Where a poet found peace

Visiting the walled city of Harar in Eastern Ethiopia

In an article in New York Times two years ago, the writer claims the French poet Arthur Rimbaud found peace in the eastern Ethiopian city of Harar. Whether that is so, I don’t know, but he lived here for nearly twelve years after his turbulent life as a poet. It may not be the Arthur Rimbaud Museum that draws visitors to Harar, but rather the colourful walled city, called Jugol, dating back to the 16th century. It has been on UNESCOs World Heritage list since 2006, and very rightly so.


There is no airport in Harar, so access is by bus either from Jigjiga to the east, Dire Dawa from the north or all the way from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, if you can stomach a twelve-hour bus journey. Jigjiga is a dump, and should be avoided. I flew to Dire Dawa from Addis myself in a Q400 propeller, and found my way downtown in a run down blue and white taxis that had seen better days. These you also find in Addis Ababa, and they are old Peugot 404s. From 1964.  Dire Dawa in itself is a charming little town although the statistics says it is a metropolitan city of more than 600,000 people and being the second largest in the country. After a night in room 104 at the Blossom Hotel at 650 birr in a double bed, going to Harar I had a whole bus to myself. It is 59 kilometres that separates the two towns, and the bus only stopped at the outskirts of the town to pick up two armed soldiers and for the assistant to stock up on water and khat. 

Arriving at the Jugol just before noon, the walled city is a fascinating place that begs exploration. The thick, five metres high walls around the town was erected during several centuries as a defensive response to the migration northwards, and little else developed outside the gates until the early 20th century. It has 368 small alleyways within an area of one square kilometre. In the maze that make up the town it may look as you might get lost, but no matter what direction you walk, you will always find your way around. Not the least because most of the houses are decorated in bright colours, very often green, blue and yellow. Walking around at sunrise you will meet women already busy with their daily chores, children preparing for school or the menfolk preoccupied with chewing their khat. 

Khat– also referred to as chat, qat or miraa–are the leaves of the shrub Catha edulis. Originating in the hills of eastern Ethiopia the chat plant has spread across parts of East Africa and into southern Arabia, and for many of the inhabitants of this broad swath of land the afternoon chat-chewing session has become almost a pivotal point of life. 

The effects of chat have long been debated. Most users will insist that it gives an unbeatable high, makes you more talkative, suppresses hunger, prevents tiredness and increases sexual performance, I have read. Others will tell you the opposite and maybe have an effect of a bad aftertaste.

In front of the East Gate of the Jugol in the Ethiopian city of Harar.

Harar is a predominately Muslim area in an otherwise Christian country. It is also said to be the fourth holiest city in the Muslim world –after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. “The impact of African and Islamic traditions on the development of the town's building types and urban layout make for its particular character and uniqueness,” according to the UNESCO brochure. The traditional Harari house has a typical, specific and original architectural form, different from the domestic layout usually known in Muslim countries, although reminiscent of the coastal Arab architecture, and with an exceptional interior design.  

Inside the compound there are a few guest houses, called Cultural Guest Houses, rather small pensions with rooms around a courtyard. Zubeyda is one of them, and that is where I stayed for three nights. A small room with attached bath cost me 400 birr, or the equivalent to 16 US dollars a night. The proprietor, a middle-aged woman, speaks a little English and runs the house with her aging mother. 

Harar has been a trading place and thus a melting pot of various influences. As such the town has been in relative isolation in its region, contributing to a cultural specificity, expressed in its characteristic community structure and traditions, which are still alive. It is said that the town has been developed by a holy missionary from the Arabic Peninsula.

The blue and white taxis that ply the towns of Ethiopia. They are old Peugots 404–from 1964.

The walled city has five gates, and a car friendly street runs from the Harar gate to the main square, named Ferris Megala and translates as Horse Market, and further to the East gate. All other gates are closed to vehicles. After entering the Jugol through the Shoba gate you find a small vegetable market. Women come from far and near to sell their onions, tomatoes, potatoes, beans and other greeneries. Along the main street you see more modern shops, like bakeries, pharmacies, small garment shops, beauty parlours, and ice cream bars. Overlooking the plaza, there is a popular café where locals, mostly men, meet to drink coffee or tea, and watch life go by. Following the main street down towards the east gate you will also notice all the beggars lining the thoroughfare. If you feel like contributing but only have large notes, do not despair, the beggars have change. 

Despite being a Muslim town in a Muslim area, beer is freely available. Indeed, if you are lucky you might be able to tour the local brewery that is turning out very tasteful beer–the Harar beer. Originally set up by a Czech company, it is now owned by Heineken. Together with my travel companions, we did three attempts at no avail, but I guess it all depends on the mood of the person in charge. The first excuse was us bringing a camera and wearing slippers, but despite that we were advised to come back after lunch, it was closed. What about tomorrow? Tomorrow? It is Friday. Yes, you can come. “Tomorrow” they let us through the gate, but after a bit of waiting at the reception the message was that was no tour of the brewery today. So much for that. Whatever, the Harar beer is quite tasty, and a bottle will cost you less than a dollar in most restaurants. 

A definite tourist attraction in Harar is the feeding of the hyenas. Every evening at around seven pm, you can watch wild hyenas being fed by local hyena men. The attraction costs you 100 birr, and you will have to take a tuktuk out to the fields outside the town where the feeding goes on. If you are brave, you can even give it a go yourself. It is actually quite safe. There are two feeding places. 

The practice of feeding scraps of meat to hyenas began in the 1950s, according to Lonely Planet. The original hyena man started doing it to acquire good luck, but when some tourists started showing up he realised he could make money too. The inspiration is an older tradition in which hyenas were given porridge to discourage them from attacking livestock during a drought. Following that an annual feeding began during a festival called Ashura, in which hyenas are fed porridge as a foretelling of the city’s fortune for the upcoming year. It is said that many hyenas roam Harar’s streets at night and if you go for an after-hours stroll, especially in Old Harar, you might just run into them. A frightening experience maybe, but apparently, they pose no risk.

A definite tourist attraction in Harar is the feeding of the hyenas.

The Arthur Rimbaud Museum is erected on the site it is said that the poet lived. He lived in Harar from the early 1880ies until he got sick and had to return to France in 1891, where he had one leg amputated and later died at the age of 37. He did trading in coffee and it is said, generally outdated firearms. He was, in fact, a pioneer in the coffee business, the first European to oversee the export of the celebrated coffee of Harar from the country where coffee was born. He was only the third European ever to set foot in the city, and the first to do business there. He struck up a close friendship with the Governor of Harar, Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael, father of future emperor Haile Selassie. He maintained friendly relationships with the official tutor of the young heir.  

The museum is in an attractive Indian merchant house and is dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud with a series of illustrated wall panels (mainly in French) about his life. There’s an excellent photographic exhibition of turn-of-the-20th-century Harar – with several of the photos taken by Rimbaud – that show some similarities to the city of today but also many significant differences.  

[October 2017]