ARCHANGELS, HOLY PICTURES, DEVOTIONAL GATHERINGS – RELIGION AND HOMEMAKING IN THE DWELLINGS OF ERITREAN MIGRANTS
by Aurora Massa
Based on my fieldwork in London, this post focuses on some religious practices which take place in the domestic spaces of Eritrean migrants. By analysing icons and devotional gatherings for celebrating holy figures I reflect on the role of rituals and religious visual cultures in migrants’ homemaking efforts.
The Cathedral in a restaurant
I have been attending the café of Alem and her husband Fikadu (two migrants of Eritrean origin in their fifties) since its opening, and I followed over time the changes of furniture and menu to attract customers in a highly competitive street in North London. When I went back to London in February 2018 for my second fieldwork leg, I came across numerous innovations in the café. Yet, one in particular made Alem and Fikadu proud and excited: a huge mural depicting the Catholic Cathedral of Asmara on the wall just beside the entrance. The Cathedral is an Eritrean landmark, built in the 1920s, during the Italian colonial domination. For Alem and Fikadu, the mural has no devotional importance – they are both Orthodox Christians. It holds a great emotional and symbolic value, though, because it allows to recreate, through a visual artefact, a corner of their city of origin: a fragment of their past to improve their future-oriented business activity.
However, the mural is not the only religious image in the café. In the most intimate and private space of the kitchen – where I was granted access when Fidaku asked for help to manage lunchtime rush – amidst pans and seasonings, vegetables and eggs, fridges and stoves, I noticed a small holy picture of Kiddus Mikael (St. Michael the Archangel) in the act of killing Satan. As far as I could see, the image of St. Michael is the only decorative element in the highly functional kitchen space. As Fikadu explained, it has probably been there since Alem’s first day of work.
Kiddus Mikael is one of many saints and sacred icons venerated by Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christians, one of the biggest religious community in both countries. Unlike the Cathedral’s mural, his small picture in the kitchen is nothing unusual. Icons of St. Michael, St. Mary, the Trinity, St. George and Jesus Christ, are in widespread use among Christian Orthodox believers, in their homes as well as in other personal spaces such as taxi cars and cafés, both in Eritrea and in the diaspora.
Icons in daily life
The role of icons and their persistent presence along migrant trajectories were clearly articulated in the narrative of Ammanuel, a 33 years old man from Eritrea. I met him a few days after I had noticed St. Michael’s picture in Alem’s kitchen. Ammanuel, a university student and part-time worker, has been in London for ten years. Seven years ago he moved into his first and current apartment, a two-room flat on the seventh floor of a public housing building in Stonebridge (Northwest London). We met in a late afternoon in mid-February and, to hide from the chilly and damp wind, sat in a Turkish fast-food, not far from his flat. While drinking a cup of Turkish tea, Ammanuel complained about his neighbourhood, inhabited by drug addicts and drug dealers. At the same time, he told me about the great care he put in furnishing his apartment.
Anything I bought is very good: washing machine, cooker, fridge, sofa, bed… I waited until I had enough money to buy quality, quality, quality. A friend of mine told me that if I paid cheap, they would break easily. I met him at church: he works in a furniture store and is a very good guy, so I asked for his help. […] I put many things on the wall: pictures of Saint Mary, Saint Michael, Jesus Christ, of myself playing football here in London, and of my mum and my sister who are in Eritrea.
Without previous experience at furnishing a flat, Ammanuel sought the help of an Eritrean man, a member of his church. He had done exactly the same upon his arrival in London, when he stepped into the nearest Eritrean Orthodox Church to start building social ties in his new environment. Ammanuel’s case is not exceptional. Places of worship such as churches and mosques play a crucial role and have multiple functions in the struggle of many migrants I met to turn London into their new home. But Ammanuel’s narrative includes also a mention to the pictures he hang on the walls of his flat. Such pictures recall his description, that same day, of his childhood home in Asmara.
During my childhood, I lived with my mother and my sister in a 4×4 meters room, on the third floor of a palazzo [multi-storey building]. In the room there were two beds, farnello [a sort of coal camp stove], cutlery and pots for cooking and an old fashion Haiwa TV, meanwhile shower and toilettes were shared with other people in the corridoio [corridor]. […] My favourite place was the wall above my bed, where I put different pictures: on the one side, there was Jesus Christ and Saint Michael; in the middle the medals I won as football player and a picture of myself wearing an elegant dress; and on the other side there was Ronaldinho and the Brazilian national team.
The icons on the house walls in Asmara and London outline a material and visual culture that illuminates his biographical and migratory trajectories. Ammanuel has always been a football fan and, before being enlisted in the unlimited Eritrean national service he had a promising football career. The exhibition of images of famous footballers on the walls of his child and teenager home, and his own portrait in elegant clothes, can be seen as future-oriented practices, which express desires orienting the present. In London, the pictures of his mother and his sister – whom he has not been able to meet for 10 years – are a channel to convey affection and nostalgia. They recreate domestic unity, give meaning to Ammanuel’s efforts to send them remittances, and depict the idealized home to which return will be possible in the future.
