Harar is very different to the other parts of Ethiopia that I have visited. It is very much a Muslim city, and governed itself under its own Emir until Menelik II defeated the last Emir, Abdullahi, in the 1880s, as part of his campaign to expand and consolidate the Ethiopian empire. Menelik installed Ras Mekonnen, his close friend, to govern the city, and his son, Tefari Mekonnen, was born here and later inherited his Ras (prince) title and became Ethiopia’s last Emperor, Haile Selassie I. The guidebook describes it as Islam’s fourth-holiest city, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, and if this is widely accepted then it is yet another thing about Ethiopia that the outside world hardly knows. My guide Anwar, a bright and knowledgeable 19-year-old student who is waiting for his end-of-school results and is hoping they will take him to university, says that there used to be 99 mosques here, one for each of the names of Allah, and it was a centre of Muslim scholarship that drew followers from throughout the Arabic world, and if this seems surprising in Christian Ethiopia, it shouldn’t; situated to the east of Addis, some 100km across the parched desert that reaches from here to the coast, and close to Somalia and the Red Sea, Harar is very much in the orbit of Arabia.
Harar now is divided into the Old Town and the New Town, and has something like 70,000 people. The Old Town is a walled medieval city with narrow streets and buildings colour-coded according to use – green for a holy site, blue for the dwelling of someone who has made the hajj to Mecca, white for ordinary houses, and so on. The New Town is very grand, laid out in the last years of Menelik’s reign and expanded by the Italians when they conquered the area in the 1930s, with broad avenues, large colonial buildings that now have an air of decay, and vainglorious bronze statues. Outside my window as I write this is the thrumming havoc of where the two meet. The Christian market, outside one of the five gates in the Old Town’s wall, contains literally hundreds of market women selling chat, fruit and vegetables, sitting by the side of a jaggedly paved street that also hosts lorries, tuk-tuks (even these are different here, named Minidor rather than Bajaj, and boasting nifty steering wheels instead of the handlebars seen elsewhere), the odd goat, people with baskets of live chickens on their heads, ancient Peugeot 404 taxis (no Ladas here), and a lorry with a massive sound system and a band on the back, which drives past every so often blasting out music and occasionally breaking into what sounds like preaching. As far as I can tell from the décor, it is encouraging people to buy lottery tickets, though the writing is only in Amharic.
Also outside is the occasional chat loony staggering along in the face of oncoming traffic. One of them, who I see from my balcony at about 8am, is wearing a T-shirt bearing the unforgettable slogan, “Let’s stop fannying about and take this outside, YOU SLAG!”, and is ranting and raving, and taking swipes with his walking stick at the 20-ton lorries that sound their deafening multi-tone horns at him. He appears completely oblivious to the danger of being crushed at any moment. Chat is an interesting issue here. Drugs are illegal and are culturally disdained in Ethiopia, apart from the small Rastafarian community in Shashemene, whose use of cannabis is tolerated. The sole exception to this rule is chat, which is legal and therefore sold openly in markets. The centre for its production and sale is the region around Harar. It is a major cash crop in these parts, and clearly a big part of Harari culture, where it seems to have grown up as a way of relaxing and socialising in a culture that frowns on alcohol. The scale of demand in a country of 85 million, with a sizeable export market, means that chat is big, big business. The bus to Harar from Dire Dawa yesterday passed through a town called Aweday, whose market was heaving with people, to an extent that seemed surprising for such a small place. Then a fellow passenger explained that the thronging people there were explained by the fact that Aweday hosts Ethiopia’s largest chat market, open 24 hours a day and seven days a week, and catering to the domestic market but also Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and even further afield. It has since spread from the Muslim areas to urban Ethiopia more generally, though Harar remains the centre of the trade. You pick the greener leaves and throw away the others, and chew them into a foul-tasting pulp, with a spoon of sugar helping the mixture go down. This releases a mild stimulant effect and makes you feel relaxed, and talkative, not unlike being somewhat mellow after a couple of beers, but with the added effect that you feel very, very awake. Anwar and his friends are full of evangelism for the beneficial effects of chat: it helps you work, concentrate, makes you feel peaceable towards the world and your friends, heals many ills, and so on. But the downside is that you cannot sleep for many hours after chewing. I tried last night to go to sleep, knackered after a 4am start to catch the plane from Addis to Dire Dawa, but lay awake, in a state of profound but alert relaxation, for nearly two hours. What was strangest was that though I really wanted to sleep, I was not annoyed or put out by my inability to do so, instead lying there feeling a sort of detachment, or perhaps apathy. Anwar explains that the chat loonies chew it morning, evening and night, so that eventually they turn into zombies, who never sleep, and instead sit by the side of the road, begging, staring into space, vacantly masticating, or getting into stick-fights with passing lorries. All in all I think it is a lot of effort to go to when, even in a Muslim town like Harar, there is a plentiful supply of good beer if you want to relax. But then I would say that: having a pint is part of my culture, and chewing chat is not.
