Sunday 15 January 2012

Eritrean Omelettes - Eritrea 2

Eritrea by Yekkes
Gate of Asmara's synagogue
Asmara was once home to a community of around 500 Jews. Now there is only one - Sami Cohen. Sami continues to look after the 1905 built synagogue in 176-21 Street. The former vibrant community included Jews fleeing persecution in Aden at the beginning of the 20th century, Italian Jews during the colonial period and a smattering of Jews from other backgrounds.

All have now died or left for Italy, Israel and other places, but there are still signs of a Jewish presence in the city. There are at least two stores that may still be in Jewish ownership - Kanzen (pictured below) and Banin, whilst Magen Davids can clearly be seen in the windows of a building that formerly belonged to the community. Most poignant is the large Jewish cemetery a little way out of town that tells a story of several generations of Jewish families having lived out their time in Eritrea.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Kanzen store, Asmara
My guide - Thomas - took me to meet Sami and to view the beautiful interior of the small synagogue. As soon as I saw him, I recognised him from the flight I had made from Cairo to Asmara just a few days earlier. I had noticed someone reading Hebrew and had almost asked him if he was Sami Cohen.

I asked him if it was lonely to be the last member of a once vibrant community. His reply was that it is a "mitzvah" to look after the synagogue. He spends his time between Eritrea, Italy and sometimes Israel and had been a key player in getting the Asmara exhibition staged at Tel Aviv's Bauhaus Centre in 2007. It turned out we have friends in common in Israel.

Sami was extremely welcoming, happy to allow photographs and to show me the small exhibition on Eritrean Jewry that he keeps in a room off the main part of the synagogue. He kindly drove my guide and I to the Jewish cemetery (pictured below) and told us some of the stories of those who had passed away, as well as hosting us to dinner at his modernist style villa in the city centre.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Entrance to Asmara's Jewish cemetery
Food and drink figured largely on my visit to Eritrea. A couple of days in to my trip, I came down with a terrible stomach problem - for the first time ever when travelling. I am pretty sure it was the side effects of the anti-malaria medication I was taking and it put me out of action for a whole day. I spent most of the morning and afternoon running from the bed to the bathroom.

In the late afternoon my telephone rang and the receptionist asked me if I wanted coffee. I misunderstood and thought it would be brought to my room so said yes. This resulted in her asking me to come downstairs where I found several of the hard working hotel staff preparing the Eritrean coffee ceremony just for me! This is quite an experience and follows a set pattern.

The coffee is always made by a woman who washes the green beans and then roasts them in a pan over a little burner called a "fumello". Some of these are very ornate whilst other, simpler ones, can be purchased at the Medaber recycle market. When the beans darken they are ground and placed on a small rush mat which is used to pour the coffee into its pot or "jebena". Water is then added and the coffee brought to the boil, before sugar is put into tiny cups and the coffee strained into it. The coffee is often served with popcorn and incense is burned to keep away mosquitos and to add to the pleasant aroma of the coffee. It is considered poor form not to drink at least three rounds of the coffee. It is good to allow plenty of time if invited for coffee as its both an honour and treat and shouldn't be rushed. 

I spent a very interesting hour with these wonderful women (pictured below), all of whom managed to exchange a few words of English with me and who smiled at my terrible attempts at Tigrinya. They were very interested in where I lived and what I did. I asked to take their photograph and they spent several minutes primping and attending to hair and scarves before assenting and only then after extracting a promise that I would send them a copy. I hope they liked it.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Staff of the wonderful Albergo Hotel in Asmara
Another culinary episode involved the preparation of an omelette in a tiny cafe in a small town called Ghinda on the way back to Asmara from the Red Sea. Stopping for breakfast, my guide asked the elderly Orthodox Christian woman owner to prepare me an omelette.  Like many Orthodox women in Eritrea she had a cross tattooed onto her forehead and wore long flowing white garments.

She disappeared into the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with an extremely runny, very lightly fried egg that was to say the least unappetising. She smiled at me and asked if it was "tsebuk", meaning "good". Not having the heart to say no, I said it was and picked up my cutlery - at which point my guide picked up the plate and rushed into the kitchen where there were raised voices and several minutes later he emerged smiling saying "all will be OK".

Another ten minutes passed and a beautiful omelette appeared, surrounded by neatly sliced tomatoes and onions arranged in a perfect circle around the plate, with small pieces of soft bread. The owner appeared again and proudly accepted my thanks and "tsebuk". I don't know if omelettes are popular in Ghinda, but I know where I can get one if I ever return.

I also had the honour of being invited to have dinner in the home of relatives of John, who drove me from Asmara to Keren, on to Massawa and back to Asmara. I was treated to a reprise of the coffee ceremony as well as a tasty stew accompanied by the ubiquitous injera, a slightly sour tasting flat bread used to mop up the food. Yet more evidence of the kind hospitality of Eritrea's people.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Remains of Haile Selassie's palace at Massawa
Massawa is a very different city to Asmara. Sitting by the Red Sea and with a strong Arabic feel, the city was in poor shape when I visited with the extensive damage of the long battle for independence still being visible. It is possible to see the remains of the former palace of Haile Selassie with its striking blue and white colours. The highlight of my time was being taken to the old city in the heat of the afternoon when the streets are completely empty. I am sure that John thought I was slightly bonkers when I said I wanted to get down from the car and walk through the streets. I remember soaking up the complete silence, but feeling many eyes on me as the Massawans peeping from behind their blinds must have wondered who the mad man with the camera was, walking in 45 degrees of heat! Returning in the evening, Massawa was very different. As the sun goes down the city comes alive with cafes and shops opening and people pouring water on the ground to soak up the dust as they bring seats and beds into the open air to enjoy the cool of the evening. What a difference in just a few hours.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Massawa - all shuttered up from the heat in the middle of the day.
Massawa mosque


    Sami Cohen