Harar feels old. It transports you back to the seventh century, when it was founded by Yemeni immigrants. It’s not that the buildings in the Ethiopian city are crumbling — Harar boasts all the comforts of modern life — but still I can see her age.
It’s in her grand mosque, filled this Friday afternoon. The faithful have gathered to pray here since the 16th century, when its two slender minarets became the defining feature of Harar’s skyline. Harar, with a population of around 122 000 people, has an astonishing 82 mosques, some so small they look like family shrines. It makes being in Harar, which is about 500km from Addis Ababa, feel like a trip to the early days of creation.
The days when Harar was ruled by kings and emperors are preserved at the palace of Ras Makonnen, which has been turned into a museum and houses a collection of manuscripts written by Harari scholars.
Harar’s great age is written on the very wall built between the 13th and 16th centuries which still envelops the town. Harar’s Emir Nur ibn Mujahid ordered the wall to be built to protect the city from frequent attacks, and the five gates set into it remain the only entrances and exits.
Fallan Gate, which leads to Feres Magala Square, is a good place to start a walking tour. Ignoring the tuk-tuks and Peugeots so old they look like the first cars ever made, this is what I do.
“It is the best way to [get to] know Harar,” says Girma, a hotel manager and guide.
This morning the streets are full of Hararis going about their business and cafés selling fresh fruit juice so thick it’s served with a spoon.
Unlike in many African towns and cities, traders here work sitting down rather than walking and hawking their wares around. The town’s unspoken mantra seems to be: “You know where to find what you need.”
There’s a camel market where butcheries sell fresh camel meat, the carcasses hanging above the counters. This is where women sit on pavements in the afternoon with yellow jerry cans full of camel’s milk. It smells like animal fur and tastes so bitter I gag for hours after small sip I could not swallow, not even when I was told it’s nutritious and stays fresh for up to a year.
The town’s main features include the square with its Orthodox Christian cathedral, a Catholic cathedral and the 102 shrines of Muslim saints whose arrival in 10th century marked the rise of Islam in Harar.
Ethiopia has always been predominantly Orthodox Christian, “but because Harar has always been welcoming”, Girma says, settlers from Yemen and the Muslim world were allowed to practise their religion, which thrived so much that Harar is the fourth most-sacred city in the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
Harar wears its religious coat lightly. Young Hararis dress as they want to, date whomever they choose, and are partial to the occasional joint and spending nights at Shisha bars smoking hubbly bubblies.
Hararis also believe the right time to have an ice-cold draught is whenever you feel like it, including at 8am.
“We brew our own beer,” everyone boasts. It’s called Harar and is popular throughout Ethiopia for its strong kick.
Harar liberalism doesn’t stop with beer and dating. Chat (pronounced tjat) is Harar’s drug of choice. Its bitter green leaves are legal, loved and chewed by Ethiopians everywhere.
The town comes to a standstill after lunch. People walk around with plastic bags full of chat, or sit in groups in restaurants, cafés, bars, balconies, hotel rooms, offices, under trees and on street corners, chewing from noon to night.
Hararis offer each other chat the way people in other towns offer guests water. Old folk with no teeth grind the leaves into a paste so they can still get their high. A stoned town is a fun town. It’s also a peaceful town to be in, with no touts or hassles and zero moral reservations.
“We treat everyone the same,” says Girma.
I had been travelling in Ethiopia for four months before I went to Harar. In the north and the southern regions I had found Ethiopians strange; bordering on hostile. Despite more than 85 tribal groups and the fact that the country gets a lion’s share of tourists, a stranger is gawked at and ridiculed for not speaking Amharic. At best, I felt forced, in the name of local hospitality, to eat — hungry or not.
Harar is different. Everyone speaks English and Hararis treat strangers with care. One man even led me to his house, put a Coke in front me and left me alone with the TV remote and instructions to put up my feet and “just relax”. He didn’t ask for my name or number; he wanted nothing but the assurance that I was happy because “this is Harar”.
Hyenas and other men
It’s my last night in town and everyone agrees the chat-chewing can wait; I cannot miss out on Harar’s most famous ritual. Legend has it that there was a drought so severe, the hyenas that live in the mountains around Harar started attacking people. The townsfolk found a solution in the form of a specially prepared porridge they fed to the hyena king, who devoured it and loved it so much that his subjects stopped attacking Hararis. The bond between the town and the scavengers is strengthened every night on the outskirts of the old town, where the lights of a 4x4 cut through the black night. A young man is crouching on the ground.
“Aiii, naha,” he calls out, “come here.”
Five hyenas come out of the darkness and circle him. He twirls meat on a stick and holds it with his mouth. A hyena comes forward to take a bite. He holds out a basket so the rest of the pack can eat and tosses slabs of meat around the way some people give bones to their dogs.
“Naha,” he says, looking at the group of tourists who have paid R25 to watch. It’s time for tourists to feed the hyenas.
“Relax,” he instructs, as I kneel besides him.
The meat stinks, the animals heave and circle around me. I dig into the man’s arm when one moves forward to take a bite the way people do when eating a kebab. It sounds disgusting but it’s exciting — if you like being face to face with wild animals.
“They’re harmless,” Neyan Ashenafi says when I finally drag him away from Tika, Butta, Mehai, Jimba and Jimta, as he calls his pack. The 22-year-old has been feeding them for 10 months and spends up to 800 birr (about R430) a week on their meals. He just loves them, he says through a translator.
No one knows when the town started feeding the beasts, but it has been a tourist attraction since the 1960s. The hyena men are like a nightly affirmation of the generosity of Harar’s people.