Old Harar is beautiful, and I spent a large part of yesterday wandering around with Anwar, feeling lost in the narrow streets and taking in the sights. In one street, the Mekina Girgir (Machine Street), men with sewing machines mend and make clothes. In the central square, the Feres Megala (Horse Market), tuk-tuks and old Peugeots compete for space with pedestrians, donkeys, and the occasional camel. In the meat market, a man, a woman and a small boy are seated under an arch on a dirty flagstoned floor, amid thick clouds of flies, with the part-butchered heads of a camel and an ox lying in front of them, hacking pieces off both and laying them on a small, filthy piece of cardboard box (I have sworn off meat in Ethiopia since seeing this!) All around there are mosques and monuments, including the tomb of Emir Noor, who built the city walls. There are some unexpected things, none more so than the house of the French poet Rimbaud, who decided at nineteen that Third Republic France was a hell for him, and left to travel the world, wanting instead to have adventures and “liquor stronger than molten metal”. Rimbaud meandered through the Mediterranean in the 1880s and eventually settled in Harar. I wonder whether he really found the sense of meaning he was looking for, since he ended up dealing European arms to Ethiopian customers. The Rimbaud Museum is in an Indian trader’s house that had nothing to do with the poet, but contains a lot of wall displays of his (to my mind) dully adolescent poetry, and a display of photos taken in and around Harar by another French adventurer in the 1890s. These were a fascinating mix of familiar and strange. Shots of the market featured the same market women hauling enormous bundles of firewood, and could have been taken yesterday; buildings I had seen minutes before stuck out from the Harar skyline in a photo of the town; yet the absence of vehicles, or the New Town, was striking, and the . One photo portrayed eight Europeans then living in Harar – six Frenchmen, an Italian and a German. Confident, possessed of giant beards or magnificently upturned handlebar moustaches, holding tobacco pipes, rifles, and looking as rumble-tumble as they could possibly manage, they stared into the camera and radiated an air of arrogance and superiority. I wondered what they might think if they had seen a photo, taken three years later, of another group of Europeans, this time Italian soldiers, soon after the Battle of Adwa. In this shot they look anxious, haggard, hungry, dirty, and humiliated, as a group of Menelik’s warriors, wearing lion-hair head-dresses and armed with spears, swords, shields, and antique muskets, proudly parade their captives.
A final thing to mention is a Harar institution, a nutter bigger even than the chat chewers: the Hyena Man. Anwar described a custom every year where Hararis go to the surrounding hills and leave out bowls of buttery porridge for the hyenas. If they try it, but don’t finish it, this is a sign that all will be well for the town for the coming year. If they don’t touch it, or finish the lot, it is an inauspicious sign of bad times to come. Anwar says that the Hyena Man is connected with this custom, though I can’t see how. When I read in the guidebooks about a man in Harar who feeds wild hyenas from his own mouth, I was a little sceptical, both about the idea that this actually happened, and then about whether the hyenas are actually wild. But they live in the countryside around Harar and come into the town after dark to pick through rubbish and scraps. While this may not make them properly wild, the violence with which I saw them savaging a stray dog as Anwar and I walked back to my hotel late last night convinced me that they are, at the very least, neither fluffy nor cuddly. Several hours before, we had walked down outside the walls of the Old Town, and found the Hyena Man there with two large baskets brimming with strips of raw meat. Hyenas were circling him in their strange, lopsided, massive-shouldered way, with powerful heads and strange, rounded, teddy-bear ears. Lightning was flashing every couple of seconds around the horizon, and just as he was starting to dangle strips of meat from his mouth for the hyenas to pounce and seize, there was an enormous thunderclap and the heavens opened. Never have I seen rain so intense. It killed the town’s electricity supply, turned Harar’s dusty, hilly streets into rivers of mud, and hammered down on tin roofs with deafening force. When two minivans loaded with Spanish tourists arrived shortly after we had all hidden in a nearby doorway (futilely, it has to be said – we all got drenched to the bone), I could not even, through the cascade of water, pick out the points of their tail lights, seeing only, from a mere ten metres away, an indistinct red glow. This carried on for perhaps twenty minutes. Once the rain lightened, out came the hyenas and the Hyena Man, and he resumed his nightly show. He had a nice trick that he played on people whom he had persuaded to feed the hyenas themselves: kneeling them down, giving them a stick with a piece of meat dangling from it to hold in their mouths, and then holding another piece above their heads so that the hyenas jumped from behind, landing on the nervous victim’s unsuspecting shoulders. All this to the hilarity of all, save for the person with a hyena on his or her back. I was glad I had decided not to join in.