The Journalist has an interview and I am her guest. So to is Medhane, her brother and Gisela the wife of the British deputy ambassador for Eritrea. It’s for the Eritrean national newspaper, Profile, one of a few newspapers published by The Ministry of Information. All television, newspaper, radio and recording material is generated for the entire country comes from The ministry for Information. We hand in our passports at the gate as the man with the automatic machine gun waves us forward.
We are here because tomorrow night The Journalist will be reading from her book My fathers Daughter, at The British Council in Asmara. The Journalist is not allowed to bring her books from England to sell at the reading. Books are only allowed to be sold by official sources. This rule applies to the whole of Eritrea, a country of two million people. The official sources of publication are monitored and therefore made official by The Ministry.
Insert name meets us and directs us down spotless corridors to his office through a door identical to the many others we passed. He is quietly spoken with a slight stutter and nervy disposition that belies his power. For some reason I am nervous. “please sit” The Journalist, Gisella Medhane and I sit in silence. “so…” he says shuffeling papers upon his desk “you have written a book”. The journalist nods sweetly. “… you have a copy” he asks.
That he speaks in English, not his first language, makes the sentences sound sharp as they are without the subtleties and nuances language requires to eventually deliver its aim. Instead the sentences arrive at their goal abruptly. “so… you have written a book”. it leaves us to interpret nuance. The journalist passes over a dog eared book “it’s my reading copy” she says “i shall be using it tomorrow night”. He eyes the copy “..yes, I shall be there…” he replies.
I notice on his desk, the handwritten title of a poem, The Long Forgotten Past and wonder if this is to be vetted for publication. The ministry is perched on a hill top that overlooks the capital city splayed through his office window. “come I will show you around”, he stands. It becomes apparent that there is no interview. We are escorted around the ministry, a collection of bland corridors with symmetrical doors reminds me of a childens home I was once in. All institutions are the same. London New York, Asmara.
Occasionally he swings open a door and announces the name of the department, “photogrpahy department, Arabic translation department, tigra department, radio studio department, newspaper library department….” each door reveals shelves of files and studious librarians, staticians, cataloguers, men or women at typewriters who glance upwards to smile mid sentence. I must always remind myself that the thirty year war for independance since the first bullet in 1961 is the longest war of the 20th century. And Eritrea eventualy won. Every person in this building, secretary to minister, fought on the frontlines.