Ethiopia's Harar casts spell

HARAR, Ethiopia — In his teens, Arthur Rimbaud wrote a hundred pages of perfect poems and fascinated Paris with his talent and debauchery. In 1874, aged 20, he stopped writing.

Wanderlust took him to East Africa, where he became a coffee trader, an arms dealer, a photographer and an explorer. For the last 10 years of his life, home was in the walled city of Harar, in eastern Ethiopia.

The only portraits of Rimbaud in Harar — three self-portraits taken with a self-timer — show a gaunt man in loose local clothes, gazing stonily into the camera.

The haunting images are displayed at the Arthur Rimbaud Cultural Center, the exquisitely renovated 100-year-old mansion of an Indian merchant in the midst of Harar’s maze of alleys, along a collection of wonderful 19th century photographs of the town where, perhaps, the poet found peace.

"His was a tormented soul and Harar, a drug for his pain,” says museum curator Shekib Ahmed.

Harar must have blown Rimbaud’s senses away. It still bewitches travelers with a riot of color, scents and unique lifestyles, where Islam meets Christianity, Arabia and Asia join Africa, and trade between regions and cultures flourished over 1,000 years of uninterrupted urban life.

Around 1550, Harar's ruler, Emir Nur ibn al-Mujahid, built the ramparts, known as Jegol, with five gates that are still standing today. The Jegol has kept Harar intact and authentic while the modern city grew north and west. Some 20,000 Hadaris live in the 118 acres within the Jegol.

Trade and religion shape Harar’s life. Ethiopian Muslims consider it the fourth most sacred Islamic city, with 80 mosques and 200 holy graves of saints.

It was closed to non-Muslims until, in 1855, the British explorer Richard Burton, a fluent Arabic speaker, donned Arab dress and snuck into the city for 10 days. He left a lively account of his trip.

For centuries, trade in incense, livestock, Arabica coffee, basil and baskets fed the bustling markets at each of the five gates.

Harar’s trading power declined after the French built the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway bypassing Harar’s mountain range. The military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974-1991) repressed Harari culture, language and trade. The democratic regime returned autonomy to Harar, and it is thriving again.

Four of the gate markets still trade briskly. Oromo peasants trek daily into town, their donkey taxis laden with firewood, sugar cane, potatoes and all kinds of goods smuggled from neighboring lawless Somalia.

These days, the main cash crop around Harar is khat (pronounced “chat”), a mild stimulant. Chewing the tender leaves of the khat bush is popular, and legal, in most of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Harar khat is considered top quality and traded up to the Red Sea.

The best khat is freshly picked at dawn and must be consumed within 48 hours. Early morning, Harar’s khat markets are abuzz, and the buzz remains in people long after the bundles of leaves are sold.

This is a city on narcotics. Tailors, coffee roasters and jewellers work with khat bunches by their sides, chewing away. In the evenings, families gather in the elaborate lounges of their homes to chew khat, sip ginger tea and coffee, and chat for hours.

The sad side of khat is addiction: old and young men, teeth stained green and rotten to the point they can’t chew any more and must mash the leaves in a wooden pot. They beg, hallucinate and sleep on the streets. Harar is full of crazies, tormented by mouth cancer and psychosis.

“Chewing khat is not bad until khat starts chewing your mind,” say Birinyam Mengistu.

Tall and dreadlocked, Mengistu works as a tourist guide. He has travelled to Ethiopia’s main cities but would not live anywhere other than Harar.

“Where else can you find hyenas roaming the streets at night?” he asks. “If only they would eat plastic bags and clean up the city.”

Hyenas have a special place in Harar mythology. Besides garbage, they get rid of bad spirits or djinns and bring good luck.

Every evening at Argo Beri gate, a man feeds scraps of donkey and camel meat to a pack of 20-30 wild hyenas. He does it with his hands, or a 30-centimeter-long twig, or directly from his mouth.

The job passes from father to son among one Harari family. The nightly feeding is a tourist attraction. Once fed, the hyenas scavenge the streets. They don’t attack humans and humans don’t mind them.

Before dawn the hyenas return to the bush where they live, nine miles away. The muezzin calls out for first prayers. The markets come to life.

Women in typical Harari and Oromo dress — red, purple and gold robes over trousers and headscarves — sidle among narrow alleys, high white-washed walls and colorful portals in turquoise and green, blue, yellow, pink and grey.

In April 1891, with cancer gnawing his leg, Rimbaud sought care in France. His leg was amputated in Marseille but he longed for Harar and planned to return. His last letter, dictated from his deathbed and addressed to the Messageries Maritimes, says: “Kindly inform me when I will be taken aboard the ship.” He died on Nov. 10, aged 37.

Fittingly, his best known poem is "The Drunken Boat."

A blown up facsimile of the handwritten poem hangs at the museum in Harar. Through the windows, one sees the alleys, the people and the khat-growing countryside Rimbaud loved so much.

Do you sleep, are you exiled in those bottomless nights,
Million golden birds, O Life Force of the future? —
But, truly, I have wept too much! The Dawns are heartbreaking.
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter:
Sharp love has swollen me up with heady langours.
O let my keel split! O let me sink to the bottom!
If there is one water in Europe I want, it is the
Black cold pool where into the scented twilight
A child squatting full of sadness, launches
A boat as fragile as a butterfly in May.
I can no more, bathed in your langours, O waves,
Sail in the wake of the carriers of cottons,
Nor undergo the pride of the flags and pennants,
Nor pull past the horrible eyes of the hulks.