Harar Today, Gone Tomorrow - An Ethiopian Folktale
Harar Today, Gone Tomorrow
The ancient walled city of Harar in Ethiopia is birthplace to great stories and coffee unsurpassed. Its narrow maze-like streets meander among the houses which fit together like a puzzle. When visitors describe Hararan culture, it’s always about the houses painted so colorful. So artistically decorated.
It’s a city where the people wear beautifully woven clothing, red, purple, and black. Traditional clothing for women is called the shamma: long strips of fabric sewn together. Shiny threads and patterns adorn it.
Harar is where artisans weave intricate baskets, artistic and functional. Some are used as furniture such as the mesob. This tall, wide-bottom basket, is designed in all its beautiful patterns, woven as a table not a bowl nor container.
But the most highly praised gift from Harar is this: its coffee. Ethiopia is believed by historians to be the birthplace of coffee, discovered by goatherds who saw that when the animals ate the coffee fruit that they did not sleep.
Coffee lovers enjoy Harar’s coffee the world over. It has a distinct flavor that many describe as fruity, even berry like. Put cream and sugar in it if you like, but drink it black to get the full effect (bit.ly/ethiopiacoffee).
Now, pull up a chair and a cup of Hararan coffee (if you are so lucky as to have some) to hear a tale from the ancient walled city.
Meet Abu Nawas, a man most happily married. To know him, is to know his bright eyes. They dance and play when eating a stinky cheese, or when hearing a delightful melody. But they shine like stars when Amara, his new wife, enters the room.
Some say Abu is wise, but maybe that came after the dream, the ugly one that itched like a hardened scab. Abu had a dream like that.
He loved Amara, so deeply he ached. They enjoyed hours strolling the byways of the ancient walled city, shopping in the open air merkato, looking for new and interesting spices for the kitchen.
So, he hated his dream because Amara played the starring role in this thing he hated. Some dreams melt away with the first rays of the sun. Not this. It pulled up a chair in Abu’s thoughts and got comfortable. It teased him like a school chum who needs to go home.
As he ate a breakfast of ambasha bread, ayib cheese, and coffee, he tried to shake the dream. Abu ground an ample amount of coffee which he had grown in his own field and roasted in a brick oven. As he ground the fruity tasting beans, he tried to chase the dream away.
She wandered into the kitchen looking for a morning morsel of sweet bread and cheese. With an overhasty peck on her cheek, he hurried out. He couldn’t talk to her. Not without revealing his trouble.
His turmoil was great. The dream mutated from a mouse to a monstrous rat. The faster he walked, the more troubled he became. He walked along the Eastern wall, careful to not trip on the cobblestones. He strolled the open air shops, dodging the donkey leavings as he walked.
To get lost is to learn the way, and Abu was lost. Not in Harar but in his mind. He knew the Mosques and shrines of Harar. Its narrow alleys. The ethnic neighborhoods: the Somali, Gurage, Amhara, Oromo, and Tigray. And from his easy days of youth running the city’s markets and alleys, he knew trouble. And he knew how to stay out of it.
Today he walked, paying little attention to his destination. He walked. Shuffled. Kicked small stones. Avoided reckless children. And a headache sprouted like a weed.
Abu knew there were botherings that a man could tame himself, but some needed working out with a friend, and still some required the experience of a sage. Someone wise. Like the qadi. Maybe the qadi would allow Abu a minute.
Because the qadi knew. Life. Law. Holy writ.
The Hararans, a diverse peoples quarrelled and stormed. They argued for hours, well past the time a European might throw in the towel. People in this walled city considered it an art to get the last word. And when all else failed, they all brought their complaints to the qadi. And his word was law.
They brought the stolen baskets, the poked out eyes, the drunken brawls, the market cheats. All suites came to the qadi. And they listened, for he was wise.
Even the Amir, the mighty ruler of Harar, relied on the qadi as his most trusted advisor.
