Navel Gazing in Harar

Blog 47 by Mick: Navel Gazing in Harar

The ride from Jinka to Harar had exacted its toll, so it was a late start the next morning. We had ridden over 1500kms in the last five days and over two thirds of it was gravel or off-road of some description. We were in need of a cruisy breakfast with a few coffees and a day off. We had a rest day planned for exploring Harar, an ancient walled city and UNESCO world heritage site and, according to them at least, one of Islam’s 4 holy cities after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. On review that last point seems up for debate, however not here it wont be. I’ll leave that to the die-hards.


Solomon the rasta and Tan in the old city with its cobbles and colourfully painted walls.


Our hotel was a little out of town so it was a bit of a walk down to the interesting part of Harar – the ancient bit inside the old fortifying walls. It was there where we were approached by a Ras Tafari who spoke good English. That might sound a little strange, but Ras Tafari’s are a well-known minority group within Ethiopian society and are indigenous, originally coming from the Ethiopian town of Shashemene. So they can be seen here and there. The last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, was a ‘Rasta’. What we think of a ‘Rasta;’ the unemployed guy in a cloud of weed smoke yelling “wazzup!” is a relatively new sub-culture. They do share the same sweet ‘fros though.


This wall is at least a little colourful. Being an Islamic city, green is a popular colour.


Kawasaki fan playing with his half bike… That’s realism when even the toys snap in half! Broom broom!


Solomon the Rasta was a tour guide, obviously, but had enough experience with foreigners that he wasn’t pushy or rude and offered us what seemed like a fair price for an afternoon tour of the walled city, so we accepted. The tour was worthwhile in the end as Harar is a warren of unmarked alleyways, which to explore on our own would have been quite confusing and not at all efficient.


One Harar’s 82 mosques that are inside the city walls


More walls. More paint.


Harar is majority Muslim, about 90%, and has 82 mosques and many shrines as well. It was an important trading town between the old kingdom of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and the Arab kingdoms across the Red Sea. But what makes it famous nowadays is the historic Harari architecture, colourful painting of the alleyways and the coffee, which is native to this region and where the whole phenomena originated. Bless them Hararis I say!


Tan and Solomon havin’ a chat.


2 of Harar’s kids; all the children were keen on a photo and none asked for money for the photo.


While on the tour we were mobbed by little kids screaming “You! You! You!” and we heard more than our fair share of “Money! Money! Money!” as well. Solomon seemed quite aware that this was an affront and went on to explain that these kids did not understand the meaning of what they were saying and just yelled it because they knew they were English words. I think he might have been a little generous; I’d hazard a guess they know exactly what “money” means, but we understood his sentiment nonetheless.


This is one of the reasons why its UNESCO World Heritage listed this place.


Kids outside another mosque.


Inside the home of the mullah.


Which got us thinking about our experience in Ethiopia since leaving Omo a week previous. We had been a little worried about what our time in Ethiopia might have in store for us due to the sheer amount of negative stories circulating about hostility towards foreigners. As a result, easily the most common questions you will hear an overlander get asked after they announce they travelled Ethiopia are “How did you find it? Did you get many rocks thrown at you? How was the begging?”


Kids happy


Kids fighting


Kids happy again


So over dinner we got to thinking whether Ethiopia was really all that bad, or maybe just a few over-told stories blown entirely out of proportion with some cultural misunderstanding thrown into the mix? But even with the glass-half-full optimism that would see a cracked and filthy cup with a few drops of grotty water in the bottom as “the holy grail containing the elixir of life”, the bare facts weren’t pretty. In our 37,000kms in Africa before entering Ethiopia, we had 2 experiences of hostility aimed at us while riding; a kid threw a stick in Lesotho and another threw a stone in Namibia. That’s 18,500km per incident; which we would say are pretty decent odds.


There are 5 gates into the old city, and then a number of “Hyena Gates”, who were allowed to enter at night to clean up all the rubbish left behind. I asked Solomon if this was maybe a little dangerous? “No not at all” he replied. No one has been attacked? “No no-one”. Not even children? “Ahhh… … … … yeah a few children”. Were they killed? “Ahhh… … … … yeah… … they were killed”.


Donkeys left on the outside of the city. The parents have gone to shop and the kids get the ultra thrilling job of watching them! Ahh joy. No wonder they throw rocks at tourists.


A vampire was recently killed behind this door.


In the 1,800kms we had now done in Ethiopia, we had; a kid throw a rock at us in Jinka; after Herero a kid used a mirror to reflect the sun in our eyes as we rode by, and it wasn’t just a little hand held thing either it was a mirror that you would mount on a bathroom wall about the size of a A3 sheet of paper (and reflected a heap of light! It was like a good welding flash!); near Negele Boreno we had a soccer ball kicked at us as we rode by; another kid through a rock at each of us after the canyons north of Sheik Hussein; and 2 separate incidents of adults running out on the road screaming and grabbing at the bikes as we rode by (and that’s excluding the regular people running onto the road to stare and shout and scream at us). That’s 300km per incident, which is about 62 times worse than the rest of Africa. And statistics, as 83.8% of Internet users unequivocally know, do not lie.


