the Town

Near the Fava and Montagnola parks, we may find one of the symbols of mobility in Bologna – the train station. It is located on the border between the last wall, going out through Porta Galliera, with the Navile zone, the ancient valley with naval access where merchants and goods would be disembarked towards the medieval fair of Montagnola. Mobility is part of the history of this platform over liquid that is the Quartiere Navile, where the habesha district is located.

Among themselves, Eritreans and Ethiopians living in Bologna refer to the habesha district mentioning its main street: Via Barbieri. It is where they all lived, at least on the beginning of the Bolognese stay; it is their first landmark. The street might be identified through one’s senses: you may stop when you feel the smell of shiro and zigni.

Trying to understand their pathways while accompanying them, once we asked for injera to a lady from this neighborhood, who was of trust for the group participating in the study. This was the way to know the habesha homes of Via Barbieri, mentioned by many. We entered an old building with ladders. The house entrance led directly to the kitchen where there was also a bed, little decoration and essentially religious, a large bucket with the preparation of injera and several pans with lids to do it.

My companion knew the lady, as he also knew several bystanders through Via Barbieri. I followed him into several bars, both typically Eritrean bars and one Italian bar especially attended by Eritreans and Ethiopians. As we toured the street he told me his story there: when he went to Bologna, his first residence was in Via Spada, in the nearby. He lived in a basement, as many others did and do. These basements are rented in prices similar to rooms, but each one must invent its kitchen and there is a sharable bathroom. Nonetheless, as everybody knows each other in this neighborhood, the habeshas in the apartments let the basement ones come up to the daily hygiene.

As soon as it becomes possible, they rent a normal room in houses like the one of the injera lady, each room with a kitchen, windows and a shared bathroom. When they reach a more stable situation of income (and legality), alongside a better understanding of the Italian renting market, some rent complete houses and sub-rent its rooms to newcomer habeshas or other immigrants, inflating the price and reducing the monthly charge of the first tenant. This is seen as passing the initial steps, living with other Eritreans and Ethiopians, where they may speak the same language, following with the co-tenants to the same work and leisure spaces, encouraging the presence in the habesha district.

Their presence around Via Barbieri dates back to the 70’s/80’s, with the first significant flows of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants in Italy (escaping from the military dictatorial regime in Ethiopia and taking advantage of certain post-colonial ladders of opportunity at the work, military and academic levels). This cluster enabled the creation and maintenance of some ethnic-based commercial spaces.

The first commercial space promoted by an Eritrean in Bologna was the African restaurant Adal, which opened at the time of the football world cup 1990. In the absence of African food supply in Bologna, this space worked during the days as a restaurant visited by Italians and tourists and during the nights as a bar to Eritreans and Ethiopians. Only 10 years later some other Eritrean bars appeared in the habesha district and in the city center, diluting the night presence at the restaurant.

In this work I had the privilege to attend the inauguration of the latest habesha bar: pub EastAfro, in Via Nicolò dall’Arca. In an attempt of more openness and inclusion, this aims to be a space for all the habeshas, East Africans, Italians and other curious incomers. Its name does no longer refer to exclusive Eritrean features (like the bars Eritrea, Asmara, Red Sea), although that is the nationality of the owners. The decoration remains with the traits of the Cuban rumeria that occupied the place previously. I got to the bar through the mother of one of the owners, the lady who sold injera at the Ethiopian shop. Considered to be an elderly woman of the community, by receiving me with ceremony at the bar opening, she made that everyone present would consider me a part, yet distinct, of this community.

A final thought on mapping the habesha district regards the pathways. An attentive wandering, if possible walking together with someone from the community, allows to observe and learn about groups and single persons between different landmarks: homes, bars, the park where they play football, Piazza dell’Unità and the crossing towards the city center. These are courses spoken in Tigrinia and Amharic, in which a correctly placed veil or a tattoo on the forehead put in communication those who are habesha.

Post scriptum:

Since March 2013, the Abyssinian Gift Shop is no longer there. Yoseph Girma had to leave it due to the economic crisis. He packed his stuffs and he left them in a cellar. Now he’s selling his merchandise somewhere.


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