(Published in Global Journalist: Project Exile; February 2nd, 2017)

In Eritrea, even being part of the East African nation’s tame state media is no protection. That was the conclusion Abraham Zere reached after years of working as a columnist for the government newspaper Hadas Erta and later for the ruling party’s magazine.

All independent media outlets in the country of 6 million were closed in 2001 amid a massive crackdown on internal dissent following the country’s disastrous two-year border-war with Ethiopia. More than a dozen prominent journalists were jailed – and to this day it’s not known how many are still alive.

But as Abraham has written, for state media workers Eritrea became a Kafka-esque world of uncertainty and seemingly random detentions by security forces.

In 2006, security forces detained 10 state media journalists who worked at the Ministry of Information without any apparent rhyme or reason–keeping some in custody for weeks. In 2009, the military raided a state educational station called Radio Bana, arresting at least 40 reporters and media workers for reasons that are still unclear. Some were held in prison until 2015.

Abraham had his own difficulties in 2009 after publishing a column in the ruling party’s Hidri magazine highlighting the disaffection of Eritrean youth. That led to an immediate rebuke from Eritrea’s powerful Minister of Information Ali Abdu (himself now an asylum seeker in Australia after fleeing in 2013) – who published his own column in the state newspaper labeling Abraham’s work “irresponsible and dangerous.” Click here to read more.

(First published in The Athens News; July 6, 2016)

 

Fast forward. The steady process of teaching new tricks to an old dog, unlearning old habits; four years life in America and Athens summarized:

Extremely student-friendly professors compared with the neo-feudal system I experienced back home. Tons of reading materials. “Never ask to challenge students, but test how much they know” philosophy. An obsession about weather. Exceedingly programmed lifestyle where you take half an hour to figure out a 10-minute coffee meeting. New terms and concepts like hookup, one-night stand, three-somes (disclaimer: I am married and never tried any of those, and my wife will also read the article, anyways). An extreme capitalist culture that trickles down to individual levels and entered the linguistic register where a friend offers to “buy coffee,” instead of other terms such as invite, accompany or join. Unlearning old habits such as avoiding conversations with a person next to you in a bar or a coffee-shop, but have your iPhone to check Facebook, text or take selfies (my compliment to a young woman sitting next to me could also be interpreted as “sexual harassment,” lesson learned). The humiliating experience of splitting bills in restaurants where invitation to dinner or lunch does not necessarily mean the person will take care of the bill, but asking you to accompany him/her (sharing is caring as the great Barney says it, right?). Learning to converse at length about pets with strangers in the street (the only way of talking to random people). Abandoning the metric system and start to count in feet, pounds and Fahrenheit (Google is a savior). A system that honors individual liberty (“mind your own business,” how I love it!). Exceptionally friendly assistants/secretaries in most administrative offices (I had terrible experiences with their counterparts back home where they literally bully customers).Click here to read the whole article from The Athens News.

(First published in PEN International; Dec. 10, 2015)

 

Even though I believe I am in a secure space, I feel eternally tied to my home country. Each day I am reminded of being out of place. Carrying the badge of “legal alien” or “asylee” – not to mention the acute lack of familiarity and sense of belonging – I keep telling myself that I have a better home waiting for me, perhaps somewhere else.

But with every change of address, city and zip code, the concept of “home” also becomes more fluid. Now “home” has been reduced to my mailing address. Although exile guarantees security and safety, as a writer I’ve found that it does not necessarily present the best opportunity to produce better work.

The new space is a source of disillusionment. The new freedom to write and the sudden abolishing of the censorship yoke, might give momentary high, but for me it remains characterised by estrangement. Click here to read the whole article published in PEN International.

(First published in Music in Africa; March 10, 2016)

A long history of censorship, combined with the state’s comprehensive control of the arts sector, has crippled the Eritrean music industry. This unfavorable environment has forced many musicians into exile in other countries. Many of them do not return, while the young continue to flee. This text provides an overview of Eritrean music in exile.

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Exiled Eritrean star Abraham Afwerki, who died tragically in 2006. Photo: YouTube

 

During the pre-independence and colonial era, Eritrean music was characterised by an emotional intensity that prescribed a love for life and nation. It set the tone for the nation’s struggle against repression. Shortly after Ethiopia’s illegal subjugation of Eritrea began after the second World War, Eritrean singers refused to sing as Ethiopian citizens. Haile Selassie’s rule made every effort to ban and discourage Eritrean musicians from performing in national languages such as Tigrinya, which was a source of nationalistic fervor at the time.Continue reading