It’s hard not to question why Asmara was named a World Heritage Site, especially as the country is reeling from decades of hardship.


Asmara is itself a giant monument to colonial folly. When it comes to architecture, the Italians simply lost their heads.

—Michela Wrong, I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation


Memory and politics alone don’t determine how citizens and government officials memorialize monuments. There’s a strong sense in which the people of Asmara now “own” the buildings themselves, too. My cousin Eirmias pointed out that Asmara, where he went to university in the late ’90s, could now reclaim its place and dignity within colonial history. Furthermore, preserving and promoting these landmarks could help improve tourism and possibly even the economy, leading Asmara to a better future. Eirmias told me this as he described the joys of student life, drinking cold Melotti beer — also known as Asmara birra — at the small bar in Selam Hotel (built in 1937) with a handful of fresh roasted peanuts and a chance to watch some television. I walked past this Art Deco building often on the way to my father’s office. From the outside, it looks low, pale blue, and rectangular. I could sense that Eirmias was quite conflicted about these historic sites now coming back to haunt us. On the one hand, he was proud to embrace them as legitimate Asmara landmarks: “Now we own them,” he said, speaking from his home in Houston. Yet he couldn’t help but feel that “Italians used our forefathers as slaves to build this city… They enslaved us, but we still love them.”

I don’t believe Asmara can ever reclaim its place in what began as a rigorous colonial construct. Inhabiting public spaces isn’t the same as owning them, and these buildings will always be a bold reminder of Italian rule. If anything, this historic designation has forced me and some members of my family to come to terms with the pitfalls of memorializing public spaces for political reasons, as the government has done: parading this historic moment as a triumph for the people of Eritrea, as well as the struggle for independence, while the country suffers the consequences. That’s usually why our own personal stories become skewed and monotonous, told only through the misleading eyes of power and propaganda. What I find even more disturbing is the apathy, coming especially from those of us living abroad, far away from the regime. We’re still struggling to reconcile our colonial past and unsure of our role in the future of Asmara, especially under Afworki. I wish we could learn from the Italians, for whom, as Wrong said on the podcast, “Asmara was a gift… There was room to stretch, [and the architects] could be as daring as they liked.” Only if Asmarinos become just as daring can we possibly begin shape the future of the country’s many endearing modernist sites and our lives inside them.