Harar, the City of Peace

Ethiopian Airlines has a ton of daily internal flights that are quite affordable if you are an Ethiopian resident OR if you are a foreigner who entered Ethiopia via Ethiopian Airlines (which we did). We hadn’t taken advantage of this option yet, so last weekend we decided to take a quick trip to Harar. We worked most of a Thursday and then boarded a 4pm flight out of Addis Ababa and arrived in Dire Dawa, in eastern Ethiopia, before 5.

As we stepped off the plane onto the roll-up staircase, the warm, humid air enveloped us like a hug – welcoming and friendly in contrast with the cold, smoggy air of high-altitude Addis during their “winter.”

We wandered out of the tiny airport and down the street towards town, following the small crowd of people who got off our plane, and eventually found a cluster of taxis parked nearby. The drivers lounged in their vehicles and languidly offered to take us to our hotel for a hugely inflated price.

IMG_8118We stayed in this hotel for about $20/night – the pool was amazing!

The next morning, we got up and started making our way to Harar. We had heard that we could travel there in an hour or so by public transportation, so we got a bajaj (a small rickshaw-style taxi) from our hotel to the bus area. After some wandering and asking of directions from strangers, we found our way to the minibus park, where the sleepy atmosphere switched abruptly to dozens of young men shouting destination names at us and pulling forcefully at our arms to direct us to one place or another.

Once they figured out that we didn’t want to hire a private car, but were determined to go by public taxi, at the cost of $1, there was a lot less commotion. We climbed into the back row of a mostly full minibus (which seats about 16 people) and immediately regretted not wearing cooler clothing as we waited for it to start moving, sweating profusely.

We had heard that Harar people were very friendly, and the minibus ride seemed to confirm this. We sat next to two young men who made a valiant effort to talk with us despite very limited shared language. The other people in the taxi stole glances at us with what seemed to be friendly amusement and curiosity as we climbed the gentle rolling hills of the area. We drove through small towns of stone houses with corrugated iron roofs, livestock and children wandering through the corridors between the houses and chilies laid out to dry on sections of the shoulder.

The car stopped frequently to let people on and off of the minibus, and it was a beautiful opportunity to glimpse a slice of rural Ethiopian life.


Harar itself was a much bigger city than we expected. It’s called the city of peace because of the legend in Islam that when the Prophet Muhammad was exiled, he sought refuge in Harar and people welcomed him even though they were a majority Christian town. It is considered the 4th most important city in Islam.

It reminded me a lot of Morocco, in that it has two main parts – the new and old cities. The old city is enclosed within a stone wall, in the style of Moroccan medinas, and the new city is the part that sprawls outside of those walls. A lot of the old city is residential, with traditional Ethiopian houses, many of which are painted in vibrant colors, and narrow alleys weaving between them. It even smelled like Morocco – something like a mix of nice soap, tea, and spices wafting through stone alleyways.


We spent most of our time wandering around the small alleys, searching for and then eating recommended food items, and saying hi to small children and old people who greeted us everywhere we went with cries of  “ferenj-o!” and wanted to shake hands. (In Addis, we’re used to the word ferenj being used to refer to foreigners, but we were enamored with the addition of the “o” to the end of the word in Harar.)

We met some fascinating people in Harar, including a woman who read our fortunes from coffee cups. We heard about her from a guy we met at a café, and he helped us to procure the necessary materials to use her services, including coffee, incense, and khat (the leaf in the foreground of the picture below, which grows in the area and is a stimulant used by a lot of people in the area).

IMG_8308Fortune teller in Harar preparing to tell us about our futures

We also attended a ritual hyena feeding that has been happening in Harar for decades, which was fascinating (I first learned about this on an episode of the Netflix show, Our Planet, which I highly recommend).

In a lot of Africa, hyenas are feared animals that can attack livestock or even people, but in Harar, the community has forged a relationship with the hyenas that is mutually beneficial. Every night, butchers give the hyena man piles of bones, skins, and other parts of the animal that can’t be used, and the hyenas are treated to dinner just outside of the city. In return, they hyenas don’t attack the Hararis’ livestock or children, and people don’t fear them.


We sat outside the hyena man’s home with about a dozen other people, mostly Ethiopians, who had come to see the feeding. The current hyena man is the son of the original hyena man, who is now old and passing on the responsibility to his son.