Corner stores in the old city are just a grill into someone’s house. This is Harar’s equivalent of a 7/11


This is one of Harar’s many Muslim shrines.   It is a shrine to a young and unmarried couple who missed Friday prayers to go and get jiggy. Allah it seems was not impressed with the missing of prayers, especially for a casual shag, and the couple where never seen again. The large green dome is the shrine to the man, and the hole in the shrine is for his spirit to enter and exit.


The shrine to the lady is that small mound not much bigger than that rubbish bottle on the side of the alley. When Solomon told us this story, he finished by looking at Tanya with a “Sorry”.


However, we refused to take off our rose coloured glasses. Why was Ethiopia like this? We considered our experiences to date and racked our brains to try and understand. Were these acts really hostility aimed at us or just a manifestation of some unknown cultural aspect? In Ethiopia to date, we had met many happy and friendly people that were excited to see us, and also quite a few rude and horrid people that would rather see us come to harm. How could one receive such friendliness in one instance and such hostility in another? It seemed so duplicitous.


Many kids in Harar and all keen on a photo.


We went to a Harari house to check out the traditional architecture


And meet the family. 3 generations of traditional Hararis.


We had already seen a definite culture of petty violence, as we have previously discussed. After a bit of reflection, this seemed to us to be borne from pastoralism combined with a very dense population, probably amongst a few other legacy issues. Every kid grows up a shepherd, it’s the first job given to children old enough to be independent (maybe 7 years old), and the primary tools of a shepherd are the whip, stick and rock. Kids throw rocks and swing sticks and crack whips at animals day after day, and kids being kids, each other as well. They are unsupervised and I’d assume quite unstimulated from minimal schooling and boring animal tending chores (watching donkeys stand around all day looking dull can’t be fun) so I guess it is understandable that a bit of delinquency develops. And for the adults; I suppose it’s quite plausible that these traits continue to a certain extent from childhood? Although to be fair the hostility we had received had come overwhelmingly from children and adolescents.


Of course the tour finished with a visit to a gimmick shop. We didn’t feel compelled to buy anything, even though some of it was interesting.


Some knives. Solomon told us that Hararis love knives…


What do you do in a city with no plumbing? Everyone takes containers to a communal water tank to get their days water.


And the sheer density of populace surely adds to the issue. Generally speaking, in our travels we have found people in cities are not as hospitable as people in the tiny villages, and the bigger the city the less hospitable it gets. It’s a human condition that we crave the presence of others when we are alone; yet turn a bit feral when surrounded. And in Ethiopia, you are always surrounded. The current population of Ethiopia is over 100 million and with a fertility rate of 5.8 children per woman, it is doubling every 20-25 years. When the famines that shot Ethiopia to worldwide notoriety happened in the mid eighties, Ethiopia had only 40 million people. By 2040 it will be over 200 million. Consider that for just a second… 200 million people in a famine prone country that is just a whisker bigger than NSW and Vic combined (or Texas and California combined for northern hemisphere readers). Why the world is not focusing more on curbing clearly unsustainable population growth has got me beat… actually, we do know why… but that’s a can of worms and a half that is…


This is one of the best things about Ethiopia – the juice. This is Avocado and Papaya juice but it is more of a puree; it is very thick and eaten with a spoon like a meal more than drunk like juice.


Another cool thing about Ethiopia – very unique food. This is “Zizil Tibs”. That’s all we can say about this, other than it was tasty.


But of all of it, this is the best thing about Ethiopia – the coffee! Macchiatos were everywhere and cheap, ranging from about 8 to 15 birr depending on where you got them. That is about 40-75c. Rest assured, we drank a lot of macchiatos!


Anyway… moving on. We considered the other issues (which seemed to us primarily cultural differences) that people find offensive and had warned us about… The invasion of personal space. The touching and grabbing at everything of yours. The begging. The yelling and shouting. All these things were real, all definitely rate a mention, and all of them start to get on your nerves when you are repeatedly subjected to them. But we were managing with it all. We were managing to block enough of it out that we could focus on the positive stuff; the unique food, the coffee, the history, decent beer, mountainous scenery etc. without getting severely dragged down by the negative aspects.


We left the bikes to walk the alleys first to make sure we could do it – after checking we were confident enough we would probably fit so…


…we went for it. A couple of little steps…


…and a tight corner and then a tight squeeze past these rocks…


…and we made it, after jamming through the door!


Our visit to the Harari Guesthouse on our tour with Solomon peaked our interest, so the next day we decided not to move on north from Harar towards Lalibela, but to move into the old town and enjoy old Harar for what it is. So we hopped on the bikes and rode into the alleys inside the old walls, scraping panniers and riding stairs to get there. The locals thought it was quite entertaining, coming out of their walled houses to see why on earth someone would bring a lawnmower into a cobbled city. To see that the sound was actually two DR650’s was probably an even bigger surprise!


