The pilgrimage to Harar started just before dawn at Meskel Square, where Ethiopia’s athletes and aspirants train every morning. Trying to balance time, money, and the planet, we opted to travel to Harar by Selam Bus. There are other minibuses for long-distance journeys but they don’t offer what Selam’s luxury buses promise: air conditioning, reclining seats, refreshments, and a restroom onboard. The restroom was the biggest draw for us, since Lil’ Z is now a regular potty-goer and we wanted the freedom to take her at will. I convinced Urbndervish that the seven-hour ride would be like an airplane on wheels and a great opportunity to see the scenic countryside. The latter proved to be true, the former was a myth.
On our special bus, the bathroom was “prohibited” as per the bus-version of a flight attendant but he told us that we would be stopping soon. Great! Nearly two hours later, after passing the lovely town of Awash, our rest stop was on the side of the road with a herd of cattle passing by. No lie! Lil’ Z shook her head saying “No potty” but her little bladder could not resist. Another Selam Bus promise is that 15-minute rest stops would be made at sights of interest along the journey. We had the aforementioned “rest stop” and a 30-minute lunch break in Hirna. Maybe the more celebrated routes to Lalibela or Gondor offer the stated luxuries but I think the Ethiopian to foreigner ratio on our modest caravan was too high to comply.
The route leaving Addis Ababa was varied and intriguing- savannah, mountains, lakes, towns, and lots of livestock. Housing ranged from traditional huts, to tin-roofed shacks, to apartment buildings. While Awash and Hirna were exceptions, the remaining towns were small with unpaved roads and green cathedrals and/or mosques overshadowing the single-story structures. The contrast to the capital city was glaring.
Ten hours and an overdose of Ethiopian cinema later, we finally arrived in the walled city of Harar, Jugol. Amidst all of the taxi and guide offers, one guy asked us where were we staying. We were hesitant to reply because he was probably the fifth person who asked but then he replied “I think I’m the one you’re looking for.” Really? “Yes! See, I have your name written here”. According to pen ink scribbled on the man’s forearm, Urbndervish’s name is “PALITO”. He assured us that he was sent to pick us up, so we followed his swift steps down cobblestone roads in the rain.
After winding through the narrow alleyways, we found ourselves in the courtyard of a traditional Harari home that served as our guesthouse. The owner herself was unassuming. Another woman working with her was more engaging and expressive. They seemed surprised to see Muslim guests but eager to assist us, using whatever Arabic they knew. We actually found a lot of Arabic speakers sprinkled throughout Ethiopia which surprised us at every turn.
After settling in and praying, we realized we were ravenous after the long day’s journey and were eager to find a hearty meal before nightfall. We didn’t want to risk getting lost, as the paths were poorly lit and lacking signage, so we ventured out to the nearest hotel but, on a Saturday (especially after Eid!), “fasting” food was scarce. The sun was starting to set, so we scanned a local shop and found jars of local, natural peanut butter, and bought whole wheat bread from a lady in the souq (market). Hunger resolved, we settled into our cozy room and rested.
In the wee hours, we could hear chanting from the cathedral, just outside of Harar’s walls. Lil’ Z joined the cacophony at around 6am, so we sat under the rising sun in the courtyard. We expected warm weather but the morning was cool following yesterday’s rainfall. The same women who received us the night before were the same women who swept the courtyard and prepared our breakfast. In the meantime, I sat to meet the curious older woman who briefly greeted us the night before. Wrapped in head scarves and adorned with the hand of Fatimah, she sat beside me with two knitting needles and a small bag of yarn. Her words were warm and few, as if she was afraid to share a secret. I continued to open myself to her and seek out common points of reference until her cautious clues unveiled that she, too, is a sojourner, searching for holiness in hidden places. She has lived in places we lived and places we’ve yet to go but there we were, two Americans, different races, at least 30 years between us, on a common path, in a common place, many, many miles from “home”. Ten years ago, she lived in Harar, so her insights were useful but you could tell that she kept a few gems safeguarded. We parted for breakfast but planned to reunite later that afternoon. Unfortunately, there was no such reunion.
Our breakfast was modest- fried bread, hot tea, with local honey. Sitting in that old home, once filled with a family but now a meeting point for strangers, we enjoyed the serenity of the early morning and chatted with a pair of German backpackers who work for environmental organizations in Addis Ababa. We phoned our guide from the previous day and asked to start our tour early. He happily obliged but brought the not-so-happy news that we couldn’t stay another night. Our room was double-booked, so we got the boot. A 2pm check-out time, quickly became a 10am check-out time, so we did what we do best and packed our bags once again. No frowns though; it was our big day in Harar and we were eager to explore.
After exiting Bab an-Nasr (The Victory Gate), one of Harrar’s six gates, our first stop was the Sherif Harar City Museum. The famed home where Haile Selassie honeymooned now hosts a modest collection of all things Harari- artifacts, books, photos, and art. The coin collection evidenced the role Harar played in commerce and trade and included coins from as far as Europe and the Ottoman empire! There were also many coins minted locally many centuries ago.
Our second stop was the Rimbaud Museum where the poet Arthur Rimbaud supposedly lived. At some point, he renounced his privileged French existence and set off to see the world, ending up in Harar for an extended period of time. The museum has his poetry painted on the walls, contemporary art in the halls, and lots of vintage photography from Harar’s past.
Our third and last stop was the grave of Amir Nur, one of Harar’s esteemed leaders, responsible for the infamous wall that surrounds the city. This wall still stands till this day. During the tumultuous past, the gates of the walled city were closed at night. Somehow, within about one square kilometer, the secured town managed to fit nearly 100 mosques and nearly 400 graves! There are other nuances about Harar like particular alleyways were argumentation is not allowed, the hyenas that “protect” the town from evil, and late night gatherings of song and religious poetry. However, a much longer stay is required for that kind of immersion.
There was so much more to see but with our shift in accommodations and frustration with hidden costs at every turn, we decided to make a swift move. It was apparent that our congenial guide was helpful but not the kind of guide who would or could take us to the heart of Harar. Instead of another night’s meal of peanut butter and bread, we decided to grab our bags and keep trekking. Our hosts were apologetic about the misunderstanding but maybe we’ll return to Harar; preferably by the invitation of a kind soul keen on sharing Harar with us.
To be continued…