“Aba Shawl: Where the City’s Real Heart Beat Lies…”

Just the other day I had the opportunity to accompany, Samuel and Weini, a soon-to-be-married couple to Cherhi, the beautiful restaurant perched on top of a hill, in the Aba Shawl area of Asmara. On our way back, we made a brief detour to one of the ale houses, where my friends enjoyed a melelik of suwa each. Back in the US, where they have lived for the last 25 years or so, they had heard of Aba Shawl and the great communal life.

When we got home later, Samuel asked me if I knew anything about the history of Aba Shawl. Apparently, his elder siblings back in the US also wanted to know why it was so important that a song be made of it.

That got me wondering: I didn’t know the story myself, not the whole part anyway. So I began digging and the first thing that came to my mind was to refer the book by Yishak Yosief entitled Zanta Ketema Asmera (History of the City of Asmara).

According to the book, “… the hill and the whole area around it known as Cherhi Aba Shawl today was originally called as Gmbar Aba Awts and that Shawl was in fact the name of a horse, whose owner had been appointed as sanitation monitor of the area by the Italian administration. The man used to call himself boastingly Abu Shawl (implying owner of Shawl). He had built a hut on the hill and the residents would look up to it and say that’s Abu Shawl’s house, and through time, the name stuck to the whole neighborhood…”“

Italian colonizers formed several urban plans with the core objective to separate the races and sanitize the urban landscape by keeping the natives in a prescribed area. Aba Shawl was proposed for demolition with relocation of the natives further away. That move was not fully realized. Later during the Ethiopian colonization, however, the city administration decided to demolish part of the area to widen the streets. Consequently, many left Aba Shawl and moved to other neighborhoods in Asmara.

And that’s where the popular song of the early 1970s, Dehan Kuni Aba Shawl (Farewell Aba Shawl) by renowned Eritrean singer Alamin Abduletif comes in.

Dehan kuni aba shawl

Selam kdmi mfraski

Ade kulu dikha,

Alayt zektam nerki…

Roughly translated this goes as

Farewell Aba Shawl,

greeting you before you fall

A mother to all the poor and

A caretaker for orphans.

“… I sang this farewell song because  I felt sorry for the people of Aba Shawl who lived in love and harmony. To me destroying Aba Shawl meant destroying the long standing cultural ties, value systems and social fabric of the inhabitants. I felt sorry for the broken hearts and shattered dreams of the young lovers and old acquaintances of that place. Of course, I was not against developmental projects in general but I felt that it should not have been done at the expense of the poor and the needy that were left homeless and uprooted following the demolition project. Fortunately, the demolition work stopped right near my house…” Alamin Abduletif was quoted as saying by Sophia Tesfamariam in her article “Taking in the Sights and Sounds of Abba Shaul.”

Indeed, homes extended to the street side, with the smell of fresh coffee and the variety of sounds – the laughter of children, the clicking of pots and pans, running water and of course, all types of music, all these attest to the lively sense of community of Aba Shawl.

What I’ve put as the title above is a phrase I took from what a certain Edward Dennison wrote about Aba Shawl in his guidebook on Eritrea.

His exact words read: “… Further north, beyond the Market square and Afabet Street, is the old ‘indigenous’ quarter where the houses, to this day, are considerably more modest in their construction and size. The disorganized narrow lanes and humble mud walls of the densely populated dwellings here are by no means a slum. This area known as Abbashaul, is where the local population was herded under the Italian rule and little has been done since to combat the negative impacts that were instilled then. It remains a deprived area, with no running water and poor sanitation, but there is an electrical supply and, above all a very strong sense of community. It is as enjoyable to witness this part of Asmara where the city’s heart really beats, as it is to the shabby chic aesthetic of the old European quarter.”

Let me part with an extract from the same article by Sophia Tesfamariam:

“…On more than one occasion I had looked at Aba Shawl from my look out point and wondered what lay hidden below the odd patchwork that served as the rooftop for so many homes beneath. There were corrugated metal sheets, stones and mud, wood, tires and other materials spread out over the rooftops, keeping the neighborhood and its secrets well under cover. So what was the secret place below? I could not wait to go there and immerse myself in it all…

Unlike poor neighborhoods in some countries where crime and violence is rampant, Aba Shawl is a poor but it’s a place where camaraderie, compassion, creativity, pride and dignity call home. It is a place you can visit all on your own and not worry about your safety or that of your belongings. I didn’t want to just drop in, I wanted to experience it in its totality and feel completely at home. Visiting with someone who knows the ins and outs of the place or grew up there helps. I got lucky, I got both. I had the pleasure of having my special friend Girmay Yohannes (Sandiago), a veteran fighter and a renowned comedian/historian/linguist/intellectual accompanying me for the day. Sandiago had promised to show me everything that Aba Shawl had to offer and I was ready – I had to see it all and experience it totally. I didn’t know what to expect but I decided to just go with the flow and enjoy myself fully.

Sandiago told me about the many foreign and local artists and writers who come to Aba Shawl seeking inspiration, to live amongst its dwellers and bask in its heartbeat- the joie de vivre that defines Aba Shawl 24-7. Abba Shawul is home to a number of talented and renowned Eritrean artists, musicians and intellectuals. Many trace their roots to this nostalgic neighborhood… For them, Aba Shawl is not just about the past, but very much of the present, real and emotive, to selfishly guard and defend. Abba

Shaul casts a dreamy spell on all whose paths have brought them there.

Many have sung about and written about this beloved neighborhood and there is no doubt that many more will sing her praises in the future. Alamin in his song prided in the sacrifice and contribution of his beloved neighborhood was making towards the beautification of Asmara. For him and others like him who have sung about this place, it was not about the real estate as much as it was about the aura, the sounds rather than the sights, the welcoming neighborliness and the optimism and fervor of those carving out deep and meaningful lives amongst the poverty and meager stone dwellings. The fear of Aba Shawl’s gentrification still exists today and residents there tell me that they are afraid that developments in the area would destroy Aba Shawl’s distinct historical character and charm… I agree. It would be close to being sacrilegious for Aba Shawl is a living phenomenon and not simply a place of multiple dwellings packed one on top of the other…” (Shaebia.org)