Saturday, 8 September 2012

Harar is the real thing

"Before either had spoken the General sized William up; in any other department he would have been recognized as a sucker; here, amid the trappings of high adventure, he was, more gallantly, a greenhorn. "Your first visit to Ishmaelia, eh? Then perhaps I can be of some help to you. As no doubt you know, I was there in '97 with poor `Sprat' Larkin." "I want some cleft sticks, please," said William firmly. Miss Barton was easier to deal with. "We can have some cloven for you," she said brightly."
Evelyn Waugh, Scoop

I fly - after Ethiopean Airline's invariable long delay - to Dire Dawa which by contrast to Lalibela is hot, tropical and feels Caribbean. I only drive through it on my way from and to the airport but the buzz Is very palpable. Then a crowded minibus through wonderful scenery and gathering dusk to Harar. 

As in Dervla Murphy's day, there is always a schoolmaster to speak to you in English though now very many other people also speak English. Damn the English language, that dissolvent of parochialism. I sat next to a P.E teacher who told me, 'Every Ethiopian hates Ethiopia.' I understood this unpatriotic sentiment perfectly. Every Ethiopian is now aware that he is poor when within living memory Ethiopians felt superior to the rest of mankind. 

The schoolmaster was interesting at first but he ran out of themes and I wanted to watch the villages and the landscape (beautiful, dark green). I suggested this, I hope politely. He replied, 'What are the staple foods of Britain?'  'Oh, please.' He later got off the bus without a word to me.

I chose Harar on instinct, without any research, but it is the perfect choice, though no longer a mostly Muslim city. It is full of people drinking beer and easy girls, unlike in Evelyn Waugh's time, but the old city promises to be different. The Tana Hotel where I alight seems a series of very noisy bars and possibly a bordello but I later hear it is the best hotel in town. I move on to an Italian built hotel, the Ras Hotel, which had been recommended to me by a Mexican Jew in Addis, as cheap and pleasant. It feels like a gaol and costs $10. I saw a cockroach in the bathroom but the bed was clean. It does have a good restaurant and an internet cafe and there I befriend a nice guide called Hailu. I ate a very good Yemeni dish called Monday or something similar. I stayed the next night too from force of inertia but upgraded to the wonderful suite which runs along the front of the building and costs $20. One can imagine a young Fascist colonel holding parties in it.

August 6

Harar is the real thing. The Ethiopian highlands and its churches and castles I vaguely knew about but waking here in this Stalinist prison (Mussolini era actually) for which they charge you $10 (with excellent breakfast) I feel transfigured.

The strangest, but delicious, breakfast today with a completely unpronounceable name containing spicy meat. The only element I recognised was injera.

Harar is said to be the fourth holiest city in Islam but I do not know why nor who decides these things. When I was in Kairouan in Tunisia it claimed to be the fourth holiest city in Islam, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

Dervla Murphy is my companion after Steve left and I am unable to resist internet cafes and broadcasting to my 1,056 Facebook friends who are my other companions. In the internet cafe in the hotel I read this by Dervla and feel I did not score highly. I only obeyed rules 1, 3 and 4 - am ashamed I neglected 2.

I am enjoying Dervla's account of her journey across Ethiopia by mule - she deplores the very outset of tourism and I am with her but it has not got very far - certainly not here in Harar. But travel with Facebook and email is wrong. I wonder if Hararis have heard of Paris Hilton.

I asked. They had not. 

Nor Madonna. 

No point in going to Zanzibar after Harar but I have to honour the ticket.

Hailu took me round.

This man makes shoes from worn out car tyres. Customers call them 'thousand-milers'. 

19th century house in the walled Muslim city where I shall stay if I go back next year en route to Somaliland.

The old mosque to which kaffirs are forbidden access - the exterior is modern and uninteresting alas.

The Egyptian Mosque - late 19th Century, pretty but closed. 

A shrine to a Muslim holy man.

The exquisitely lovely mosques of Constantinople make Islam seem very beautiful. Muslim piety is attractive and moving but here, though it is exotic to white travellers, Islam struck me as a utilitarian and man made creed. It is spiritual yet seems to lack a dimension. For some reason, on this journey Islam reminded me of Communism.

Sir Richard Burton was the first white man to enter Harar, where an ancient tradition said that the city would decline should a Christian ever set foot there. He and his companions risked death or a ghastly imprisonment by doing so. He described Harar as 

'the ancient metropolis of a once mighty race, the only permanent settlement in Eastern Africa, the reported seat of Muslim learning, a walled city of stone houses ... the emporium of the coffee trade, the head-quarters of slavery.'

