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Tuesday, March 21, 2006
memories of the future

Asmara is hidden on a plateau, surrounded by jagged mountains. When I arrive, it is an extraordinary morning. Crisp with highland cold. The sun is high. Light zooms around, bungee jumping off every reflective surface. The whole city glows. A clump of hunched question marks on racing bicycles speeds past us, in Italian bibs and shorts.

Asmara has one of the largest concentrations of Modernist buildings in the world. It was planned as a city of the future an Italian settlement. Eritrea was an Italian colony for just over 50 years, and in the 1930's, Mussolini was determined to turn Asmara into a showpiece for Italy's new Roman empire. He was also about to invade Ethiopia, and he let young Italian architects go crazy. The result: wide avenues; ice-cream-colored cubist buildings; Art Deco flourishes; concrete towers; and Rationalist buildings.

For most of the long war years, Asmara remained untouched, so today it looks very much like an Italian town from the 30's. My guide, Tedros, and I drive past the green Art Deco post office and park outside the newly refurbished Albergo Italia Hotel, one of Asmara's oldest buildings. Giovanni Primo, the owner, whose parents are Italian and Eritrean, once worked washing Italians' cars during the days when Asmara had the most stringently enforced color bar in Africa. His uncle was a gardener at the hotel, and when Primo told him he had bought the place, the old man cried. He died a few days later. Primo hired an Italian architect and imported handmade inlaid-wood furniture from Italy. The dining room is exquisite: soft greens and yellows set off the rich woods, with Asmara's astonishing light slanting in through the wooden window slats.

After World War II, the United Nations declared Ethiopia and Eritrea a federation. Emperor Haile Selassie then began the brutal process of remaking Eritrea as a province of Ethiopia, and the Eritreans began their fierce battle for independence, which they won in 1991. Exploring the streets of Asmara, I discover, on Sematat Avenue, the statue of a giant shida, or sandal. To symbolize their freedom, Eritreans chose not a triumphant general or a victorious tank. They picked the ubiquitous shida, which soldiers wore during their long struggle for independence. "Ethiopians suffered in their heavy boots," one man told me. "We made these sandals, which are good for fighting in the mountains and the desert. They are easy to fix you just use a cigarette lighter."

[...]

For years, the Dahlaks have been a hush-hush destination for diving enthusiasts. There are roughly 200 islands, and the surrounding water is populated by reefs, sharks, manta rays, sunken Ethiopian cargo ships containing Russian tanks, British and Italian warship wrecks, dolphins, dugongs, hermit crabs and many unique species of fish and coral.

We spend the first morning on deck, rather boneless in the heat. An older American couple regales us with stories about their travels around the world over many years. They have been nearly everywhere and are on their way to the few places they have not been. Most of what we talk about is their approach. They have worked out a system for everything, keeping whiskey in plastic bottles, traveling and spending next to nothing and getting everything in return, collecting anecdotes. But after a day or two, I realize that they live only in the past and the future maps have been spread on the table on deck. Our present trip will matter to them only when they can tell it as an anecdote.

I sit for an hour watching the minarets and shipwrecks off Massawa recede. Soon all that is left is the blue of the Red Sea and the endless stretch of mountains, so huge and jagged that they scar your sensibilities: you can feel the earth tear and stretch to make them. We are in the Great Rift Valley, which stretches from Lebanon to Mozambique.

[...]

We spend the afternoon snorkeling off a small deserted island. I am the only one wearing flippers. The American guy has been swimming for at least an hour without them. My flippers are too tight, so to get some relief, I take them off and discover that I can float without any effort. It's the salinity of the water, I am told.

We swim and snorkel. Swim. Eat and snorkel. Swim, drink and snorkel.

I float for hours in a world of color: a shoal of zebrafish ripples around me; a lionfish browses on the coral it looks more like a tiger-striped ostrich than a lion. I find out that its barbs are poisonous. Mauve and brown coral is shaped like a strange planet, complete with a patchwork of craters. I am a weightless spaceman watching the transactions of an alien world below me.

In the late afternoon, the boat moves on, and dolphins bound alongside it all the way. Members of the crew have left a hook running behind us, and they catch a giant grouper.

A fat, groggy sun sinks down past the horizon. Domenico, the captain, parks the boat between two islands.

I spend the night alone on deck. As the heat dissipates, the boat stretches and starts to make cracking and popping sounds, as if it wants release. The crew members are singing as they play cards. The sea is glowing with bioluminescent plankton that light up with any movement in the water. Soon the sky is thick with stars, and the popping sounds stop. The boat is breathing as small waves lap at its tension.

I wake up feeling that I was levitating during the night.

The Octogenarian Train Builders

Having returned to Massawa, we need to catch the steam train to Asmara station by 8 a.m. We drive up a road shaped like a spiral staircase. It climbs 70 miles, and the trip is hair-raising and spectacular.

