Harar is considered by Ethiopian Muslims to be the fourth holiest city in the world (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), and the old city has 88 mosques within its walls (a mere few square kilometres). Apparently, there are almost as many bars as mosques in the old city, and one of the busiest chat markets in Africa. I was looking forward to wandering around the old city alleys and seeing the famous hyenas be fed in the evening. Our flight was markedly different to earlier flights this week, with many fewer tourists and a marked shift from Christians to Muslims.
Landing in Dire Dawa was quaint- a tiny terminal almost overgrown with trees. We couldn’t find our driver and were grateful for Ethiopian airlines awesome investment in WiFi in every airport, as I was able to contact the agent and track down the driver through WhatsApp. The friendly guard at the airport did offer to lend us his phone though.
Endale (the driver) located, we hopped in his 4wd adorned with a painting of Che Guevara and headed off into the night to Harar. Halfway we passed through the town of Awaday – home of the all night chat market. Traffic was bonkers, headlights on high beam, crazy tuktuks and lots of evening shoppers. It was like Oxford Circus at rush hour. We eventually made it to Harar after a bumpy and swervy 90 minutes and checked into the Hotel Winta – it didn’t have great reviews but it was apparently better than the other hotels in town. The hotel would win an award for the most hilarious bathroom in town – there is a tile painting of a huge tiger in the shower. The bedroom is fit for a princess – with sparkly pink curtains and a matching bed cover. We went downstairs for dinner – a choice of omelet or shiro, and a bucketload is cinnamon tea. We then headed up to try and sleep through the noise of the mosquitos buzzing energetically around the room and the light shining in from the hallway.
Monkeys and marvels
The muezzin kindly woke us up at 5am, and we snoozed until 7.30. We had an excellent chilli omelette for breakfast and some excellent local coffee. The plan for today was to visit the largest livestock market in Ethiopia in the town of Babile (cutely pronounced ‘bubbily’). We drove for an hour, located the town, walked to a walled market where there were a few goats, oxen and cows, but a distinct lack of camels. Our hapless guide Hamdi seemed quite confused, and said ‘no camels’. Hmmmmm. Oh well. We drove further to the misnamed ‘valley of the marvels’ which apparently has stunning rock formations. Hmmmmmmm, not so stunning. However, the road in the marvels was somewhat redeemed by the presence of hundreds of monkeys. Apparently the locals feed them here, and every truck that went by seemed to throw a load of peanuts out the window. It was kind of amusing.
Finally some camels….
While we were there, Hamdi made a few calls and figured out that the camel market had moved to near the Somali refugee camp at Qoloji which is further into the Ethiopian region of Somalia (not to be confused with the country). I must confess, I was entirely unaware that there was a large scale humanitarian crisis in this region with around 1 million displaced Oromian or Somalian people who have been feuding for many years. Qoloji is one of many camps in the region. We found the camel market! The owners lounge around in makeshift shelters chewing chat while the brokers do the selling. Male brokers sell camels, women sell goats.
A maze of pastel alleys
Back in Harar, we strolled around town. There isn’t much to do except get lost in the pastel maze of alleyways. We wandered down Machina Girgir -the famous street with old Singer sewing machines were the tailors could whip you up a hijab in a few minutes. The camel meat market in town was amusing, if smelly, and there were eagles circling overhead waiting for camel scraps. We dropped by the tomb of Sheikh Abadir – founder of Harar, and had a chat to the local ladies about their kids who are now all living in London or Canada. After sufficient strolling we went for lunch at the ‘best restaurant in town’ – the fresh touch. Ordering was fun ‘no ambo, no bread, no eggs, no pizza, no pancakes’. Steph ordered injera, and I went across the road to find some bread rolls.
Hyenas and the Quran
After a relaxing siesta, we headed off in the dark to see the Hyenas being fed. This is apparently the highlight of any visit to Harar, though there is something incongruous about driving down a dirt road to join a line up of tourist vans pointing their headlights at a man feeding semi rottten camel meat to 30 or so hyenas. The tourists took it in turn to feed the hyenas, who were surprisingly docile and afraid of humans. I know hyenas are supposed to be ‘evil’ but I find them quite adorable. After that Hamdi took us back to Sheikh abadir’s tomb to see the Thursday celebrations. We spent a blissfully relaxing hour listening to 20-30 people chanting melodically from the Quran while chewing methodically through their bags of chat. I was most amused by the haughty cat who strolled around the mosque like she owned it. The worshippers were all pretty zen and didn’t seem at all offended by the presence of three random faranjis who didn’t know any of the chants. Apparently they chant well into the night, using drums from about midnight to keep them awake. It was quite a treat to sit there and enjoy the locals.
Museums, my favourite!
I have managed to avoid visiting museums in most cities, but we had kind of run out of things to see. First up, the Haile selassie museum. Haile selassie was born near Harar and he was the last emporer of Ethiopia. The museum was full of pretty random artefacts but it killed an hour while Isiah the enthusiastic guide explained every item. Then we wandered to the Rimbaud centre – not actually where the famous poet lived and as far as we can tell it was built after he died. But it was a beautiful house and we whiled away some time sitting on steps watching the eagles soar above us… the locals feed them leftover camel meat from the meat market.
The best coffee in the world?
We then went to the coffee factory and bought 2 kg of coffee, which made us thirsty so we wandered up to the Mermaid cafe and had two cups of the best coffee I drank in Ethiopia – zebras, as they are black and white. Outstanding! It’s busy in town today, its ethiopian good Friday for the Christian minority and Friday for prayers for the Muslim majority. The beggars are out in force, lining the streets in the shade chewing chat and hoping for alms from those en route to the mosque. We stopped by the local pool hall and cinema – a dank large room with broken plastic chairs. The enthusiastic audience were watching Bollywood on the tele while they waited for the 1pm screening time. A group of competitive old men where on the terrace playing rapid games of dominos. We had a chat – the whole group are Man United fans, which made Jess very happy, and there was a lot of debate about who was going to win next week. Football definitely is the universal religion for most of the world.
Chat, Kyat, Kat….
We retreated from the heat to the Res Hannan hotel for an average lunch in the shade, and then made our way back to Diredawa via Awaday – where the chat market was still very much in full swing. Locals were buying and selling, men were chewing, and the goats were eating the leftovers. Side note – I was shocked to learn that it takes 500 litres of water to irrigate enough chat for one persons daily consumption. Apparently 40% of the water usage in Yemen is for chat irrigation – it’s an ecological nightmare. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khat
It was my first visit to Harar and it was fascinating but honestly wouldn’t put it on the top of my travel list. We stayed at the Winta hotel which was away from the old town but good and clean and friendly – though read the trip advisor reviews, some people have had issues with their bills. We rented a car and driver for the time we were there, honestly that wasn’t necessary. just get a cab from dire dawa and sort arrangements when you arrive.
Dire Dawa, 26 April 2019