It was fascinating to see how comfortable he was with the hyenas as he fed them with a short stick or even by hand. All I really knew about hyenas prior to this game from The Lion King, but in person (in this and scared context) they were surprisingly cute animals. At any rate it was a unique experience and our visit to Harar was a lovely break from Addis.


The enigma of Addis Ababa

It’s both reassuring and frustrating that after so much traveling and living in different places, I can still encounter a city that seems so entirely foreign to me as Addis Ababa.

Last year, by the end of the nine months I spent traveling, I was starting to feel like in some ways, the world is becoming so similar everywhere that it took some of the fun out of traveling. The ubiquity of English and American music, a general quality of life that you can purchase anywhere with enough money, the similarity of goods sold in different places (and the realization that global trade has brought a lot of those goods to my home town), the availability of western food in so many places… all these things made me kind of sad, thinking there was some global homogenizing going on. Were we slowly erasing all the differences between different places in the world? Were we heading towards one global society that would be all the same?

I came to Addis after reading that it was a place only “for the experienced traveler” and I can attest that this is definitely the case. It is not an easy place to live, though it is fascinating and alluring in some ways. And surprisingly, so many of the skills and techniques that I learned and used in other places don’t translate here. It’s a new place for me, quite different from anything I’ve experienced.

IMG_7983It’s surprisingly cold in Addis…hence the sweater and the scarf

Addis is a place where the push of modernity clashes brashly with the pull of the way things have always been. The city feels to me like it is constantly fighting itself. It’s turbulent, the process of growing and changing, and it pervades everything.

A lot of the city is comprised by modest neighborhoods, in which small houses with rusting corrugated iron roofs cluster together on wide swaths of hillsides, with narrow paths snaking between them. At first glance these appear slum-like, but look closer and you see that many of the homes have satellite dishes perched on the corrugated iron roofs. From afar, it looks like a collection of giant white mushrooms growing on rusty metal.

IMG_7797Fancy mall in Bole neighborhood of Addis

There is new money and all the things that people with money anywhere like – upscale restaurants, bars with imported liquors, posh shopping malls, fancy cars and places to live where security guards keep watch day and night. Men in suits wait in line for ATMs and walk away counting wads of bills.

But there are also a multitude of beggars, street children, and disabled people. At night, one notices that certain sidewalks or stairs of large churches are lumpy, moving slightly, an odd color; and then suddenly the eyes adjust and the forms of dozens of humans sleeping manifest. During the day, they patrol parts of the city in tattered clothing with their hands outstretched, or sit on thin pieces of fabric while people drop coins in front of them.

img_7971.jpgFuture banks being erected in our neighborhood

The neighborhood we live in is aiming to be the new financial district of Addis Ababa, with at least half a dozen shiny new bank buildings going up around us. But on the ground, literally in the shadows of these new skyscraper-style buildings, there are informal housing settlements where families live in lean-tos covered with tarps, which flood in the rain, and children wearing old tattered clothing play games with old tires and sticks.

One of the biggest markets in Africa, Merkato, lies in the center of Addis. Enter there, and you get swept into a maze of vendors lining muddy streets, hawking traditional spices, fermented butter, live chickens (which can be slaughtered on the spot for a small sum), and much, much more. But the young, middle class people we meet tell us “don’t go to Merkato.” They do all their shopping in the supermarkets or small stores that are less hassle and more convenient, leaving the market for the older and more traditional generation.


In a lot of places, you can buy yourself a certain quality of life if you have enough money. Addis does not seem to be that kind of a place. Some of the basic things like electricity, power, internet, and the ability to move around are just not able to be purchased. The power and water both disappear from time to time. Nice hotels have generators that kick in when the power is out, but I’m not sure even they can account for the periodic cutting off of water. The internet and mobile data are shut down periodically by the government (which owns the only mobile phone company in Ethiopia), and the traffic is so bad at some times of the day that even paying for a private taxi doesn’t get you to your destination any faster than using public transit.

It’s a fascinating place, built into rolling hills, at high altitude and quite beautiful in some ways. Some days, living here feels like such a fun challenge. Other days, I’m just so confused by it that I don’t know what to do. Three months is such a short amount of time to spend a place like this – I suspect that as soon as I start to figure this city out, it will be time to leave it.

For now, I am stumbling around in a state that feels familiar from the early days of Peace Corps– it’s the feeling of being totally lacking in all grace due to unfamiliarity with culture and language and perpetually doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Such is life when you fling yourself unprepared into a new place that is so totally different.