The scruffy conductor of the minibus wags a finger toward me and rubs his thumb and index finger together. Ticket money, I reckon. Complying, I hand him a crumpled 50 Birr note for the one-hour journey from Dire Dawa to Harar. Even though I saw none of the other Ethiopian co-passengers around me get charged more than 20 Birr, I don’t expect to get any change back.
I didn’t. Serves me right for not having smaller denomination at hand.
After an uneventful hour through a circuitous fog-laden mountain path, we arrived. The iconic and majestic Harar Gate stood before me, a picture-perfect postcard image. I stood still for a few minutes and soaked in the view — the grey overcast sky, bright blue Fiat Peugeot cars and Bajaj auto rickshaws darting in and out of the gate, Harari women in brightly colored attire milling about, and vegetable hawkers with produce spread on crumpled blue tarpaulin. The last Emir of Harar — ‘Abd Allah II, dressed in a white turban, calmly returns your stare from a portrait on top of this centuries old, limestone yellow gate.
I was finally here, and what’s more — it was just like the pictures.
Harar Gate is the largest of five gates placed into a stone wall also known as Jugol that surrounds this ancient city in eastern Ethiopia. Many centuries ago, each of these gates is believed to have been shut at night to protect the Harari citizens. Visitors were required to deposit their spears and other armaments in special baggage holds at each gate.
To this day, Harar remains a prominent center for Islamic learning. With over 90 mosques and just as many shrines, this city is considered to be the fourth holiest place in Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.
On my first day here, a man called out “Namaste, Babuji!” with his palms folded in the traditional Indian greeting. Pleasantly surprised, I responded in kind and by the end of my three days in Harar, I got used to this greeting and being hailed as a ‘Hindi ferengi’ (Indian foreigner).
Many Harari people, like the rest of Ethiopians have an affinity towards Bollywood movies and Hindi television dramas, with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Baazigar (dubbed in Amharic of course) being some of their all-time favorite movies.This unique blend of culture — Harari with a lick of Indian made being there a very heart-warming experience.
One of the most captivating aspects of Harar, in my opinion, is the joy of getting lost there.
The walled city is an intricate maze of colorful and narrow alleyways where people, goats, and donkeys all jostle for space. Many of these alleyways and houses are said to get a fresh coat of paint every few months.
Start from one point, turn left, come to a fork, pick a path forward only to discover it leads into a cul-de-sac, double back and take the other side instead, stop at a couple of places to snap pictures, a few more turns here and there, stop again to admire the sight of a group of ladies dressed in very colorful robes, peer into a house to see red chili peppers drying in the open courtyard, pass by roosters clucking, perhaps also a few mangy dogs, and, before you know it, you’re back where you started. Such a routine repeated several times is an assured way to explore most of the city.
Mekina Girgir is one of the main drags in town and it hums with the soporific buzz of Singer sewing machines all day long. Interestingly, all tailors in Harar are men, always accompanied by yarns of colorful cloth and a customary bag of qat leaves on their work tables. Qat (pronounced chat) is a mildly intoxicating narcotic leaf from a bush found in Ethiopia and other parts of the Horn of Africa. Qat grown around Harar is of the highest quality and chewing this social lubricant is a way of life here with all men and women partaking in this daily ritual.
While I’m not used to munching leaves off a shrub, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try this famous substance. Smaller, softer leaves are plucked and chewed, not the bigger less potent ones, which are left aside to eventually be eaten by goats. The chewed leaves are continually gathered on one side of the mouth and the mulch ball gently masticated on and, before you know it, the senses become cloudy, leading to a mild euphoria.
And just like that, it was time to head home. A few days in such a historic city isn’t enough to truly feel its pulse. Still, my journey discovering this ancient, beautiful and complex land was an incredible sensory experience — of profound sights, smells, and sounds.
Someday, I’ll be back.