In the Land of Sheba: A Pilgrimage to Ethiopia

Harar, Home of Haile Selassie and the Hyena Man
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 17 2010 7:16 AM

In the Land of Sheba: A Pilgrimage to Ethiopia

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HARAR—The trip's worst day coincides with my 37th birthday. In the open-air market outside the walls of a 16th-century Islamic town called Harar, I slip, fall, and scrape my left leg. Among the scrap metal heaps and Quran vendors, my knee starts to bleed, and I begin to cry. It's the mildest of scratches, but the sting and surprise is enough to make the dammed-up tears of a lonely trip fall. I scramble to find my cheap, knockoff sunglasses in my bag. I hate wearing sunglasses. In my embarrassment, I'm glad for them now.

Day 5: Harar

To find the nearest espresso bar, the Ali Bal Café, I leave the market and re-enter the city by one of its five gates—this one is called Axum, because Harar's Muslim rulers, including the most famous, Ahmed the Left-Handed, rode through it on his way to make war with the Christians.

Vegetables on sale at the Harar market, 1981. Click image to expand.
Vegetables on sale at the Harar market, 1981
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Inside the gate, the narrow streets are jammed with blankets covered in piles of wizened onions and chilies. I find the coffee shop. Sulking over one cappuccino, then another, I consider how to redeem the day and myself. I am tired: tired of making my own plans, tired of following my own serpentine curiosity, tired of pushing myself to write poems before they are ready to be written.

None of this is working, and Harar is not at all what I'd imagined. It's less than a square mile packed tight with warrens of houses and mosques; at least 99, as many as the Islamic names for God. This is supposed to be a place out of time; a place unchanged since Richard Burton attempted to be the first white man to enter the city when he snuck into Harar in 1854, dressed as a Muslim traveler. Any infidel was to be put to death. According to Burton, he impressed and successfully fooled the emir. Still, his derring-do seemed to depress him. On leaving Harar, he writes in First Footsteps in East Africa: "[H]ow melancholy a thing is success. Whilst failure inspirits a man, attainment reads the sad, prosy lesson that all our glories 'are shadows, not substantial things.' "

Besides melancholy, I have nothing in common with Burton. His grandiosity appalls me, and I'd bet his travels were far easier than he makes them out to be. For some reason, we love travelers and ascribe to them all manner of bravery we'd find unnecessary if we attempted the trip ourselves. Right now, I feel more kinship with French poet and failed gunrunner Arthur Rimbaud, who also made a home in Harar 30 years later, in 1884.

Rimbaud was 27 and already done writing poetry when he arrived in Ethiopia from Aden, Yemen, and tried to make his living as a photographer. That didn't work. He moved on to try to trade salt and coffee. I find his house, or what is called his house, as no one really knows for sure where he lived. This house has peaked and sloping mahogany roofs. It looks like the home of an Indian or Chinese trader, which isn't unusual, since all manner of cultural crossroads ran through Harar at the time. Still, Rimbaud had a hard go of it here. "His neighbors accused him of poisoning their dogs," the museum keeper says. He is sitting on the steps eager for visitors. "He was accused of having an affair with a man, but this was disproved." The museum keeper knows a great deal. He has read through the entire library on the house's first floor.

Rimbaud had odd dreams—absinthe seemed to carve odd rivers in his brain, I scribble in my notebook.

"Are you left-handed?" the guide asks me. "Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are. I don't accept that Rimbaud was a spy, but perhaps he was gay. My view is that his society was essentially conservative. Artists are a little ahead of their society. They break taboos to provoke people."

At 37, Rimbaud grew very ill. A sore on his hip was infected. (He thought it was cancer, but it was gangrene.) He sailed for home, dying in a hospital along the way.

The day is not half over, and my blues are deepening into plum. So much for a pilgrimage; the darkest heart is proving to be my own.

I wonder what Rimbaud would have made of Burton's bloviations about failure. Did failure inspire Rimbaud? It certainly killed him.

Two streets away, there's another museum, this one founded by a man named Sharif. Sharif is a very corpulent and friendly person, and he is waiting for visitors when I walk under the house's mahogany arch. A wealthy businessman, he lives in Haile Selassie's old house. Selassie, too, hailed from Harar. Sharif reclines on carpets in his office, chewing a porridge of qat, the African and Yemeni pastime, which is roughly the equivalent of masticating wintergreen. Qat works as both a stimulant and a pacifier. In some places, women chew the stuff. Not here. I don't want it anyway. He offers me coffee, and we make ourselves comfortable to talk.

Harar is sometimes called Africa's Mecca. Like Negash, the first Muslim settlement, Harar is a holy place for many of Africa's 400 million Muslims, a seat of ancient learning and trade. To preserve the city's heritage, Sharif has bought up everything he can of its past.

"I collect these things to know myself," he says. Between two fat fingers he holds up a coin that dates to A.D. 700. The U.S. Embassy gave him $17,000 to archive his collection, he tells me. On his desk sit a digital camera and a scanner. I want to talk to him about relations between Christians and Muslims here in Harar and in Ethiopia in general.

