We woke to no water in the hotel and a bright blue sky. The legendary town of Harar was outside, waiting for us to explore its more than 350 walkways, paths, and alleys that sit inside the predominately Muslim-occupied walls.
Harar is two towns in one: the renowned walled old city and the outlying mostly Christianized neighborhoods. People travel to Harar to see old Harar with its centuries-old homes and shops, and its Hadari people dressed in colorful garb. For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Harar’s 87 mosques found inside the 4 mile circumference of the 40 feet high, 800 year-old stone walls are equally fascinating.
The water came on. We showered. Girma offered to be our guide for a fair price. The watch showed 10:37 in the morning.
We entered the city through Shoa Gate, marked in Arabic script above its entrance. Immediately we were in the midst of village life. Women carrying wood on their heads. Chickens scratching at the cobblestones. Vegetables and fruit being sold by squatting women. Old world lives, if I can call it that, existed in a modern context. A few satellite dishes could be seen on rooftops.
Walking on, we were satisfied in people-watching and snapping photographs. Around every corner more pathways seemed to go out in every direction. The walkways were never straight, always bending, twisting and meandering. We never knew what was waiting around the next turn.
Girma shared historical facts along the way:
Harar’s gates were closed at night back in the day. If you were not inside by the time the gates closed, you slept outside.
The gates and walls were built by Muslims to keep Christians and the local, native Oromo people out. They were built for protection.
The British explorer Robert Burton was the first European to visit the town. The year was 1854.
The boy-wonder came to Harar in 1880 and settled in and remained as a trader and photographer after abandoning poetry at age 19.
’s last Emperor, Haile Selassie, grew up in Harar.
Today, Muslims and Christians get along fine in Harar. Some Christians do live inside the walls, and there is one church inside the walls.
“It looks like southern Spain ,” my wife said, referring to the whitewashed and pleasing pastel blues painted on the exterior walls of some homes along the pathways.
“Kind of looks like pictures I’ve seen of ,” I added.
“ too. I imagine looks a little like this,” she responded.
Harar sits along an historical trade route that saw Egyptians, Middle Easterners, and Indians travel in from the , the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean . Spices, teas, and grains were exchanged through bronze, coffee and yellow-brown hands.
The Muslim market was a flurry of activity in the late-morning hours. Hawkers were selling their wares, all the while looking at us as we stopped to pose for a photograph by beautiful multi-colored baskets lying on the ground basking in the sun. Hadari women balanced jugs of water on their heads, a feat I will never be able to do.
Donkeys carrying wood for cooking trotted past, guided by girls and women on their way home or to the market to sell the wood. Our project works to alleviate the unhealthful impacts of smoke in the home attributed to cooking. The leading cause of death in children under the age of 5 in the developing world is complications resulting from poor indoor air quality. How many children of Harar will die prematurely because of the wood being carried in rawhide satchels on the sides of the donkeys?
Some would call it “cultural,” this way of cooking. Romanticizing a wood-fired cooking stove, the idea that stoking the fire to feed a family is ok for the world’s poor, is all too often offered by perpetrators of the “cultural” arguments. That these “culturalists” can stand at the gas or electric stove in their homes preparing a meal and contend with the politically and academically-accepted “cultural” position, in some political and academic circles, angers me.
Our day ended with a meal atop a hotel that looks over the Christian market situated along the hard road outside of the Shoa Gate. Most interesting were the chat sellers. Chat is a bushy plant with leaves that are mildly intoxicating. Chat-chewing is a part of life here not too unlike going out for beers with friends. While it is mostly men that chew chat, women are known to chew as well.
A chat ceremony consists of friends sitting around on a blanket with bags of chat and sodas within arms reach. You pull the leaves off the stems and stuff them into your cheek like tobacco. The drinks are for putting flavor into your mouth. The ceremony can last for hours. Its effects are first noticed by people becoming talkative and animated, kind of like caffeine. Life apparently becomes more easy-going and happiness falls upon you.
No, I didn’t chew any chat. Not because I thought it was a drug. It seemed to me that chat-chewing was an innocent activity no different than spending an afternoon at the coffee shop.
For me, I didn’t like the idea of chewing on green leaves that maybe could have carried a microbe that would have had me bed-ridden for a day or two. I didn’t want to take a chance at ruining a perfect day exploring one of the last great, and little traveled, destinations on earth.
(written 23 October 2005)