Could I Handle Asmara’s Attitude?

Fair Warning: If you’re a die-hard Asmarino, this post might offend you.

Asmara needs a serious attitude adjustment.

When I feel in certain situations Americans would shrug and move-on or ignore the lack of judgment made by a tourist, Asmarinos find it difficult to let you get away with anything.

I propose a crash course in dealing with ill-mannered, or just bad-tempered Eritreans in the homeland would benefit any diaspora looking to vacate the area longer than two weeks.

Some of their habits that I’ve identified drawn from outings around town, including trying to straighten my hair after it became botched with sand at Green Island, Metswa, and an incident on mini-bus ride home after visiting cousins in a neighborhood called Godaif.

Maybe I needed to loosen up and understand the behaviors that come from a society plagued by unemployment and underemployment, and realize that Asmarinos have been victims of poverty and colonization their entire existence, OR Asmarinos need to enroll in etiquette classes. So it begins.

One day I footed the journey home to Barbereket from the Central NUEYS Office near the Italian Embassy. I, as a newcomer, inevitably took the long route and ended up in Maekel Ketema’s main path – Godena Harnet. While lugging my baggage, a man felt compelled to shout ‘tslilti’, out his car window. Followed by a blazing honk and a deep side eyed until I crossed the other end of the street. It’s really not a big deal, I thought and chose to keep quiet because, after all, I was exhibiting a common street-walking habit that I do in New York City which is walking on the edge of the street and not the sidewalk.

So, let my lapse of judgment be a lesson to anyone with plans to visit or move “back home,” do not walk on the roads. If you think having some direction among the daily traffic would ease your safety concerns, fear not, because in lieu of traffic lights, Asmara has equipped several of its commercial areas with crossing guards dressed in navy blue whom signal pedestrians to walk when the road is clear. Please use them to your advantage: it could save you the pressure of having to defend yourself or argue with anyone.

Another incident that left me in the dark on ways to respond to Asmarinos transpired at a hair salon.

I decided it was time to test the capabilities of generators in Asmara, and order a wash and blow out once I removed the long braids from my hair. (If it wasn’t for an adequate supply of American conditioner that I brought there, my roots would’ve been in deep curly girl hell.)

So I went to a salon recommended to me by an aunt and walked in with contents of VO5 in my hair and a translucent shower cap over my head. Almost an hour later, I left in vexation. What fueled my anger was that I couldn’t screen any sign of remorse or pity on the receptionist that sat in silence for 40 minutes – the receptionist who reduced her explanation to ‘[they’re] having lunch,’ after asking where the stylists were once I arrived.

There’s a practice in the states where the receptionist is accustomed to asking the client to place her or his name on a list, to manage their foot traffic and so that everyone knows their place in line. This even happens at crowded restaurants, too. But nobody gave me the courtesy or attention to offer why the hairdressers haven’t appeared.

As the clock ticked, I saw no progress and only saw more customers walk by. In helping to understand the situation and offer some semblance to anyone’s whose faced the same indifference, I reflect on a conversation I had with an older diaspora at the Eritrean Civic & Cultural Center in Washington D.C. “[Our] society is just slow like that,” she said trying to convey a time where the waitress took a long time to record her order. The word slow in this context means one’s actions out of lack of judgment or habit. When she said ‘slow’ she meant it that way. Sluggish. Unhurried. Slow.

Thinking this was a place to get my roots pressed, I admittedly say that I initiated a confrontation with the receptionist until my mother contested as I quickly began mouthing off to everyone who was willing to listen in the store. She agreed that the receptionist or another worker should have kept us informed of my place in line, but that I was wrong to act out of character.

Surely, one incident could alter your outlook on the town’s service industry.

Caution: This next anecdote may trouble readers who aren’t familiar with aggressive Asmarinos.

While strolling on the main strip of Ketema (again), I felt a tight grip on my right arm. It was the grip of an old man trying to convince me that I needed to weigh myself on his scale.

You may be wondering why of all things would someone make a profit off an individual weighing his self. I asked myself the same thing one afternoon where I spotted people in pairs and groups weigh themselves across the street. Then I compared it to American practices.

It’s not uncommon to see Americans with a scale in the bathroom of their home, in gym locker rooms and at the doctor’s office. However, Eritreans don’t have the luxury to monitor their weight to the point where the tool is needed in the bathroom. In retrospect, charging people to weigh themselves looked and seems profitable.

As a result of his poor communication, I reacted like a stereotypical New Yorker and told him to get lost. I had just spent the afternoon at Sunshine Hotel and knew I had to foot the route alone for the next 25 minutes. So the best way to do this was to intentionally drown out the sounds of everyone and everything in sight – car honks, beggars, people in pair/triples – with my iPhone ear buds.

In the States, you can’t throw a rock outside without hitting someone with headphones in his ear. It’s become a staple among digital natives, and never would I have thought wearing headphones in Asmara would reverse my invisibility cloak times a thousand.

The aggressive salesman left me unsure of how to defend myself. I couldn’t register if this was one of those incidences that happened because I was a female walking alone, more than if he was trying to milk the American dollars from my pocket.

I mockingly retorted and asked him if it was free, and he chuckled amusingly, trying to contain his rudeness that came out anyway. ‘So then don’t touch me,’ I said adding that he was dirty. He spat back and called me homeless.

My observations and thoughts are not derivative of these petty encounters, I’ve also had run ins with old women who shamelessly walked behind me and whomever I was with in a store and ask for money, or the time a child followed me into the front door of aunt’s home after I repeatedly said that I don’t have money or food to give her. Then she tried another tactic and disappeared altogether, only to return with other hungry children. Not to mention a dreaded man with a strong American accent who roamed Ketema and always referred to my mother as ‘sister‘ when he would ask her for money.