The greatest ongoing strife lies inside the Christian community, between two groups of Christians: Ethiopian Orthodox, like the people of Axum who have been here for more than a century, and local Pentecostals. The two Christian groups are fighting over the airwaves. Like the Muslims, they use loudspeakers at times of prayer. But the Muslims keep the volume low so that only the families nearest the mosque can hear the muezzin announce the call to prayer. The Christians seem to be blaring their message in order to reach as many ears as possible.

Does that mean there are no problems between Christians and Muslims here? Just across the border, Somalia is a hotbed of al-Qaida-linked militants at war with themselves and with anything that smacks of the West.

"We see a great problem coming over our heads like a storm," Sharif says, squeezing the qat mash between his gum and his bottom teeth. "On one side we have the Wahhabis and their petro-dollars. We challenge them. They don't believe in Sufis." (The vast majority of Ethiopian and North African Muslims are Sufis, an open tradition that involves singing and the veneration of saints, although there are plenty of Sufi warriors, too.) "The Wahhabis don't believe in our culture, and now our Sufi shrines are dying out. We are afraid."

He went on, "The Pentecostals are just like Wahhabis. They recruit depressed people and drunkards. This is a religion of money. In the past 30 years they've spread so much."

"This government is a Christian government. Beginning in the 19th century, the emperor called Ethiopia 'a Christian island in a Muslim sea.' We saw conflicts over communism and nationalism, and now it's religion."

Sharif rises to show me to the bathroom. As proof, he points to a mahogany carving of the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesha over the doorframe. Power is as power does here. Anyone will claim to be anything to get ahead.

I consider kindhearted Sharif. With his prodigious belly, his round cheeks, I think he looks a little like Ganesha, too, but I don't say this. Instead, I make my last tour of glass cases: clothing, compasses, the detritus of forgotten lives, which Sharif identifies as part of his own. Just next door is the city's largest mosque, which Haile Selassie converted into a church to make a point about the new arrival and dominance of Christians in traditionally Muslim lands.

Haile Selassie photographed circa 1923. Click image to expand.
Haile Selassie photographed circa 1923

Also, somewhat inadvertently, Haile Selassie founded his own religion: Rastafarianism. Like the Ethiopian emperors who preceded him, he claimed to be a descendent of that legendary union of Solomon and the queen of Sheba through their son Menelik. During Selassie's reign in the 1930s, a group of Jamaican Christians began to worship the Ethiopian emperor as a god and king of a new religion they called Rastafari. As a sect within Christianity, Rastafarians hold that Selassie is the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Selassie certainly saw himself as divine. In The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuscinski chronicled Selassie's bizarre reign and legendary fall through the accounts of his courtiers. That world is gone now. Today's Ethiopia isn't isolated from the rest of the world. Religious competition—the competition between different kinds of Christians—mirrors the tensions between different groups throughout Africa and beyond.

The Ethiopian church that Selassie had converted from a mosque did not broadcast sermons and songs to reach Muslims. Its intended audience was fellow Christians who might be tempted to leave the traditional ways for the more exciting presence of Pentecostalism.

When I approach the mosque-cum-church, a scratchy din is crowing from its ancient dome. It's time for prayer, and I leave my shoes among the herds of slippers at the door to the women's entrance. Inside, women, dressed in white and wearing white veils, are performing prostrations on the floor. If I didn't know better, I would think I'd walked into a mosque.

That evening, I go on a final pilgrimage to see Harar's most fabled attraction, the hyena man. Harar has an odd relationship with the lowland hyenas that live outside its walls. Sometimes, I'm told, during famines, the hyenas catch and eat people. To appease the hyenas, the city has set stone bowls outside the gates. Once a year, the townspeople fill the bowls with porridge to feed the hungry hyenas. The hyena man, however, performs his act nightly.

The hyena man kneels before the headlights of spectators' cars and whoops. The galumphing sound of massive beasts, heavier than bears, surrounds the clearing. It is frightening. The hyenas are everywhere, and they are huge; big-eyed and -eared, neckless, drooling. They are a cross between stuffed animals and monsters.

The hyena man feeds them raw meat from a 4-inch stick that he holds in his mouth. I want to throw up. I know there will come a time for audience participation. I know I will be asked if I'd like to kneel in the dirt with a piece of wormy meat in my mouth feeding these beasts. I don't want to. My scraped knee hurts. The time comes. The hyena man extends his stick like a conductor's wand in the darkness. The first tourist steps forward into the glare of the high beams, squats nervously, and dangles the meat from the stick in his fist, not his mouth. He flinches as the hyenas raise their mangy shoulders and approach. Because tonight's turnout is small, my chance comes next. This is the moment I usually push myself to do the awful thing I fear. But there is no one here for whom I must perform, least of all myself. I demur.

"Rimbaud in Ethiopia"

At 37, right leg rotting, degenerate,

and having failed at every trade

from coffee to running guns,

you'd been cheated by the emperor

and rubbed your flank raw

from being too afraid to part

your lightened wallet from your hip.

Today, I turn your dying age

in the same fetid town of Harar.

Besides a long truck with despair,

we share little. I've never much liked

your work, and I don't intend to die

here, or anywhere, this year.

Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is a poet and author of New York Times best-seller The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity.

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