January 15, 2012
I’m sitting In our bed in the cloistered upstairs room of a 300-year-old Harari house, listening to the distant drone of chanted prayers. To me they sound like Ethiopian Orthodox incantations, but they also well might be Muslim. Once exclusively Muslim, the city of Harar now includes a substantial minority of other religious believers (although elsewhere in Ethiopia, the number of Muslims reportedly is climbing.) Whatever its religious character, this place is distinctive.
For centuries, it was a commercial center, a crossroads for traders from Africa, India, and the Middle East. Because of a war with some of their neighbors, Hararis in the 1500s built a wall to completely encircle themselves. Today the 100,000 residents sprawl well beyond the single square kilometer defined by the still-intact wall, but we’re staying in the old city.
Securing our room here felt like a huge victory for me. I’d read that all the regular hotels in Harar are dreary, while Rowda’s guest house sounded like it had character. She and her husband reportedly decided to turn it into a guest house after their children were grown. But Rowda speaks little English, and I fretted for weeks about whether our tortured phone exchange had actually gotten us a reservation.
It did. Steve and I are sleeping in the only second-story room on the premises, a spotless sanctuary with a comfortable queen-size bed and views of the central patio and neighboring houses. A large wooden grill also allows us views of the most spectacular space within the compound, a multilevel (indoor) salon blanketed in Oriental carpets and satiny pillows. Almost every inch of the walls is covered with traditional Harari baskets, pots, plates, trays, bowls, and the occasional photo. Deep-set niches also hold china cups and saucers, stacked glasses, and other dishware. In essence, the living room doubles as a china cabinet, and the effect is exotic and beautiful.
The downside of Rowda’s is that the only two bathrooms are located outdoors, off the central courtyard. Competing for them are seven of us guests, squeezed into every spare sleeping space on the premises. Although there are only three real guest rooms, upon our arrival we found two dumpy French women camped out in the courtyard, pouting and complaining loudly. They claimed that they had made their reservation back in September, and they were outraged that Rowda didn’t have rooms for them. (Later, we heard from our guide that some intermediary had screwed up. Whatever he’d told the French women, this guy had only tried to make their reservation the day before, when all the rooms were booked.) More than once, the women exclaimed, “c’est l’Afrique!” (“that’s Africa for you!”) in contemptuous tones. Despite this rudeness, Rowda apparently agreed to accommodate them by setting up a bed for one in the central salon, while stashing the other in a bed in the hallway that was once reserved for newlyweds.
It’s now the end of our second afternoon here. I’m done with playing tourist in Harar. We started yesterday under the tutelage of a guide that Steve and I shared with a Kansas neurosurgeon who’s also staying here at Rowda’s. Abdul led us on foot and hired a tuk-tuk to help us demystify the town’s convoluted layout. He also took us to three of the main tourist attractions: a pathetic private city museum; another building dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud (the young French poet/genius who went into exile in Harar, trading coffee and running arms before he developed a cancer that killed him at 37); and a heavenly scented coffee-roasting house.
The comprehensiveness of our outing with Abdul meant there was almost nothing left to do today except wander the chaotic main streets and the warren of secondary pathways. This Steve and I did for several hours. We noted (and photographed) a few properties whose walls were plastered and painted in bold, colorful designs. But most looked little different from those captured in the 100-year-old photos we saw displayed at the Rimbaud museum. We thought of the words of Richard Burton, the first European to venture here: “The streets are narrow lanes, up hill and down dale, strewed with gigantic rubbish heaps, upon which reside packs of mangy one-eyed dogs…Among the men, I did not see a handsome face: their features are coarse and debauched; many of them squint; others have lost an eye by smallpox, and they are disfigured by scrofula and other diseases…” Like Burton, I’ve been appalled by the human grotesqueries on display: missing fingers, hideously twisted limbs, bilious-green discharges.
On the plus side, the streets team with able-bodied women wearing skirts and robes and scarves the color of jewels. They bustle with more commerce than we’ve seen in most of the other places we’ve visited in Ethiopia: sprawling open-air markets offering everything from packets of salt and spices to fruits and vegetables to chat — the leaves chewed obsessively in Ethiopia and throughout the Middle East to extract what’s reported to be an amphetamine-like buzz. But tiny stores also sell paint, Peugeot parts, fabric, hair tonics, Coke, stationery, jewelry, meat, shoes, baskets, and more.
Dirt and rubble litter the cobble stones, and we also stepped around big piles of human excrement but remarkably little donkey shit. Finally we noticed that the donkeys all wear colorful little diapers under their tails. Dust and engine exhaust and cooking smoke and sewage-y smells taint the air, and there’s lots of noise pollution too: loudspeakers blaring Ethiopian pop and mosques (dozens upon dozens of them within the old city walls) caterwauling prayers throughout the day. Everywhere we’ve walked, children (and sometimes adults) have assailed us with cries of “Farenjo! Farenjo!” (which I think is best translated as “Foreigner! Foreigner!”) I’ve taken to retorting, “Habesha!” (“Ethiopian!”) Often that cracks people up, my goal.
It’s pretty intense, tiring, if riveting. Still I’m glad we journeyed here. Rowda’s clean, quiet domicile is a delight, and the breakfasts of coffee, fried pastry dough, and honey are delicious. (The tab for all this is $21 a night.) I also loved our outing to visit the hyena man last night.
One of our guidebooks says the practice of feeding Harar’s hyenas dates back to the 1950s. I first heard about it in Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux’s wonderful account of his overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town. Frankly, it’s what drew me most powerfully to Harar.
For this spectacle, Abdul picked us up just after 7 and loaded us into a tuk-tuk which drove us to a spot just outside the walls. Although dark, several other tuk-tuks were parked, with their headlights on. In that light, a dozen of so tourists and guides gathered, staring at a small dark man who sat on the ground. Eight hyenas paced, restless, around him, and he called first one, then another, by name, inviting them to take strips of meat that he extracted from a bucket.
I found it thrilling, if a little comic. The hyenas aren’t much bigger than mastiffs, but somehow they look far more powerful. Their legs and leonine tails seem too short for their massive necks and jaws, and their perky round ears complicate the picture further. They seemed well-behaved, even tame, circling around and coming when called to snatch the meat scraps proffered by the hyena master, by other tourists, and finally, by me. Only two or three times did the protocol break down and they become angry at one another. The yowling and growling sounded like noises concocted by Hollywood. But if staged, the scene was pure Harar.