Harar, Ethiopia, December
ONE BLACK WOMAN FOR
ONE KILO OF PURPLE DATES
1855 was to mark the date of the first known Christian to penetrate the walls of this ancient enclave. 2001 was the date I entered the West gate of Harar. Unlike Burton, I didn't need to enter incognito. On the contrary, I was wearing my usual Tiva sandals, capri pants, bum pack and ruck sack, when I was warmly welcomed by a group of boys playing tennis table. Although the city has changed since the days of Burton, Harar's historical blend of African and Islamic culture seduce the world traveler to make the long journey to the eastern desert of Ethiopia.
When Burton arrived here in Absynnia, the city was at its peak as an important center of commerce and a way station for caravan routes, particularly in gunrunning and the slave trade. (Up until the mid-19th century Western Arabs exported women and men even for the small price of rice and dates.) The city had been encircled by 6-meter high stonewalls to keep out migrating Oromo tribes to the South and the Christian invaders from all sides. Originally, the city architecture consisted of cylindrical tukuls or one-story mud houses with thatched roofs. Cobbled stone narrow alleys led you to a mosque, a vegetable market, a bookbinder’s shop, a blacksmith, a basket weaver or a tailor sewing together a muslin shema. Not much has changed since then.
Harar sits between
the Ogaden and Danakil Depression. Needless to say, it is always hot and
dry. Eucalyptus, Juniper, Cypress and golden Acacia grow in abundance.
But the addictive substances- kat and the cocoa bean are the two primary
cash crops. On every corner, Galla girls sold kat. In the morning most
of the locals had already purchased their daily dose of the noxious stimulant.
By the afternoon, men, women and even children sat hunched over on the
street playing cards while chomping on kat’s leafy branches. Gradually
kat’s sedative effects kicked in leaving addicts useless for the
rest of the day.
For the afternoon adventure, I headed to the Rimbaud Museum into an alley lined with tailors and their machines revving full speed. The museum was located in a teak house built by a wealthy Indian. Rimbaud had once lived around this location, however no proof has validated this claim. Nonetheless, in the library you can read about Kebir Ali Shek, the last master bookbinder. Or you can peruse Rimbaud’s diary excerpts revealing his involvement in the trafficking of slaves.
At dusk the city reached
its peak of activity. Evening rush hour prompted a heightened scramble
to complete the last task with the remaining minutes of sunlight. Merchants
closed their kelly green painted doors. Market ladies attempted their
last sale of tomatoes and oranges. Mothers rushed home to prepare injera.
Street beggars tucked under gunnysack bags claimed their spot for the
night. However, I took my time ingesting the subtleties of the early evening
light when the sun hit objects and faces disguising them into a kind of
magic that was worth traveling to the edge of the desert to see over again.