The railway was built by the Italians in the 1930's and was considered a spectacular engineering feat even then, but during the 30 years of war with Ethiopia, the trains, and all their infrastructure, fell into serious disrepair. Sleepers were used for trenches; parts were melted for weapons. In 1994, the Eritrean government decided to rebuild the railway.

It had hardly any money, and it asked for none.

Retired railway workers, some in their 80's and 90's, came forward, and eight steam engines were painfully rebuilt, the parts made from smelted brass and iron. Eritreans were asked to return any parts they found. The lines, tunnels and bridges were repaired and rebuilt by hand.

We arrive late, and Tedros gets on his cellphone and arranges for the train to stop for us at Dar Durfo, a popular viewing point just outside Asmara. I am alarmed as I look down the valleys, so far down I can hardly see anything. Then I notice a tiny steam train chugging toward us, the train that will soon roll down these mountains. It does not bear thinking about.

So I don't think. Once aboard, we join a group of tourists in a small wooden cabin. Two old men in oily overalls stand on the flank of the engine, giggling like children and fiddling with things and shouting instructions. The steam engine whistles loudly, and we depart. There are two women sitting in one corner, in full traditional dress, brewing traditional coffee and looking quite at home. I relax and drink coffee and nibble popcorn.

Riding this train is the most intimate way to experience the mountains of Eritrea without having to climb them. Our cabins have open windows, and I do not feel isolated from the landscape the way I often do when inside a vehicle. Barefoot children stand at the edge of impossible cliffs, herding sheep and waving at us, before disappearing down into the valleys. The mountains fold on and on the most visually dramatic mountains on the continent. I can't imagine how Eritreans negotiated these mountains during the war.

The next day in Asmara, I visit the workshops where the old men show me the ancient lathes and cutting machines that they have used to restore two more steam engines. They recycle and melt scrap metal to make parts. So far, the locomotives are used only for social occasions and for tourists. But the long-term plan is to obtain diesel engines and restore the railway to commercial use.

[...]

I am standing outside the airplane-shaped Fiat Tagliero garage, built by the architect Giuseppe Pettazzi in 1938 as a workshop and service station. This is one of Asmara's iconic buildings, remarkably similar to Frank Lloyd Wright's design for a service station for the Lindholm Oil Company. For the most part, Mussolini's architects could do as they pleased they saw Asmara as a blank canvas, removed from the restrictions and conventions of old Europe. But the design of the Fiat Tagliero garage was revolutionary enough for its time to require some compromise on the part of the architect. The building has 98-foot-long concrete wings extending above the ground on each side. To get his design approved by the municipal government, Pettazzi had to include temporary wooden posts to prop up the structure. People in Asmara say that after the concrete was poured, workers refused to remove the support posts, afraid the whole thing would collapse. Pettazzi put a gun to his head and announced that he would shoot himself if the wings did not remain horizontal after the props were removed.

Unesco is now considering declaring Asmara as a World Heritage Site, and already, with few resources, the Eritrean government is busy restoring many of the city's older buildings.

So here we have this building, used most recently as a Shell gasoline station, in Mussolini's time a precursor to a super-rational future that never materialized.

The idea of Futurism is surely a poisoned one. But the shape and idea behind this extraordinary and improbable city has had its influence on the character of the nation. Eritreans are said to be obsessed with their history; they could also be said to be obsessed with the future that was promised them in the 1930's. And they will not give it up.

Thus it is that an improbable country, in a hostile environment, with little resources or capital, has kicked away the props and spread its wings.

The new owner of this airplane-shaped Fiat Tagliero garage is restoring it.

There are plans to turn it into a disco.
why isn't humor funny?
For most of his working life, Mr. Newgarden, 46, has been using the visual rhetoric of gag culture to plumb the dark places in the human psyche. His cartoons are absurdist valentines to the losers who knock themselves out trying to make people laugh: the alcoholic clowns, the painfully lame comedians, the no-talent cartoonists and especially the hack humorists who ground out joke books and magazines in the 1950's and 60's, the golden age of novelty-shop culture.

As Chris Ware, the graphic novelist, writes in his blurb for the book jacket of "We All Die Alone," Mr. Newgarden's humor "gets as close to misery as it can without quite ever touching off the chain reaction that'll make you want to cut your head off all the while staying hilarious."

[...]

"I collect joke books just to get a whiff of the stink of desperation, which is a huge element of the whole mentality of trying to make someone laugh," Mr. Newgarden said.

Lowbrow humor and kitsch culture, and the fear, failure and emptiness they barely conceal, are his enduring obsessions. Mr. Newgarden's stuff is existential slapstick, the point where Andy Kaufman meets Samuel Beckett. His jokes are meta-jokes about comedy culture that ask what hides behind all those frantic attempts to make us laugh.

[...]

Mr. Newgarden provides an oblique explanation, in the form of a childhood reminiscence, of the roots of his obsession. He recalls watching the Three Stooges on television, laughing uproariously at their "magnificent abuse," when his grandfather would barrel into the room and rant: "How can you laugh? Those men are dead! Those men are dead!"

"That made it all much funnier," he says.

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