Harar is undoubtedly Ethiopia’s brightest flower. If a jewel, she may be slightly chipped around the edges, though her centre continues to shine with undiminished brilliance. Of course, like most places on the continent – which Paul Theroux encapsulates as ‘a Dark Star’ – everything is a bit messed up. Located on the border of the far eastern Somali region, French-imported blue and white vintage Peugeot taxis cruise beneath Italian-built colonial buildings decked with tropical flowers, giving a strange Cuban twist to Sunni Islam’s fourth most holy city after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
The narrow winding streets within the perimeter walls are alternatively whitewashed then painted in pastel shades of blue, viridian, vermillion. As the bitter smell of marijuana smoke is the lifeblood within the fortified walls of Morocco’s northern Blue City of Chefchaouen, here it iskhat, the highly addictive leaf grown on the surrounding plains, releasing an amphetamine buzz when chewed, and occupying the daily thoughts and actions of the majority of the city’s inhabitants. Men dye their beards orange. The women wear the most ostentatious, beautifully designed and brightly coloured shammas in the whole country. There are tramps everywhere.
Founded by Sheikh Aw Abadir in 940 A.D., the Harar Kingdom built 99 mosques according to the 99 names of God referred to in the Quran, of which 82 remain today. The four meter high limestone wall or Jugol, encircling the old city was constructed from 1551 to keep invaders at bay, although it has often not been successful. The city has been conquered over the centuries by numerous different kingdoms including the Adal Sultanate, the Egyptian Caliphate, the Oromo tribe (who advanced through the Rift valley from the southwest on horseback, sacking the city before converting to Islam), Abyssinia (under Menelik II), and the Italians.
Harar has historically been one of the main trading hubs between Africa and Arabia, trading in slaves, principally from the Oromo region (Muhammad’s wet-nurse is said to have been Ethiopian), hides, coffee, khat, ivory, gold, perfumes, incense, musk and salt. Harar’s walls were not penetrated by the Western World until 1855 when British explorer and poet Sir Richard Burton, disguised as a Muslim, entered through the northern gate and stayed for ten days after secretly visiting the holy city of Mecca a year earlier.
I met my guide, Girma, at 08:30AM after he had industriously knocked on my door an hour after my arrival the previous evening to offer his services. An ex-radio operator for the Air Force, “I have jumped from a plane!”, he served as a young man in one of the many wars with Eritrea and in Somalia. After a delicious breakfast of pancake covered in a thin omelet dipped in honey, we set out to explore to the city. We entered the walls through the southeastern gate – there are five gates corresponding to the five pillars of Islam – and immediately found ourselves in the spice market.
Sheltered by orange tarpaulin, large calico sacks overflowed with anise, cardamom, coriander, dill, mustard, chick peas, lentils, various types of incense, basil, garlic, khat, rosemary, oil beans, yellow coffee, frenjer (no idea), abish (a spice drunk by women after pregnancy), piles of sugar cane and a whole host of other colourful and exotic paraphernalia. The floor was covered with many discarded khat leaves. Chatter filled the air in Ge’Sinan, or ‘Harari’, a mix of Amharic, Arabic, Afaan Oromo and Somali, only spoken within the city walls.
We continued on through winding streets until we reached the governor’s house. Ras Tafari, later Haile Selassie, was governor of the city in his youth and his old house is now home to an excellent museum. Constructed by an Indian architect, the delicate wooden building affords a good view over the city to the khat, peanut, coffee, banana and mango plantations outside Jugol. The museum holds various coins found within the walls, including a 12th Century mint from Salahuddin, Maria Theresa silver thalers, and Harari coins, tiny as cufflink buttons, inscribed with no less than 18 Arabic characters.
Swords attributed to various kings are on display alongside delicate jewelry, some made with coral brought from the Red Sea. Legal documents and centuries-old copies of the Quran in beautifully flowing Arabic calligraphy line the glass cabinets. An Italian-made light artillery piece used by Menelik II in his conquest of the city rusts in the courtyard, its Amharic name of gäräfä translates as ‘the whip’. The museum’s curator Abdulahi Sherif explained to me that what was on display is only one fourth of his collection.
A friend sat next to him looking rather like an Ethiopian hippy from the 60’s with round-rimmed glasses under a sunhat also covering long hair and a straggly beard. Sure enough, just as I was leaving, he said in perfect English; “I am a fan and friend of The Beatles. John Lennon, may his soul rest in peace. See you later alligator,” which completely stumped me. We stopped off at one of the blacksmiths’ yards where sweating men sat around a furnace powered by an electric fan that whipped up the fire in a kiln to a blistering degree. The men chewed khat and used hammers to bang away at plow-tips and axe-heads. Ash from the fire filled the compound. It was like walking into the Middle Ages.
Outside, women paraded the streets in shammas of every possible combination of pattern and colour you can imagine. By tradition, only unmarried girls are supposed to wear full silk dresses, married women distinguishable by only the upper parts of their dresses being in silk, the lower in cotton. From what I saw however I’m pretty sure that this custom has been metaphorically ‘thrown to the wind’ with some very married-looking women wearing some very beautiful all-silk-looking dresses.