Final words to the diaspora and friends of Eritrea: Try to fight some things off with humor, or politely say ‘no’. People are in desperate circumstances, and even though you have the right to ignore service workers, salesmen and beggars, don’t allow anyone to let you become frazzled or create the perception that everyone is trying to milk you or intend to unravel their life frustration on you somehow. I practiced short patience with Eritreans a lot of times and mostly felt like someone wanted something from me, instead of getting to know me. The truth is to never take anything personally because everyone is fighting a battle, everyday, Eritreans included.

10 thoughts on “Could I Handle Asmara’s Attitude?

  1. Thank you so much for sharing. As a young returnee and expatriot HOW many times wasn’t I called all sorts of names on Asmera’s cities, I just don’t know… ‘tsililti’ was my street name and twice I was
    slapped (for no apparant reasons at all might I add) by complete strangers. Asmeran Eritreans are
    the problem not me, they have no style, no manners, no discipline and no feelings either. As for sexual harassment don’t even get me started. More power to you sister!


    1. Hi Rahwa,
      I apologize that you’ve been mistreated! There’s no reason behind putting your hands on a complete stranger – not abroad and not in Eritrea. I don’t want you to revisit anything you aren’t comfortable with, but there must be a reason why someone called you ‘tslilti,’ mish? I spoke with a returnee, an older woman, who told me that Eritrea seemed really harsh in the beginning and that it took her some time to become adjusted. It’s all about perspective and timing! I’m interested in knowing more about your stories – Would you be able to send me a personal e-mail to

      Be Well,


      1. Ariam gualay

        Thanks for replying. About my being called mad on the streets in the early 90s- it may have been my style of clothing. At other times, I confess that I was also called chocolatta and Diana Ross. I am all three but so much more too you know… 🙂

        But the beatings were just typical out of line and outright hatred of FREE-SPIRITED diaspora girls. Though recently someone told me that more backward boys do that to girls they like. They are unwell… :D!…

        Sorry for the late response. I will write the book and spill all the beans one day soon…KEEP ON WRITING. DON’T STOP. I too STARTED WRITING IN ASMERA 1993 (so pissed off was I)…



    2. Reading this story many years later and crying. “tsililti was my street name and twice I was slapped” (!!!) perfectly captures how simultaneously frustrating and hilarious Eritreans can be.


  2. This is exactly the feelings I have concerning the trip to Asmara back to 3 years ago with my mother. The same situations and thoughts happened to me during the visits to Asmara and Zoba Debub. It seem that everyone and everything was disconnected from how you thought ‘Adi” would be.
    However, I think both diaspora Eritreans and domestic Eritreans must work to strengthen and advise each other on our unique strengths , experiences, and weaknesses.
    I enjoy reading your article and appreciate the time you have taken to share with fellow Eritreans and the general world.
    Your honesty and talents are needed to tell the stories of people in Eritrea .
    I look forward to following your career as next generation of leaders/changers of diaspora Eritrean population and developments as a writer. I especially enjoy your narrative of telling the untold stories of diaspora cross-culture exchanges.
    Despite the shortcomings of our experiences in Eritrea, we must help the people and place hope for better day.
    I hope your next trip to Eritrea will be just as interesting as the one last one!!!!


    1. Selam, Tesfa! Im glad you’re empathetic of my feelings, as it also sounds like you had an exhilarating experience in Adi. My resentment towards a lot of the natives were too strong to ignore, but it helped me check my Western ways and appreciate the honesty and attention from Eritreans that sometimes doesn’t even happen within our home community. Where exactly in Zoba Debub were you?


  3. I am no “die hard asmarino” but I have spent 13 years watching summertime Eritreans come and go, and every year complain about “the locals”, (personaly, i’l aghast that you call Eritreans natives) its true that no they don’t like you, and not because of your “western” ways. Its the atitude beles have from outside when visiting. Show up, party for three months, complain about the very people who live there, go to all the goverment meetings, pose in native closthes, hang out with anyone but locals, profess everything is great, and leave. Even blogs like these are dripping with condescension. I don’t know what kind of vacation tip it is to “not walk in the street with luggage” seems obvious to me. Everybody know how exclusive Beles Eritreans are, and how clearly Asmarinos are not welcome among them. In thier own city. Asmarinos always have a clear distinction between who is here from outside with genuine interests and who is there just to drink, pose for pictures, and flaunt thier exchange rate riches.

    Really, showing up to a third world country, you’ve got to adjust your own attitude first. Empathy. Be open minded. Understand people are really suffering. Get to know your nieghbors. Don’t be afraid to talk to Asmarinos when you go out. You are much better off in life than any asmarino by vritue of your American citizenship and the oppourtunities you have which are shut off from Asmarinos, and they know it. So never, ever, try to justify what the government is doing to them.

    Be humble. Peace.


    1. Selam hawey. Firstly, I would like to say that I appreciate your unfiltered truth and that you have sincerely misrepresented a lot of the diaspora, including myself. I dedicated a post to my run-ins with Asmarinos, and consistently check my American habits throughout the piece. I won’t apologize for defending myself and speaking out when I feel that I’ve been mistreated. I apologize on behalf of your biases of the diaspora, and how you’ve allowed young men and women (who happen to be Eritrean) distort your image of the reasons why we go there in the first place. Let me say that I got a positive image of the strength of Asmarinos in the face of their everyday struggle to make ends meet because I talked to those people every single day. Those people are my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and their neighbors whom my family and I think of everyday in America – this is why we call them every month and send money whenever they need us to. I am proud to be an Eritrean-American. I am proud to claim my identity, speak Tigrinya, share stories of belonging and home with my peers in America, volunteer at community centers, attend church, and will be back in the homeland soon. Take care.


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