Welcome to the scene. You are in Harar, Ethiopia. Near the border with Somalia. To the south, the river Awash. To the north the Afar desert and the Danakil depression. To the east the desert and Somalia. To the west the final north-south bound road in Ethiopia, and the magnificent highlands. Harar itself is an ancient walled Arab town. Part of the ancient trade route into Africa where spices, the stimulants coffee and qat, slaves and gem stones were whisked to Arabia and Islam whisked itself into Africa.
The town of Harar is still part of this trade route. Now televisions, car parts, sattelite dishes and refugees are the incoming goods from the war torn Red Sea port of Mogadishu. Only qat and money and guns and ammunition return to Somalia along the route.
The population of Harar can be broken into roughly four ethnic groups: Somalis, Oromo, Amhara and the descendants of remaining Arabian caravaners who were enchanted by the desert or decided to set up lucrative businesses – the Harari.
Harar is raised somewhat from the desert, and the region near the town walls and up to a mile away is fertile. A number of cash and subsistance crops are grown: Corn, coffee, qat, wheat and tef – the grain used to make the Ethiopian staple flat bread. All are grown in sufficient quantity to keep the town thriving.
There are a few incredibly elderly ancients who remember Rimbaud, the teen poet turned arms dealer, who lived in the town, erecting an elaborate mansion in which to die.
Knowledge in Harar is passed down through time by the Muslim scholar-priests. Within the walled city most residents, but not all, are muslim. Despite this there is a relatively large number of bars, inhabited by an ever changing series of characters, drifting like the desert sands.
The Orthodox Ethiopian church is the other dominating religion of the town. It is based on a number of beliefs:
- The royal family of Ethiopia is descended from Menelik I, illegitimate son of Solomon, by the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba. Raised in Palestine/Israel, Menelik escaped returning to his motherland to rule.
- It is believed that one of Menelik’s companions stole the Ark of the Covenant from Solomon’s temple, and brought it with him to Ethiopia, where it remains to this day. It is believed to reside in Axum, in a church near the seven massive stellae carved from solid granite with more accuracy than is possible with today’s tools. The stellae are the tallest erected monoliths of the ancient world.
In the afternoon the crazies come out, aroused by qat. Old men sit in dark bars around the town square, playing dominoes for money and talking of the days not so long ago when soldiers from Cuba were stationed in between Harar nad the nearby Diri Dawa. The children of the town shout at westerners, “Cooba! Cooba!”, when they are not offering guided tours, or merely helping locate Rambo’s house.
Finding anywhere is a puzzle in the winding narrow streets, designed with blind dead ends and snaking intersecting paths, with no street signs, as the designers of old Arab market towns always made them. A form of protection against invading soldiers or bandits.
There are still bandits in the area, Somalia and Oromo terrorists, trained by Iraqis, who have blown up hotels in Harar, Diri Dawa and the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.
In the evening hyenas approach the city. They sometimes roam the narrow streets, hunting for food, occasionally attacking children and small women. Every night a shiny headed old man feeds hyenas meat from his teeth. The hyenas could crush his skull in a single bite with their powerful jaws, but they seem to be his friends. He has names for many of them.