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A Gentle Anarchy – The Asmara Book Club

published in Natural Bridge Review, University of Missouri.

Array-book-club-webThis evening, we meet around eight o’clock, at a rambling old colonial villa in the heart of Eritrea’s sleepy capital, Asmara. Bougainvillea and Clematis crawl along the old stone walls, Italianate stucco designs frame the peeling storm shutters, the hallway has that 1930s feel of space and marble that disappeared after the Second World War. The equally spacious living room is hung with paintings, lined with books and evinces the peripatetic essence of the international worker: wood carvings from Indonesia, wall hangings from Afghanistan, carved wooden footstools from Kenya and batik prints from Benin. On the coffee table, a beautifully crafted Eritrean bread basket.

Apart from this hodge-podge of domestic style, the most fascinating sight to behold here tonight is a massive collection of books, arrayed on the dining table, tumbling over onto the sideboard, piled on chairs and on the windowsill, arranged without rhyme or reason.   Their authors range from Shakespeare to Michael Herr, from Jane Austin to Zadie Smith, but their random placement is all part of the charm and glory of what is simply known in Asmara as “The Book Club”.

The Book Club is an anarchic entity. Its library of around 700 tomes has no geographical resting place. People meet, discuss books, drink wine, and at the end of the night, somebody just volunteers to host the next Book Club.   It’s like ‘Fight Club’ without Brad Pitt. There is no treasurer, no fee, no headquarters, no membership requirements. The books travel, each month, in an assortment of cardboard boxes, from the location of the last Book Club, to the location the next Book Club, and are then simply stacked in any suitable space in the host/hostess’s living room for all to peruse. (more…)