and my longing for the Eritrean lowlands that afterwards never left me, was built up during those wonderful years. I described that in my book, in particular of how I felt an acute yearning every time I had to go back to the highlands, or back to Italy for the University. In Rome, around June, every year  I started counting the days to my return to Eritrea! Not that life in Agordat was an easy one! On the contrary, it was rather hard, with constant heat, lots of insects, ruthless sunshine and hours and hours spent in the car or walking around in the countryside. 

Many times I had also daring experiences with sudden floods, overturned cars, trucks stuck in the sand or the mud, boiling radiators and worn out day even we risked our lives for a huge near-stampede of cattle, scared by the appearance of a wild animal. But the great  things of the lowlands always let me forget the dangers. Nature is quite severe there, but it is also fascinating.During the rainy season, sunsets are really beautiful in the lowlands and totally different from the crazy and spectacular sunsets you can see in Asmara. Human element also was fascinating in Agordat. In the market I found the most unusual people.  It was wonderfully exciting to see- and identify by their appearance– members of the various local tribes, like the fierce and menacing Adendoah shepherds, the beautiful Beni -Amer girls, the poor Mariah, from both the Red and the Black tribes and the peaceful Cunama. 


Front cover of Emilio's book of poems.

Back cover of Emilio's book of poems.
 Samples  of Emilio's poems:

Le Gallinelle

Una traccia de bellezza
in un letto di notte.

Piana di Saberguma, Eritrea (1954?)

The Pleidades

A hint of beauty
in a bed of night.

Saberguma Plains, Eritrea (1954?)

Now I wake

Now I see well:
my hearing
is sharp
my heart strong.
I have no illusions.

I disentangle my days
with the calm of a caterpillar.

Asmara, March 23, 1961


I know
the secret of your eyes.
I alone,
the sweetness of your cheek.

Asmara, 21 April, 1961

My homeland

In the dark chorus
of the powerful Dums
stretching on rivers that offer
a sandy bed to the moon;

in the open silences
of plains shivering in the heat;
in the fleeting harmony
of the Ariels;
in the heights of clouds
blazing above the migrating sun,
all my being appeases:

because they all
taught me the truth,
making me feel
but immense;
in the flow of time.

Agordat, 1961
(In Eritrea, Dum is the name of a tall, nut carrying palm tree. Ariel is the Grant's gazelle)

Next,  final part of my conversation.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Conversation with author and poet Emilio De Luigi

Part Two


Author and Poet Emilio De Luigi

Issayas: You mentioned that the Italians (at least the ones at the Italian hospital in Asmara) sided with the Eritrean liberation fighters?  Why do you think it was so? Since you also lived in Ethiopia for many years, can you say the Italians' sentiment in Addis Abeba or Ethiopia was the same as their counterparts in Asmara/Eritrea?

Emilio: I analyzed in depth that attitude in my book. I found five reasons:

First reason: Fundamentally the Italians who went to Africa were not racists. You can detect that in one fact: the abundance of mixed families in Asmara and Addis Abeba. The ""African branch" of my family still in Ethiopia is half cast. Not too many Italian families in Addis or Asmara had no half cast members. In British colonies half cast were exceptional. Therefore in Eritrea and Addis Abeba the blood connection generated its level of solidarity.

Second reason: The Italians considered Eritrea much more "modern" than Ethiopia. When Hailè Sellassiè had the disastrous idea of annexing Eritrea, the Italians immediately sided with the Eritreans. For the Italians literally it was the case of a modern country overtaken by a less progressed one. Please note that for both the Eritreans and the Italians Ethiopia was the "colony", economically and professionally speaking. For the Eritreans, for the excellent job opportunities offered by Addis Abeba; for the Italians, for the market it represented for the products of their industries. But both Eritreans and Italians never considered Ethiopia a desirable ruler.

Third reason: the brutality of the Ethiopian repression. Menghistu massacres in Addis Abeba have been probably bigger, but in Eritrea they were far more "visible" and they were always reprisals. Italians are emotional people, with  a very, very strong sense of family. The Italian factory owners lost workers they had since years, the Italian housewives had cooks and maids that came to work weeping for a lost child or husband or father. The Italian doctors in the hospital had to operate during long hours on Eritreans young and old, maimed by Ethiopian soldiers who, sometimes badly beaten in the countryside by the Eritrean fighters, took revenge in the the streets of Asmara shooting the passerby for no tangible reason. All this had an enormous impact on the Italians, making them strong allies of the Eritreans. From this came the steady help that secretly flew from the hospitals to the fields, the hiding of young Eritreans in Italian houses, the open doors policy of the Catholic and non Catholic Churches and Convents during the tremendous days of Ethiopian revenges.

Fourth reason: the Italians were proud of their participation in the Eritrean economy and the prosperity it brought to everyone, because Italians were deeply involved in the industry and agriculture. In those days, just before Menghistu sized power, Eritrea was strongly exporting 12 months a year fresh vegetables and fruits to Italy, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Gulf Emirates. Since years Eritrea was also exporting canned meat, egg yolk, oil seeds,  beans, beer, wine, tropical fish, hides, printed materials etc.. All products of hundreds of small industries, many run by Italians. All this vanished in days, for the absurd policy of universal nationalizations practiced by Menghistu (suddenly converted to Communism), soon forcing all industries and farms to shut down for lack of management, killing tens of thousands of well paid jobs in the industry and agriculture.

Fifth reason: Italians, particularly the ones grown in Eritrea, had a good economic standing, or at least stability. They didn't want to lose all that, but it was all taken away by the nationalization. The perspective of a free Eritrea was a hope of salvaging a lifetime of dedication to the economy of Eritrea. The attitude of the Italian community in in Addis Abeba was practically the same as it was  in Asmara.

Issayas: It was through Dr. Mario Daolio's (an Italian physician who lived in Asmara) contact that you were able to meet up with the EPLF. You acknowledge Dr. Mario for letting you use his real name in the book. Where is he now? When did he leave Eritrea and has he been back to Eritrea since its independence?

Emilio:  Dr. Mario Daolio lives in Italy, near Venice. He was informed, as 99% of the people I mentioned in the book, of my intention of telling the story of his generous help to me. I don't know when he went to Italy.  As far as I know, he never returned to Asmara.

Next, the conversation continues.