As a trading hub the dressmakers import their materials from all over the world, the local names for them in charming correlation with their origin: silk from China is calledSinawi, from Indonesia (Java) – Jawi, from Morocco – Atlas, from India – Bombay. As Girma confirmed; “These names are justifiable names”. The acclaimed French poet Arthur Rimbaud arrived in Harar 25 years after Burton in 1880, and, having renounced his huge successes as a poet, lived there for between ten and eleven years as the first white trader of coffee and arms in the city, although he never seems to have made much money. I had been lucky enough to find a copy of his works in Addis and for a time became engrossed in his tumultuous life story: his lover Verlaine shooting him in the wrist whilst drunk; his feats of genuine exploration in the region; his heart-breaking final letters home as he was carried across the desert in immense pain with a cancerous knee, later amputated, causing his death shortly afterwards in Europe. And of course, his mystifying poetry interwoven with alchemistic incantations, threads of the occult, colour, light, and magic. Harar was just the place for a man like him.
The building that holds the museum dedicated to his memory and works is also of delicate Indian design, with many leather-bound volumes in the library on the ground floor. Rimbaud imported the first camera into the city and on the second floor many of his fascinating prints are on display. I spent a long time looking at them before returning to my room in one of the traditional guesthouses within the jugol. All Harari houses are of a similar layout with a large, multi-platformed seating area, its levels of seating according to social rank.
Colourful plates and wickerwork fill every inch of the whitewashed walls. A succession of wooden beams protrude in a line across the entranceway, the number of rolled-up rugs placed over them indicating how many girls are of marriageable age in the household. In the evening Girma and myself caught a bajaj to the outskirts of the wider city to the rubbish dump at twilight. Here the local hyenas are fed daily and my eyes fixed on them intensely as they came lurking out of the shadows from vast swathes of plastic-strewn wasteland.
They are huge, much larger than a dog, and clearly built of solid, solid muscle. Their long necks protrude forward large grizzled heads, seemingly eaten away in patches around the gums and lips either by dark markings or some terrible disease, I couldn’t tell which. Their slow lolloping gait betrays a terrible flashing rapidity of movement. Whoever said that they laugh was lying. Myself and a few other tourists fed them strips of raw meat draped over sticks. I thought back to my flippancy when alone and very high up in the mountains of Hashinge I had heard the caterwauling’s of a pack within a couple of hundred metres of me. Although human attacks are not common, ignorance can truly be bliss sometimes.
Overlooking the city on a hill, the palatial-looking concrete shell of the country’s second dedicated fistula hospital (among numerous fistula centers) is still under construction. As previously mentioned, it is not an unfair statement to say that many local women are mistreated in Ethiopia. Whenever I see a collection of locals walking down the road, nine times out of ten the women will be carrying the heaviest loads. They are more often than not oppressed domestically in the rural areas with backbreaking work and can be married off at an unbelievably young age, if they are not first kidnaped and raped; thereby being forced into marriage. Obstetric fistulas are one of the very worst effects of what can be an unbelievably cruel culture. It is a medical condition caused by severe or failed childbirth, especially in young girls whose bodies have not yet fully developed enough in order to safely give birth. Holes can develop between the vagina and rectum and/or bladder, causing a constant leaking of faeces and/or urine through the vagina.
The girls and women who are afflicted by this terrible suffering often do not receive treatment, are ostracized by their community and made to live alone in filth, pain and humiliation. The empty shell of the building seemed an appropriate metaphor that although steps are being taken to treat and eradicate this abomination, it is certainly not yet enough. These sobering thoughts encircled my mind as we walked the outside perimeter of the eastern city walls.
Three young girls in matching blue-shaded shammas made their way towards us, laughing and joking with each other, happy and youthfully giggling at the presence of a foreigner. I couldn’t imagine anyone, let alone them, being able to deal with such a torture, and more suffering than any person should be called upon to endure. Towards evening the pace of the city slows to a crawl as most of the men and many women start to really get into their khat highs and even the pretense of work is abandoned.
Lots of old men have completely let themselves go and lie in filth in the alleyways with beads of green saliva spilling down from their mouths. Some of them go crazy. One youngish man had his feet manacled in the street outside his home. Bunches of khat leaves in his left hand, he grabbed my hand with his right and wouldn’t let go. He spoke good English and seemed well educated. Some of the men are revered for their holiness and Girma was very careful to pick out one man for me to give ten Birr to as an offering. He did look kind of holy.
The really old men with no teeth grind the leaves in a mortar and swallow them as a paste. I made the mistake of eating kwot, the Ethiopian equivalent of a raw meat steak tartar and was holed up for a day with chronic diarrhea and so missed the camel market. A bout of self-inflicted illness made me tetchy at best and I almost punched a waiter in the face when he tried to overcharge me five Birr [25 Cents US] for a sour apple smoothie, calling him a ‘filthy sonofabitch’. A gibbous moon drifted over the city at night to the wails of the muezzins from the mosques. Harar. Crazytown.
J’ai rêvé la nuit verte aux neiges éblouies,
Baiser montant aux yeux des mers avec lenteurs,
La circulation des sèves inouïes,
Et l’éveil jaune et bleu des phosphores chanteurs!
I have dreamed of the green night of the dazzled snows,
The kiss rising slowly to the eyes of the seas,
The circulation of undreamed-of saps,
And the yellow-blue awakening of singing phosphorus!