ASMARA, Eritrea — A funny thing happened on the way to Eritrea. My plane took took a turn to Taif, Saudi Arabia. I only found out the flight was due to make a stop in Al-Mamlakah al-Arabiyah as-Sa’ūdiyah a couple of days before I was due to fly.
“Why,” I tried in vain to ascertain at the Turkish Airlines’ customer service counter in Istanbul airport, “was I not provided this information so that I could make a fully informed decision about whether to take this flight or not?”
I was not pleased. I was not only mentally ill-prepared for the journey, I felt forced to go somewhere I never wanted to go — even if it was only for an hour, and even if it didn’t require disembarking the plane.
“I don’t think a Saudi would be too pleased to find out last minute that the flight stops in Tel Aviv en route to Istanbul,” I said. That got a few curious looks in response.
True to customer service on any airline, I got no satisfactory explanation.
In a way, however, I shouldn’t have been too surprised or even put out by this diversion. Getting to Eritrea is hardly straight forward. There had been several diversions. There’s a complicated (usually) visa to obtain, and few flights seem to either fly direct to Asmara or even at an hour of the day that does not disrupt one’s body-clock. Most difficult of all, it took me a solid couple of months via this way and that way and emails and phone calls here and there to reach Sami Cohen, the last Jewish resident of Asmara.
Some things are worth the effort and jumping the hurdles for: Jewish Eritrea is one of them. Breathing an hour’s worth of Saudi air, therefore, somehow seems to fit.
Sami stands alone in front of the Aron Hakodesh in Eritrea’s only synagogue, the Asmara Synagogue (built 1905), checking and arranging the two well-dressed Torah, just one of literally every conceivable tasks required to keep a Jewish community going. If there is such a thing as a one-person Jewish community, Sami embodies it.
“The last family left about 10 years ago,” he laments, leaving him with what is surely a difficult moniker: The Last Jew of Eritrea.
“I really cannot say what this means or feels like,” the sprightly 67-year-old tells me across the dining room table of the home in which he was born, family photos covering the walls and cabinet tops. “It’s all in the hands of the Almighty.”
He says that a lot. Perhaps some things are left to fate, but it doesn’t have to be this way, I think, and I ask if there are any plans in place for the day he is no longer the last Jew here.
“I don’t want the books or other things removed,” he insists. “Eritrea is a changing place. Who knows? Perhaps a market economy will open and Israelis and other Jews will come to do business. They will need a place to pray.”
I am not sure I share Sami’s optimism. Eritrea has a political system that does not favor nor encourage much foreign enterprise or investment. Tourism is virtually non-existent.
Driving around the palm tree-lined streets of Asmara, Sami points out building after remarkable Art Deco building sometimes for its architectural beauty, but other times to tell a story.
“Oh, we had fun,” he says of his youth. “See the top of that old hotel? There was a bar and a nightclub…It seems to still be open,” he muses as we drive past.
“From the sounds of it, Sami,” I reply, “you were quite the party-goer.”
He smiles coyly, then redirects my attention:
“In this house, I used to spend time with my friends…In that building on the top floor there was a very nice family…Here’s the butcher…There’s my father’s store…”
Sami’s nostalgic tales flow like water down a dry river bed coaxing life into what once was. For three days, he filled my mind with images of a once vibrant and close-knit community.
“We had everything here,” he says. “We had a teacher in the Hebrew school [in the synagogue] who was wonderful. We had a social club. There was nothing we needed.”
His family house (built 1929) was a focal point of many social events.
“Anyone visiting was invited for Shabbat meal. It seems there was always someone in the house.” In the lush garden beneath a canopy of Jacaranda trees in full bloom, he pointed to a vacant spot: “That’s where the sukkah used to be.”
Many times, my eyes were directed by Sami’s index finger to a vacant spot that I was supposed to see in my imagination. In a way, I was in an illusory world, but, of course, I was in Sami’s memory.
