Hard as the Heart of Harar: Down and Out in Ethiopia's Holy City

'Fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money' half drawled, half chanted Notorious B.I.G over a relentless hip hop beat. Through the smoke filling the room, from a small fire lit to perform a traditional coffee drinking ceremony, I could just about make out his face amongst a montage of gangsta rappers on a slightly torn poster hanging above their proudest possessions: a television, a hi-fi and a fridge. All bought for the family by Sharif's sixteen year old brother's 'guardian'. His brother would regularly accompany the middle aged German on trips abroad, whenever he took time off from his management position at the nearby beer factory.

Although Harar is often heralded as Islam's fourth most holy city it is far from dry. It is also far from being Islam's fourth most holy city. Even more readily available than alcohol is qat (pronounced 'chat') the local drug of choice. Very few people seem to agree on what it is supposed to do: some seem to class it as a mild stimulant while others chew it for relaxation and the sense of goodwill it supposedly promotes. A few sensitive souls will even find themselves drawn into a timeless tirade of dream like hallucinations. For others, like me, it doesn't seem to do anything. I had been stuffing my mouth with the foul tasting leaves for what seemed like hours, and all I was feeling was a mild sense of discomfort from lying around on the pillow strewn floor for too long.

'Fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money' droned on the dead rapper. At first I thought that he was just encouraging us all to procreate and grow rich (perhaps he sensed that he didn't have long in this world and ought to make the most of it). But then I began to suspect that it was more an assertion of his priorities: in other words, don't worry about women, just concentrate on acquiring wealth. It seemed a strange chant to be repeated within a Muslim city, where the acquisition of wives was so intrinsically linked to both wealth and status.

I had bought a small bush's worth of qat from one of the lines of head scarved old women, squatted down in front of piles of foliage thrown across the filthy cobble stoned streets. It looked kind of dirty but Sharif assured me that it had been washed. As the brown toothed old woman gathered up bunches of the leaves, she sprinkled a cup of water over them, vigorously shaking them out before cramming them in to a clear plastic bag. This qat wasn't the cheapest kind - made up of poor quality leaves and leftovers - that the wild eyed addicts had to make do with, but cost only a fraction of the really good stuff. Even a small bag of the highest quality qat can cost hundreds of dollars. In fact, the farming of qat can be so profitable, that food production is often neglected if favour of the cultivation of this still legal drug (in countries where it is strictly forbidden, such as Saudi Arabia, huge amounts of money can be made in smuggling by those willing to risk the death penalty).

Fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money, fuck bitches, get money' chanted the chubby MC. I still wasn't sure if he was encouraging us to have plenty of sex, while we still could, or letting us know of the dangers of distraction. I don't suppose it matters. He's dead now, anyway. All I knew was that I was bored of munching through bulging cheeks full of bitter leaves, and that their magical properties had failed to materialise.

Sharif had latched on to me as soon as I stepped out of the bus and into the chaos. It was dark and I had no idea where I was. I wouldn't have normally have agreed to taking on a guide but he had helped get my battered backpack down from the roof, led me through the shit strewn streets to the budget Tewedros Hotel, and found me sustenance at the Fresh Touch eatery. We met the next morning, over breakfast, and he shepherded me on through the sloping cobbled streets and four great gates of the sixteenth century walled city. We edged between burka clad women, with whatever they could scrape together for sale sprawled out across the streets; feigned interest at museum's full of old plates; gazed at a selection of Harar's supposed ninety-nine crumbling mosques (as many as the names for God); and made the obligatory visit to the house of the former poet and arms dealer Arthur Rimbaud (he had actually died in 1891 from a gangrenous leg infection, years before the house had even been built).

Carefully stepping around piles of donkey shit, we followed in the footsteps of the nineteenth century explorer Richard Burton. He had arrived in Harar in 1854, cunningly disguised as a Muslim traveller, as he was under the impression - or at least liked to perpetuate the myth - that any visiting Infidel would be immediately put to death. Having quickly been adopted by the Emir - who must have found him hilarious - Burton was pleasantly surprised to find that 'both sexes are celebrated for laxity of morals'. I wandered around in shorts and sandals, thankfully being guarded from unwanted attention by the possessive and protective Sharif (a genuine Western tourist is a fine thing to ensnare and not to be shared with just anyone).

