Asia and Africa 2004-2005 travel blog

Copyright 2005

David Rich 1100 Words

"I've seen what men have only dreamed they saw...." The Drunken Boat, Arthur Rimbaud

E T H I O P I A: H U R R A H H A R A R

Harar, the ancient capitol of the Horn of Africa, hides in the wilds of Ethiopia, oasis central for notables from the child prodigy French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the inadvertent god and father of Rastafarians, Ras Tafari aka Emperor Haile Selassie, to the first European to enter the enclave, Sir Richard Burton. The Horn of Africa has subdivided into lawless Somalia and not quite as lawless Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

The setting is a medieval walled city with five gates and 24 watchtowers, forbidden to entry by non-Muslims until 1854 when Sir Richard Burton (not Liz's off and again beau) decamped, involuntarily, for ten days, describing Harar as the eastern African "counterpart of ill formed Timbuktu." The miniature city of a single square kilometer contains 362 streets aka snaky alleyways. From the central square with the imposing Medhane Alem Cathedral (late 1880s) and Al-Jami Grand Mosque (1216) the hills of neighboring Somalia string like dung-colored beads on the Eastern horizon.

Harar's colorful markets of Droma traders feature unending stalls for the purchase of qat (chat), a mildly euphoric leafy bush similar to laurel but when chewed to exhaustion tastes vaguely of lawn, emerging local mouths in a phosphorescent green spew. The only punctual air flights from Ethiopia deliver the delicate plant in its freshest most saleable state to Yemen and Eritrea while Somalian traders trek camel's miles to exchange salt for qat. Sir Richard Burton said qat had the "singular properties of enlivening the imagination, clearing the ideas, diminishing sleep and taking the place of food." He must have tried a sample extraordinarily superior to the bit I chewed to no avail other than green teeth.

My prime must-see attraction was what the locals call Rambo's House, actually the house of Arthur Rimbaud who never lived in that exact location but the location of which with faint praise has been turned into Ethiopia's best museum. The boy genius wrote his famous poetry from age 11 to 19, becoming the toast of literary Paris. He said, "I'm through with those birds" and dropped out of Parisian society to wander the Middle East and roost in Harar for ten adventurous years, writing nothing else except whiny letters home. He took up photography and gun running for the founding father of Ethiopia, Menelik II, who appointed Ras Makonnen as Governor of Harar. The Governor in turn fathered Ras Tafari, the Lion of Judah, Elect of God, Power of the Trinity and King of Kings, the diminutive Emperor, who lived in the palace next door to Rambo's House during its former useage as Ras Tafari's private school.

Though Ras Tafari changed his name to Haile Selassie and never acknowledged the godhood bestowed upon him by the Jamaican/Rastifarian/Bob Marley movement he did happen to deed the town of Shashemene to the Rastis, a hundred miles south of Addis, allowing them to return to their roots, to Africa and Ethiopia. The sixtieth anniversary extravaganza of Marley's birth was celebrated in the Ethiopian capitol of Addis Ababa for 9 smoky days in February 2005. Haile Selassie was personally strangled in 1974 by his "Great Leap Forward" successor, Lt.Col. Mengistu Haile Miriam, comrade chairman of the Dergue.

Rambo's House Museum is also called Rainbow House for its blue, yellow and green windowpanes, not quite the colors of the Ethiopian flag and Rastifarian memorabilia. A stone staircase winds up to a veranda with six columns from which hang excerpts from Rimbaud's poetry, such as "I is someone else." The House is done in an Islamic gingerbread style. Like many travelers since, Rimbaud asked the original question; "What am I doing here?" But then he also wrote in The Drunken Boat "I drifted on a river I could not control."

Nor can one control the hyenas in Harar, or the hyenas who tout the hyenas to tourists. Seeing the feeding of the hyenas has become the high point, if not the purpose, of many a visit to Harar. The feedings began ages ago as an expedient for keeping the hyenas from feasting on the locals, or as Burton described them as prowling "around the camps all night, dogs travelers and devours anything he can find, at times pulling down children and camels, and when violently pressed by hunger, men." Yusof, the hyena man, spends the day collecting butcher scraps of bone and camel meat, dragging a gory burlap sack stained with seeping blood outside Harar's Fallana gate at sunset where the hyenas lurk waiting, ready for the next tourist show. No more are the hyenas quite as dangerous though undiminished in hideousness. They jerk-a-lope in a hump-backed gait like worthless carcasses splattered in gray speckled mud with snarly teeth. Yusof calls the dozens of mangy beasts by name, tossing meat and bones and, at the coup de grace, enticing them with meat in his teeth while taxi drivers collect paper money for turning their headlights on. These hyenas are so fat and lazy they perhaps lack the energy to pull down children. Still we gasp at the vicious crunch of camel bone and meekly pay for the headlights of taxi men, seeing what men have only dreamed in nightmares.

When You Go to Harar: Take the overnight train, an ancient relic on its last wheels, from Addis to Dire Dawa, $11 first class seat, no sleepers. The next morning take a bus two hours to Harar for $1, or fly to Dire Dawa about $100 roundtrip from Addis. The alternative, which I took, was a bus for eleven hours leaving Addis at 6 am direct to Harar for $6.50. The only palatable hotel in Harar is the Belayneh, tiled rooms with private balconies, clean and light for $15. The Ras Hotel is usually recommended but is undergoing noisy renovations and its yet to be renovated rooms are shabby. The best places to eat are the Ras Hotel, the Belayneh and the Hirut restaurant. The town is dusty, suffering almost a three year drought. The hotels will have water and showers available one or two hours a day. For photos and further information enter Harar, Arthur Rimbaud or Ras Tafari on any search engine.

The hyena man will demand a minimum of 50 Birr ($6) to watch the show, and twice that to take photos. Taxis charge what they can get to turn on their headlights. Don't miss Rambo's House.

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