Asmara is arguably the uniquest city in Africa. It is replete with some of the most remarkable and abundant Art Deco architecture. On every corner, down every block, architectural treats can be found and admired. The Italians colonized Eritrea in one of the last gasps of the Scramble for Africa. During the 1920s and 1930s, brilliant architects designed and built a veritable Art Deco garden that is unrivaled anywhere else on the continent, and, for the time, it was home to the most advanced architecture of the period. I was pleased to find out that Sami and I share a favorite building: the Fiat Tagliero Building (1938).
When the British arrived in 1944, they demolished many buildings, particularly in the seaside town of Massawa. Thankfully, Asmara remained largely untouched, however.
Sadly, many of the buildings are neglected and are in dire need of restoration, Sami’s home included (though it and the surrounding garden are still divine). But, the poorly condition of many of Asmara’s colonial buildings is far better than what an independent Eritrea originally had in mind. To rid themselves of their colonial past, officials had planned to demolish everything and start anew. The authorities were persuaded to appreciate the architectural gems and the delightfully calm city was spared the wrecking ball.
In my Eritrean visa application, I had to include a statement of purpose for my trip. I seized upon the architectural uniqueness of their capital: “I would like to visit Asmara to admire its well-preserved modernist architecture. I have long been an enthusiast of building design, whether from ancient times or more recent eras. Asmara’s architectural footprint is arguably the most beautiful in all of Africa. I would also like to delight in the city’s wide palm tree-lined boulevards and take in the ambience of local cafe and restaurant life. I have heard wonderful things about Asmara and I would thoroughly enjoy a short visit there.”
The Asmara Synagogue is one of the architectural jewels. It is, in fact, the oldest house of worship of any religion in Asmara (built 1905) and is located in the geographical heart of town. At its peak, it served the religious and social life needs of the community’s 500 or so members.
The first Jews to settle in Eritrea were Adenites from Yemen who came in the 19th century to establish trade. Italian and other European Jewish immigrants came in search of economic opportunity and to escape the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. The Jewish community boomed and then bust relatively quickly as a result of both Israeli independence (1948) and, later, political unrest leading up to the Eritrean War for Independence (1961). By 1975, the community had shrunk to about 150, including the departure of the Chief Rabbi. With independence (1993), all remaining Jews, except for Sami, left, leaving him the “Last Jew of Eritrea.”
“I don’t have any feelings about it (being the last Jew of Eritrea),” Sami shrugs. “It’s up to the Almighty.” That’s a phrase he used many times during my short visit.
Sami’s grandparents arrived in the early 20th century from Aden, Yemen and initially settled in the seaside town of Massawa before settling in Asmara. They imported raw clothing fabrics that were fashioned mainly into ladies dresses and other outfits.
“Our clients were the crème de la crème,” he explained proudly. “These were wives of diplomats and wealthy business people. They would come and say, ‘I want a dress that only I will have,’ so we only ordered materials in 3-meter lengths…Sometimes they would come with their tailor who would make the dress for them.”
The family business later included importing of various goods including stationary and beverages.
When war erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the late 1990s, Sami’s wife and children left for Italy. Today, Sami divides his time between Rome, Tel Aviv, and Asmara. He seems to return to the place of his birth out of a sense of duty as much for the fact that Asmara is home.
“I am not Eritrean (he has British citizenship),” he explains. “But like anybody, I feel this is my home. I was born here. I grew up here. I like Eritrea very much.”
Still, some would ask why he remains. Even before I arrived, I wondered about that question too. But it soon became apparent that it is entirely the wrong question. The question is, Why go? If our lives really are a collection of memories, Sami is living what was, what still is, and what he hopes it will be again.
I asked what he would most like the world to know about Jewish Asmara or if he had a particular message to share. He hesitated briefly, raised his shoulders, and said, “I hope for the day there is again a minyan in the synagogue. That is all I want.”
That is not too much to ask, I thought, but it is everything.
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