After sound sleep, we arose early enough to hear the call to prayer in the distance. We prayed and prepped for our special day- Eid al-Adha! We woke Lil’ Z at about 6 am, fed her, and began our long walk to the prayer. In Oman, there are gatherings for the outdoor prayer in every region but in Addis Ababa, all of the attendees converge at the National Stadium. We weren’t sure where we were going but we were assured that we would see others walking, so follow them.
Like a small snowball gaining momentum at a snail’s pace, we were just a handful on the street. We were vigilant, watching our “guides” bend and turn down streets. The morning air was cool but our quick pace kept us warm. The said “20-minute walk” felt more like 40 minutes and we were certain that we were late. At around the 20-minute mark, we were comforted by the sound of the takbeeraat, “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar!” (God is the Greatest, God is the Greatest). We were getting closer. We also started to see police officers joining our stream too. Then, a row of police officers were standing at the entrance of the main road frisking folks. This was a first for us because Eid is usual a peaceful, joyous occasion but this year in Addis Ababa, the Eid prayer has become a platform for the stifled Muslim community to voice their grievances and demand that their voices be heard. Muslims in Ethiopia want less government influence in their religious governance. The Ethiopian government is keen on promoting and supporting a particular expression of Islam, for fear that more “extremist” expressions will take root. The Muslim community wants to decide these matters for themselves, so this is the current clash of the day.
Our snowball continued rolling towards the stadium and after one swift turn, we clearly have become an avalanche, flooding the thoroughfare. As far as the eyes can see, there were Muslims walking and proclaiming “Allahu akbar!” At some point, the mass crowd became two, with women diverted to one field while the men continued to the next. Surprised that we didn’t miss the prayer, Lil’ Z and I sat amongst a sea of colourful scarves and gowns enrobing beautiful women of every shade, size, and form. The women continued to file in neatly, marking their place of prayer with prayer mats, scarves, and recycled office paper reams. Still waiting, I heard a piercing cry and looked up to find a tearless woman asking the congregants for monetary grace. Stepping gingerly through the rows with an outstretched hand, she bore a bandaged abdominal wound, while her baby was strapped firmly to her back. Moments later, she was joined by other women, holding children, photos, x-rays, prescription medications, and whatever else would testify to their destitution. Their audience seemed unaffected but convinced enough to drop fragile funds into their plastic bags and even reach in for change.
Still waiting for the prayer to begin, the morning sun fully aroused us, and Lil’ Z needed to potty. Embedded in a tightly woven blanket of women with no bathroom in sight, I turned to my neighbors for assistance. They directed me to an open field of grass, beyond the immediate sight of others. After she was relieved, we wiped our hands with the dew of the morning grass and stood back to behold the sight. Suddenly we heard a loud shout from the congregants “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar!”, the women echoed the men and held their right index finger skywards. Did I miss something? This happened a few times and after about an hour of waiting, the Eid prayer was to begin. As we prayed, the imam (i.e. the Muslim prayer leader) recited the prayer and the precious verses of Qur’an that remain as consistent as the day they were revealed. Whether its Eid in North America, Asia, or Africa, the same tradition binds us. As the prayer is concluded in Arabic, the imam usually returns to the local language to address the crowd but on this day, our imam’s sermon was interrupted by protest. Everyone complied for the prayer but now the people wanted to be heard. Yellow banners raised, men and women took to the street while a minority lingered behind to hear the imam’s address.
We were expecting protest but had no interest in participating in it. For the previous Eid, earlier this year, the protests were peaceful and this was the precedent that we expected. We reconvened after the prayer with a disgruntled Urbndervish, frustrated by the disrespect shown to the imam. He informed me that the spontaneous outbursts of “Allahu akbar” were in response to protesters being removed from the stadium. We didn’t like the idea of the prayer or the praise of Allah being co-opted as a political platform, so we wiggled our way through the crowd and bounced.
After breakfast at our guesthouse, we met our virtual vegan buddy face-to-face and we ventured around town via foot and minibus. He took us to the National Museum, where all kinds of artifacts, ranging from imperial thrones to a replica of Lucy’s bones can be found. We later made our way to Merkato, Africa’s largest outdoor market which was fortunately closed for the Eid holiday. We heard that the market crowds are a ripe opportunity for pick-pocketing and we didn’t want to be bothered. Nearby, we found Addis Ababa’s prominent mosque, Al Anouar Mosque.
The mosque was serene but the streets were slummy. Piled goat skins laid aside the road to the mosque after the morning’s slaughter. We thought it would be an uncomfortable sight for our vegan friend but he assured us that the sight was paltry in comparison to the more popular Christian holidays.
Onward to find a hearty vegan meal on a Friday, a fasting day, we were surprised to be offered pasta and pizza instead. Finally, a dimly lit bar restaurant assuaged our hunger and offered us beyayentu, a varied fasting meal consisting of whatever vegan offerings they can scrounge up.
That day’s selection had a variety of lentil and pea entrees, with beets, cabbage, salad, and rice, layered on a large round slab of injera, Ethiopia’s deliciously distinct pancake-like bread made from fermented teff. Our friend later explained to us that if we want to ask for vegan food, it would be described as Itsomm, which means fasting for Christians, unlike the saum or fasting for Muslims. He also wrote out some dietary instructions for us in Amharic, because the next day we would be traveling alone to our next destination…Harrar.
To be continued…