“Why am I on the floor?” “I’ll be fucked if I know mate”


Preparing for a coffee ceremony.


The beans are first roasted over coals.


Done. You can imagine the aroma…


Incense is a crucial ingredient of a coffee ceremony. At a little café a week or so later we asked for coffee and the lady informed us, “sorry we can’t make coffee, we have no incense!”


We had a cruisy afternoon, enjoying a coffee ceremony and a walk through the old city, but being a Sunday it was pretty quiet. One of the main reasons we wanted to stay was to see the “hyena man”, who nightly feeds a pack of hyenas he has habituated over time. The hyenas were huge and impressive but pretty tame, however their lack of wild instinct was made up by the minders of the hyena man.


More insense.


And done, fresh coffee. Called “Buna” in Amharic. From starting the roasting of the beans to finishing drinking the coffee can take an hour or more. It is a real ritual.


The hyena man. The only problem with the whole show was the smell of the rotten meat.


Massive animals… This ain’t no regular dog this thing


Coming in for the camera! They were not afraid of people anymore, which surely is not a good thing!


Tan was keen on feeding them. Here she is full of bravado…


And here she is scared senseless!


When time came to pay, Tan went up and did so for both of us which was fine. She then soon after had to make an express exit due to a gastronomical “injera emergency”, while I stayed on for 20 minutes or so to take a few extra photos. After I had left and walked a good 50m from the feeding site, one of the hyena man’s hyper aggressive minders tapped me on the shoulder and was trying to drag me back and pay a second time. I explained we had already paid, but he was a real prick about it. It got quite heated with this fella getting up in my face and trying to drag me back, while I was telling him we have already paid and he can feel free to fuck right off any time he likes. Rest assured, I did not pay a second time.

He wasn’t a particularly nice guy and seemed more like a thug you’d meet in a bar itching to start a fight, which I’m pretty sure was his end game from the very start. He was a pretty tall fellow in his early 20’s dressed in a Slim Shady costume and to him I was a solo westerner in the dark and a good distance from any witnesses – perfect target if you are that way inclined. In retrospect, this altercation wasn’t a simple misunderstanding; it was far more than that. Speaking with Solomon about it later, he said that most young men in Harar carry knives and fights often end with someone being stabbed, so avoiding that situation is the best way to go.

The whole thing left a particularly unpleasant taste in my mouth and didn’t do a great deal for our undecided views on the country. But a little later while reading up on Ethiopia, a penny dropped when some key points correlated with this incident. We read, and had confirmed by long time residents (in their opinion at least), that Ethiopians are extremely proud people and the country’s history of famines and extreme dependence on foreign aid makes some Ethiopians feel ashamed. This can then lead to xenophobia and violence towards foreigners, primarily westerners. This is at least part of the reason why you can’t stop if you hit a pedestrian in your car.


The little girl at the guest house.


Squeezing back out


And up a few steps


And packing. As we usual, we got some attention.


Nevertheless, we tried to persevere with our positive outlook, even commenting in our diary (where poor adverb conjugation is of little importance) that we were “starting to think Ethiopia is getting a really unnecessarily unfair wrap” and echoing similar sentiments in our correspondence with other overlanders who had already toured Ethiopia and were keen on hearing our opinions. Sure some things were irritating, and infuriating, even enraging, but we could manage. So with that, we headed north towards the rock hewn churches of Lalibela and hoped that we could keep positive. Little did we know that Ethiopia was just limbering up. Turns out the bell hadn’t even rung yet…

3 Comments on “Navel Gazing in Harar

  1. You try to keep seeing things positive as long as possible, that is very impressive! What makes me thinking is, that it seems to be so much hidden (sometimes not so much hidden) hate in the whole muslim world aginst the rest of the planet.

  2. Hi there. Greetings from Sydney, Australia. I just stumbled upon your page and I must say that I am enjoying the Blog. I was recently in Ethiopia (last November) from my own motorcycle adventure there, be it only a tiny 3 week visit, my first to Ethiopia. I found the local people lovely, especially in Harar. Such a fascinating place for travellers.
    Check out my Harar video on Youtube if you get the chance.
    Prior to visiting Harar, I spent 9 days riding around the Omo Valley on a KTM 690 Enduro and actually called in to have lunch with Dick and Donna south of Omorate. They let me rest there too, as the heat nearly wiped me out! Yes.. an oasis in the dust, and such lovely hosts. My bike adventure video is almost complete. So much great footage to edit!
    Anyway.. good luck for the rest of your incredible journey.

    • Hi Kevin, glad you’ve gotten to see some of the great sites we were lucky enough to visit, especially meeting dick and Donna. They are some amazing people!

      If you do return to Ethiopia, I’d strongly advise to avoid the road between debre sina and waldiya, especially the bit between dessie and waldiya.

      We had a great time down the west side of the Omo (still coming in the blog) so definitely put that on your list if you return.


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