Harar: city of culture, coffee and kyat



by Bill Adamson

Harar, the ancient Muslim city, is different from anywhere else I’ve been in Ethiopia. I’ve been here for nearly a month and I’m feeling a little reflective.

It’s old; you can feel its age everywhere you go. The Islamic-designed crumbling grey walls are set next to pink walls, which are next to green walls. The mishmash of colour seems surreal to my drab occidental sensibilities.

Houses may share a courtyard with other houses but there are no yards or gardens as such. Goats and sheep use the small alleyways as their pastures.

Mosques and orthodox churches are spotted throughout the old town.

This morning I was woken by the call to prayer, which the local cat decided to sing along with, meowing loudly and enthusiastically until, as if out of some old cartoon, a thrown shoe curtailed its religious ambition.

After the call to prayer died away the Sunday orthodox singing continued in its wake. It’s hard to tell the difference between the two, especially between the hours of 4.00am and 6.00am.

Both are sort of an eerie, warbling throw back in time.

It’s market day. I wandered through town. Tiny walkways curve to and fro like a colourful maze. Main thoroughfares were packed. Hawkers screeched as hawks watched, bobbed and swooped like oversized seagulls.

It’s funny, I came away looking for an adventure. I’ve seen lava lakes, ancient churches and incredible landscapes, heard wonderful music and met great people but the best adventure was the one I stumbled into on my very first day.

After a lengthy flight of trying to fit my oversized limbs into undersized aeroplane chairs I arrived in Addis Ababa a little bedraggled.

But it was only 11.00am so I thought I should try to push through until dark before sleeping.

I should probably have just had a kip as my green gills were a little too obvious to a local scammer.

Pickpockets are everywhere in Addis, especially in the cheap backpacker Piazza district. Forewarned, I was still shocked that within 20 metres of my hostel I was hit up by one such young entrepreneur.

Fortunately I was saved by a passing student.

After a wander and a chat I offered to buy him lunch at a local place of his choosing.

Several laneways later we were chewing coffee leaves and drinking coffee. “Coffee leaves?” I asked, slightly wary but noticeably naive.

“Yes, good sir, coffee leaves, due to special once-a-year holiday today,” he answered a little too reassuringly.

“Of course, of course,” I muttered, still chewing on the bitter-tasting leaves.

He regaled me with stories of Ethiopia, its music and history.

After half an hour my heart rate was through the roof, jetlag a distant memory and coherent thoughts difficult to pace out.

“Are you sure these are coffee leaves?” I asked, my eyes twitching. “They’re not kyat, are they?” My suddenly hyper-alert mind was finally putting the pieces together.

Yet still my ‘student’ friend reassured me “No, no, no, special holiday, coffee holiday.”

In hindsight it was obviously kyat, the speed-like narcotic of choice for the region, and I had just eaten a smuggler’s boatload of it.

The bill came and it was close to $150. My new found charming and chatty friend was suddenly a lot less pleasant.

The other eight or so other patrons suddenly loomed a lot larger and the space seemed a hell of a lot less spacious. My protests of what I perceived as ridiculousness were not being received so well.

As it happened I was only carrying $70 in local currency (and a money belt stuffed in my pants with US$500 which I was frantically hoping they hadn’t noticed.).

After some heated discussions that I was decidedly not part of they said that would accept my $70 but that I should remember how hospitable they were.

I swallowed my pride and thanked them profusely, through gritted teeth, and scarpered. Smashing the five kilometre walk at a 15-degree incline like a Smith Street fiend.

Some poor Irish bloke was sat at the bar of the hostel and I spent the next hour earbashing him and drinking copious amounts of beer.

“You haven’t been chewing kyat, have you mate?” he asked with a knowing grin.



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