Burton stayed with the Emir for ten days, officially as a guest but really his prisoner, and was soon bored. After leaving Harar, things became much less dull and he came close to dying of thirst. Englishmen are better and worse, but much smaller, than in his day. (I am also struck that people wrote better about Africa then than now, because they knew there was such a thing as the psychology of nations).

Burton gives an account of chewing quat - the mildly narcotic herb favoured by Muslims because their religion forbids drinking alcohol though Hailu told me the Muslims of Harar mostly disregard this rule and that forbidding sex before marriage. A beauty salon ('Beutiy salon) I partook in the coffee ceremony and rank the best coffee I ever tasted. A young man gave me much quat and i chewed manfully without any discernible effect. It tastes ghastly and gives some a stomach ache but did nothing to or for me.

In Burton's day and in mine, Harar had over eighty mosques but I only saw two and and wonder where the rest were.

It was only when I got to Harar that people told me that here Arthur Rimbaud spent his last years, as an arms dealer and respected pillar of the community. I didn't go to see the museum in his supposed house, since the books told me he never lived there and in fact it was built years after his death. General Gordon, when he was still Colonel Gordon, was also in Harar. Sylvia Pankurst's account of Gordon's time in Harar is here

Later, when Harar was a couple of hours by car from the nearest station, someone who means more to me than these great men, Evelyn Waugh, visited twice. In his day, before the Italians came, the old town built from mud was still the whole of Harar. Waugh's friend, Patrick Balfour, who was also there in 1935, wrote:

Here, for the first time in Abyssinia was a town, not a mere conglomeration of native hovels and European shacks. Here were streets: a bewildering network of them, high and narrow, but well-built and on a coherent plan.

Feeding hyenas at the edge of town at sunset is supposedly an old tradition to bring good luck to the city but this daily event dates back about fifty years. It felt thoroughly touristy, even though Harar has few tourists - there were six the evening I went, five of us in Hailu's party. I was very disdainful at the time (we tourists are the biggest snobs) but I was too superior. I realise now that it is the way two local eccentrics make a little money and keep a sort of tradition alive. Read more here.

Dinner with Hailu. He is a Christian who, oddly enough, was born in the Old Town. He has as many Muslim friends as Christian. There are no problems between the two communities in Harar he says. He takes his religion seriously, I presume, or at least is about to embark on one of the Ethiopian Church's severe fasts the next day. He tells me ten years ago Muslim girls were supposed to be chaste before marriage but no longer. 'Now we are living in the modern world.' Sir Richard Burton would have approved.

Dervla says the Ethiopians drink a lot and I saw a girl drunk in the street at ten in the morning in predominantly Muslim Harar. The place is full of bars where people are drinking beer and Ramadan seems ignored.

Hailu seems to like Mengistu, who was born in Harar. This is no excuse as so was Haile Selassie.

I am horrified to see across the road a billboard proclaiming a hotel called ' 5 Star Hotel.' I hoped this was a wooden lie but Hailu tells me it is true. Who will stay there? 'UN people.' 

August  7

Country and Western playing  in the internet cafe at my hotel. Globalisation is bloody.

Walk with Hailu round the old town and we see the Egyptian mosque and buy some coffee in the market and fail to buy me a  t shirt – I am fatter than the fattest people in Harar perhaps I should have bought an I Love Ethiopia one but I couldn’t bring myself to.

From Harar to Addis – heavenly ride seated thanks to Hailu in the front of the minibus and as comfortable as if I had my own driver – heavenly scenery- villages – life. I am seeing life but I never take part. The best part of my holiday so far. Cost, 100 birr = EUR 4.

At the airport I am told the plane to Addis has been cancelled and I must wait till tomorrow but after some discussion it appears that the departure of my plane has been brought forward two hours and is on the point of leaving. 'You were not informed?' 'No!' I am given a seat in business class and arrive in Addis early where it is cool and raining and I am safe in the hotel. 

I consider luxury hotels immoral and deeply corrupt and usually avoid them but I seem to need things done for me much more than most people and I think I need good hotels more than most people. I am getting far more than my money's worth from the Hotel Jupiter Cazanchis in Addis. It has become a surrogate mother to whose teat I cling.

My bedroom is on the first floor and overlooks the front of the hotel. Slightly to the left is scrubland, in which stand tiny houses made of corrugated iron, beside a large heap of broken tiles. Two boys in front of one of the shacks are cleaning a pair of jeans with a bar of soap.

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