As a fil rouge which sews up his two homes, the icons establish moral order and a safe space in the face of daily difficulties, the significant others left behind and the pain suffered during the three-year journey to London. In essence, they contribute to recreate a sense of home. As the pictures and icons in Ammanuel’s dwellings remind us, the power of material and visual culture resides precisely in its ability to make physically tangible what is otherwise distant, to make visible what is invisible, to give substance to what is likely to vanish.
In addition, the icons in Ammanuel’s homes followed a specific aesthetic framework. During our meeting, he showed me several photos of his flat and of his icons. The latter, significantly, were similar to the one in Alem’s kitchen. Indeed, Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian Orthodox icons are reproduced in different sizes, but follow a canonized style that I found not only in London, but also in Rome – whether in rented apartments, squats or reception centres -, and even during my previous fieldwork in Ethiopia. Both in Rome and in London, religious icons are sold with prayer books, crosses and little brooches during Sunday’s celebration on small tables located at the entrance of the churches. They circulate in digital form as well, decorating Facebook timelines and mobiles screens, travelling through Messenger, Whatsapp and Viber and overcrowding memories of smartphones. These visual and material artefacts have a high religious and devotional value, which takes shape not merely in doctrinal terms but in practical and experienced ways, acquiring an important role in the homemaking process. For Christian Orthodox believers, religion imbues every aspect of daily life, such as smell, food habits, embodied knowledge, aesthetic preferences, choice of clothing as well as decoration of domestic spaces. Through icons, devotees adorn, thus transform, inhabit and personalize dwelling spaces. In the shared houses I visited in Rome, for example, icons are rarely displayed in common areas, such as the kitchen, the entrance or the living room, but rather in the intimacy of private bedrooms, even though they are almost identical to one another.
A nigdet in a flat
Of course, domestic and religious domains don’t overlap only through the use of icons. While scrolling down the images stored in Ammanuel’s smartphone, we found some with 6-7 people feasting on traditional food in his flat. He commented:
This was Kiddus Mikael nigdet. You know, I grew up around Michael Church in Asmara and every year, on the 21st of November our neighbourhood organizes a big celebration that people from all the town attend. Once in London as soon I could, I started replicating this celebration in my home, because I have to remember Mikael: he is the first angel and angels protect us. […] I could celebrate it at the restaurant, if I had not a home, but it would not be the same. Thanks God, I do have a home, I have to cook in my home, I have to call my friends and they have to visit me in my home.
Nigdet indicates the yearly Saint’s day, observed by each neighbourhood, village or town where the churches claimed after this saint are housed. In Eritrea, these patronal festivals start at night, with prayers and songs, and continue in the morning with a mass, until lunchtime, when families living in the neighbourhood leave the doors to their houses open for relatives, friends and strangers to stop by for a meal or a glass of swa, a homemade alcoholic drink.
By reproducing a nigdet for St. Mikael in his dwelling, Ammanuel performs his emotional and symbolic connections with his asmarino neighbourhood, in his two-bedroom apartment on the 7th floor of a public housing building in Stonebridge. This religious celebration allows him to strengthen and rebuild his relationship with both his past and present home, to create a connection between the two and to make his current flat a socially meaningful place, where he can mobilise his social networks within the Eritrean community. Moreover, by inviting friends to his apartment, Ammanuel can put on display his wealth. As important, he can fulfil his moral obligations to sharing and hospitality, which play a relevant role in Eritrean social life. With its annual recurrence, the 21st of November ceremony in Ammanuel’s flat represents has also a ritualistic and routinized event for his guests, as one of them, whom I met few days before, mentioned during our interview.
From a devotional point of view, by hosting the nigdet Ammanuel reinforces his relationship with Mikeal: “I cannot explain it to you in English… let’s say he is like my father”. The liaison between holy figures and their devotees is indeed intimate and personal. It is built on regional criteria, but also on family and individual choices. It is then strengthened through social practices and routines that frequently take shape in domestic spaces. While organizing a nigdet at home is a way to adapt a neighbourhood practice to new diasporic settings, there are many celebrations of saints that are dwelling-centred. I am referring to religious gatherings called tsebel, mahaber and iqub, which are monthly or yearly, and involve a variable or fixed number of participants, and can take place at different homes.
Far from being limited to systems of belief and grand collective rituals, the religious experience comprises also feelings, sensations, images, bodily practices and everyday micro-rituals. As a consequence, homemaking and religious practices have a deep but not static relationship; one that circulates along transnational networks and routes and adapts to the different everyday life spaces in which migrants dwell.