Monday, February 27, 2012


Harar is famous for a couple of reasons. Historically it was an important Islamic town and while I don't know enough about such things to say what is true, some people here consider it to be the 4th most important Islamic city in the world. The old walled city is pretty small but boasts the densest concentration of mosques anywhere apparently.
Up to about 100 years ago it was a free city and also a major hub in the slave trade. The old city walls are mostly covered with buildings and the city spread farther afield but there are still 5 city gates to “see”, though only 2 actually still have proper gates. There are lots of little narrow lanes and markets within the old town. It's been described as something like a mini Fez (Morocco). I can see where you might get the idea but it's a lot smaller. I found the people to be generally less of a hassle, only most of the kids asked for money, not all, and the biggest problem was the hassle from wannabe guides but they left me alone fairly quickly. If you just sat in one spot trying to watch the world go by and maybe take a few pictures, eventually one would find you and invite himself to sit down beside you and talk nonsense. As soon as they saw another group of tourists go by they'd quickly run off and chase them. But like Pacman trying to manoeuvre away from the ghosts I found myself taking random turns down different narrow lanes trying to dodge and avoid potential touts or beggars following or calling after me.

Narrow streets of old town Harar.

For me the most immediately noticeable thing of Harar was that the women are more colourfully dressed than elsewhere in the country. The 2nd thing I noticed were the flies. All over the place. It's what the guide books won't tell you about. They drove me crazy. I guess it all added to the effect of age though. Harar has well over 1000 years of history and it still feels a bit stuck back in time. More than anywhere else in Ethiopia it feels and looks old and has it's own vibe. Maybe it was the little lanes, maybe it's the look of the people, the squishy markets with people sewing and doing other business on the street, the donkeys being led by old women or the straw and manure on the cobblestone streets but it reminded me of a silk road town. It's poor too, with lots of beggars and people sleeping on the streets in the new town where I was.

Market life.

No consensus on what colours are in style..

Note the old town gate in the background.

The countryside from Harar.

I stayed in the main hotel that the budget travellers use just outside one of the old town gates. I met a group of 8 Americans that were there taking a break from their jobs teaching at a highschool in Hargeisa, Somaliland. As it was my next destination I hung out with them a bit to see what I could find out. They weren't in Harar so much to visit as to party it up because it's impossible to do so in Hargeisa. They think it's insane and a waste of time to visit Somaliland because there is nothing to do there. I get the impression that they really don't like the place and were constantly making fun of it.
The next day I met 2 Canadian guys that are travelling around eastern and southern Africa and were also planning on going to Somaliland. They quickly decided to jump in on my plan to leave the next day, so that night we all went to see the hyenas.
The biggest tourist attraction and most famous thing in Harar is the hyena man. Every night he feeds meat to “wild” hyenas for the tourists. Of course we had to go check it out. All the guides in Harar are trying to take you there anyway so it's not like you could actually miss it. So just after sunset a group of us walked to the other side of the old town where just outside the walls the hyena man hangs out. The hyenas are wild but habituated to this guy and he basically treats them like his pets and even pushes them around or hugs them a bit. He brings a big container of scrap meat which he puts strip by strip on a short stick which he holds out to the hyenas. They know the deal and mostly patiently wait for it and come one by one to eat. There were 6 hyenas when we were there.
Tourists (there were about 30 including locals) would line up on one side taking photos. For lighting there would be 2 tour vehicles shining their headlights on the whole thing. Then 1 by 1 the tourists could come up and hold the stick while the hyena man would put meat on it. The “cool” thing to do is hold the stick in your teeth and have the hyena come right up to your face to eat the meat.
The weird thing is it really didn't seem nearly as scary as it sounds. The hyenas seemed completely uninterested in all the people around and focused solely on eating. The other hyenas waiting on the outskirts would run away if you tried to approach them to take photos, and once the meat was all gone they scattered pretty quick. For a couple of dollars it was worth doing.

The hyena man.

Getting up close!

Today the 2 Canadian guys and I travelled to Hargeisa in Somaliland. We didn't get here until after sunset but first impression is a good one and the people are very nice so far.


At 9:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Freaking hell and I missed it. what the hell am I doing here withering away...GAH


At 6:43 PM , Anonymous James said...

That hyena you're kissing looks obese. I thought you liked the skinny ones.


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