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Ethiopia's Harar casts spell

Ancient walled city bewitches with mix of Arab, African cultures, riot of colors, scents and spices.

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.