Emails and Stories from Ethiopia: 1 | 2 | 3

Harar, Ethiopia, December 2001
Angie Eng


Walled cities have allure which provoke mysteriousness, much like the veil’s covering the heads of women practicing purdah. The sense of forbidden prompts elicit curiosity. Richard Burton, disguised as a Muslim merchant, must have certainly experienced a rush of explorer’s deceit when he entered the gates of Harar, the fourth holiest city of Islam, once restricted to White Man and Christians alike.

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.

After the wars, the nomads and villagers carry guns instead of the traditional Jil knife seen in Yemen.

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.

villagers fetching water and going to the market

Modernity is absent save for the occasional satellite dish protruding from the stone derbi-gar houses. In the eyes of the developed world, she was a step back a few hundred centuries. Getting lost in the winding alleys amongst whitewashed buildings, I was reminded of the fortressed cities of Rajasthan. Groups of Somali women in red, orange and blue patterned dresses with gourds and baskets balanced on their heads disappeared in and out of wooden doorways. Farmers on donkey carts transported bundles of coal wrapped in straw. Goats and cattle vied for space with dalala sellers and their strewn out piles of bira bira, onions and cabbage. Barefoot Kuth Gallic men donned reddened hair glazed with ghee. Their erect posture, solemn gaze and graceful walk distinguished them from the rest of the crowd. At their waist inevitable hung their curved jile knife characteristic of the Afar costume and resembling the djambia dagger worn by the Yemeni. They held their arms raised with wrists resting on wooden staffs hanging across their shoulders.

Petrol containers have replaced gourds and jugs for carrying water

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.

cool shade is important in the desert!

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.

The market stalls were some of the most beautiful art installations I've seen.

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.





Pacific Coast

Teaching Tai Chi to Ethiopian friends, Axum