Tuesday, October 5, 2010

49 - Hip Hip Harar

Mad Dog Muggins -Wandering through the markets and streets of the walled old city of Harar, a UNESCO World Heritage site; the kids beg to be photographed and then demand to be paid. No go, sonny! And now a demented old git is making menacing gestures with his walking stick, trying to crack me on the shins. I bark at him, literally, stopping him in his tracks.

Meanwhile I'm getting even more confused; the hotel receptionist speaks just like the gay-sounding kid, Fez, in 'That '70s Show,' the same labial contortions, the same inclinations of the head, the same grimaces. I have to hit myself below the belt, repeatedly, to stop imitating him.

Harar street with flowering tree

Harar's setting is splendid, overlooking green plains and valleys with a backdrop of wooded mountains scattered with mosques and churches. Inside the town there is plenty of green, too, as well as the reds, mauves, yellows and orange of flamboyans, bougainvillea and other trees. The 1,200-year-old city, right in the heart of the Moslem part of Ethiopia, was an emirate until Emperor Menelik II, victor over the Italians at Adwa, captured it in the late 19th century as part of his efforts to ward off Rome's imperialism. In the process, he killed off the last emir and several hundred others in a nice little massacre.
Harar street
The central mosque is now an Ethiopian orthodox church with a cross atop its minaret, but there are over 80 other functioning mosques, as well as the tombs of the various emirs. The two large markets, one Moslem, the other Christian, exhibit an incredible amount of spices piled high in mountainous heaps or in barrels - including, frankincense which, according to muggins' gold-standard odour test, smells very much like industrial strength, nostril-busting pine toilet disinfectant. Bang goes one of the Three King's gifts! There's also a rather bloody meat market with camel and cow heads littering the pavement.

Many houses are being painted in bright greens, pinks and other colours in honour of the upcoming ramadan. There are six main gates and 360 streets in the old city, plus several little cubbyhole 'gates' built by its founder for scavenger hyenas to enter and clean up the refuse every night.

Gate to old city
Who's Your Dad? - So you see, Haile Selassie wasn't the son of Harar Governor Ras Makonnen, Solomonic dynasty scion and Menelik II's great lieutenant, but the produce of an Indian man who had it off with Makonnen's missus while the old man wasn't looking. Thus speaks a Moslem guide at the palace Haile Selassie had in Harar when he was governor there before becoming emperor.
Old city market street
What's more, Makonnen's immediate successor as governor, his eldest son Yilme, died within two years; from poison, the guide adds with a knowing wink when asked who might have done the deed most foul. What about that bust of Makonnen over there that looks just like Haile, muggins ventures. Ah, quoths the all-knowing, all-winking guide, that was sculpted when Haile was already emperor to make his 'dad' look like him. And so the palace intrigue goes on. The palace, a modest building now a museum in the throes of repairs, holds Menelik's rifle and sword.

Outside, the good citizens of Harar couldn't care a damn about rifle, sword or Haile's dad. They're far too gone on qat already, though it's only morning, lolling on the cobblestones by the piles of spices and whirling sowing machines.

Old city alley
French poet Rimbaud also lived here in the late 1800s, doffing his verses for more Rambo-like pursuits in the gun and slave trades. In the Rimbaud museum there's a letter he wrote complaining that Menelik hadn't paid him for 400 rifles. Menelik in turn accused Rimbaud of being late on delivery. Outside, it's now almost noon and everybody seems to be starting off in a Pamplona-like stampede to the qat market beyond the gates to get the choicest and freshest for the afternoon session.

Laughing Hyenas - Yes, laughing hyenas really do sound like the maniacal guffaws you get at an executive board meeting of your favourite company. In a centuries-old tradition there are several sites round the walls of old Harar where men feed the hyenas every night - it's considered good luck to do so – draping bits of meat around sticks that they put in their own mouths while the spotted dog-like creatures with the low-slung back chassis come up and snatch them (the bits of meat, that is).

Goats, anyone?
Onlookers stand around, watch and pay the guy. As opposed to elsewhere where the animals, who pack enormous pressure in their super-potent jaws, can be pretty lethal to humans, especially if they mass-attack, Harar's flock is said to be pretty docile, spending the day sleeping in nearby caves and turning up for their regular evening supper. Of course, muggins' flash light, which for some obscure reason has been flashing all day in the bright sunlight, now packs it in. To put me in an even better mood, the huge cap on a wisdom tooth has just become nomadic, travelling all round my mouth until I spit it out.

Qat taking its toll

Old city main square with old mosque, now a church

Inside mosque, now church

Brightly painted for Ramadan

Haile Selassie's palace

Old city's main mosque
First Emir's tomb
Hyenas in car headlights - without flash

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