Sharif pointed out an attractive young Harari woman with a halo of fuzzy hair and unusually new, clean and colourful clothes. 'She is a bitch' he said. It turned out that she had an English boyfriend who came from Somalia to Harar once a month to fuck women and drink beer. If Sharif had managed to catch himself an English girlfriend, then he would have been a hero.

Having fully circled and traversed the old walled city, Sharif led me down the banks of a stream towards the dilapidated Italian colonial house that his extended family inhabits. Having cautiously stepped around piles of goat droppings scattered through a gate house's ruins, we emerged in to a Garden of Eden. Amongst the well watered fruits and vegetables, stood huge glowing sunflowers, reaching up towards their namesake. The restoration of these old, Italian walled gardens had, of course, been financed by the young boys 'guardian'.

From this lush, sun drenched oasis of fertility, I was led though to the old house's very best room (the one with the TV, the hi-fi and the fridge). I left my battered sandals lying by the front door, and was encouraged to make myself comfortable amongst the cushions. As word soon spread of my newly acquired bag of qat, friends and neighbours soon arrived offering greetings and taking huge handfuls of leaves to fill their bulging cheeks. They all seemed far better at relaxing that I was. It bothered them that I couldn't just stay still. I had to keep moving.

On the trail to the hyenas, we met a stocky American called Eric. He had meant to be visiting the spectacular volcanic plains of Danikil, in the north of Ethiopia, two weeks previously, but had fallen to a fever. Of the group that left without him, five were shot dead by Eritrean gunmen, three were kidnapped, and two others were seriously injured when they jumped over a cliff to try and escape. Eric was feeling less poorly now and was keen to feed raw meat to the wild hyenas drawn into Harar as darkness descends.

Not far from the city's substantial but crumbling walls, in a small encroachment of dusty bush land, two rusting taxis shone their headlights out on to a mangy looking pack of red eyed hyenas. We joined the other camera wielding tourists from the taxis, unleashing volleys of flashes on to the unconcerned beasts. They cared little for our presence, only lusting for the strips of raw flesh, gifted to them by the legendary hyena-man. As he sates their hunger for carrion, they in turn serve the people of Harar by tearing apart those possessed by bad jinn (or evil spirits). It is generally agreed that every now and again they will make a mistake and eat a good one.

As both the hyenas and the tourists grew more confident, the hyena-man beckoned me over. He gave me a stick to place between my teeth and then skewered the end with a fly blown hunk of meat. I kneeled down in the sand and held out my flesh as an offering to the largest of the beasts. He looked straight in to my eyes for a few seconds and then snatched the meat from my mouth.

That night I would grow to be grateful for the close proximity of my crowded bathroom's sink and toilet - my body could, at least, purge itself from both ends simultaneously. I struggled to rise at eight in the morning to let Sharif know that I wouldn't be joining him on our day trip after all and then went back to bed until two in the afternoon. When I eventually rose to consume just Pepsi and a few stale biscuits, the manager seemed concerned: 'my advice, young man, don't drink too much'.

The next day I spent another eleven hours in bed before showering in a trickle of freezing cold water. I needed to be back in Addis Ababa for the next day, so the manager helped my buy a bus ticket for early the following morning. Still not feeling hungry but knowing I should eat something, I settled for an avocado shake so thick that the spoon stood up straight in it. I forced down as much of the sweet green sludge as I could.

Just down from the Tewedros Hotel, I met Sharif again, sitting outside a bar with a DJ friend. The previous evening Sharif had been stabbed in the face at a local night club. Apparently there was nothing they could do as his attacker was very rich and had just paid off the police. I agreed to pay for the drinks but drew the line at giving him even more money 'for the hospital bills'. He had already blown all the money I had given him on drink. Apparently he only found a tourist to 'guide' about once every two months.

The next morning I had to get up at 3:50 to be on time for the only proper bus of the day. Everything I had struggled to eat, the day before, I threw up within minutes of rising. At the opposite end to the sink, it was just muddy water. After waiting on the pavement in the dark for over an hour, I was eventually told that the bus had been cancelled as they hadn't sold enough tickets. As the sun began to slowly rise, a stranger took pity on me and crammed me into an absurdly crowded minivan that was, at least, heading in the right direction. It would be a very long day.

 

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