Abu and Amara had dined with the qadi a few weeks ago at the Amir’s wedding. He told a joke about a three legged dog that had everyone crying with laughter. Six months before, the qadi had spoken with dignity at the Amir’s father’s funeral. Abu wept during the eulogy, as did all.
On Abu’s troubled walk through the city, he found himself at the Eastern gate of the city where the qadi kept hours to hold council on matters of importance. Should he really bother such a man over such a trivial matter as a dream? Abu knew he must, for he could not face Amara until he had exorcised this demon.
If you wanted to speak with the qadi, you had to pull on a rope that hung just outside the rooms where the qadi counseled. Abu looked, touched, turned around, touched again and finally pulled the rope which rang a bell. He looked at his feet as he asked to speak to the qadi. Abu was seated and a young woman served him in a room decorated with elaborate baskets. Though the room was comfortable with cushions, Abu was nervous to sit. He knew the stone in his stomach had turned his feelings about everything that day.
The servant brought a clay jebena coffee pot and expertly poured a foot-long stream into a small si’ni cup. She offered a small bowl of sugar and another of salt on a tray. Abu was too worried to want coffee, but he didn’t want to seem rude, so he sipped.
After some time, out strode the qadi, leading with a too-toothy smile. An image of a camel dealer flashed in Abu’s mind, but Abu blinked the image away.
After Abu bowed, inquiring after the qadi’s health in the traditional Hararan way, the qadi asked about Amara by name. He knows her name. That helps.
Abu’s head itched which always happened when he felt awkward. He resisted the urge to scratch and made himself look at this wise and holy man tell him all about the miserable dream.
He told the qadi that he had dreamed his wife had thrown clay pots at his head, that her gaze had fallen on other men, and that out of hopeless frustration he had scrawled out a writ of divorce.
The qadi moistened his lips as he listened, and Abu noticed the wise man’s chest move up and down as he heard the dream.
As Abu finished the tale, the qadi took on a grave demeanor. His advice: Pay close attention to this terrible dream. Your seemingly beloved Amara is bad, bad luck. Take the dream as a warning from the spirit realm. You must sever the bond immediately.
As the holy qadi spoke, the snake in Abu’s stomach released its hold on him. For he knew that he loved his wife Amara more than ever, that he wanted only to be gone from this cushioned room and to wrap Amara in such an embrace as he had never done before.
The qadi’s accusations woke Abu up. What a gift he had in Amara! The qadi was trying to deceive Abu. He didn’t know why. But he saw that trusting the qadi had been a mistake. Why had he given the stupid dream such weight?
Abu took his leave, most glad to get out. He had an intense desire to wash up. As he walked home, his dream slowly faded, the strangeness of his consultation occupying his thoughts now. But he focused on Amara and getting home. Maybe I’ll laugh about this silliness soon.
Through the market, on the way home, he searched out Amara’s favorite berbere spice. A few moments later, as he neared home, he purchased the most beautiful flower arrangement he had ever seen.
Abu would never forget this day: the day he got lost, but found his way.
In the same way that Abu couldn’t shake his troubling divorce-dream earlier, the qadi found his own desire for Amara mounting. He wanted her. But Amara was Abu’s wife, and the qadi, a holy man. A holy lawyer anyway.
Deep in the maze of his mind, the qadi’s law-brain labored, for holy judges convince anyone of anything, including themselves.
The qadi knew he should leave this alone, banish the thoughts. And he tried. In that halfhearted way that men do when they want to convince themselves that they have no choice.
So, he tried reading his important books which succeeded in pushing Amara to the edge of his awareness. But as soon as he would stop for a bite of bread, butter, and honey, she returned, beckoning.
He worked at it like a restless six-year-old worries a loose tooth with his tongue. And little by little he conceived a plan, a murderous one, for only death would do.
The best part was this: all he had to do was tell a convincing ghost story and the Amir would do the rest.
He knew the Amir missed his dead father. Only three days past, the qadi and the Amir dined together, and the Amir spoke of his father as if alive, wondering if he were warm enough, if he was getting enough to eat. Then, he would snap to, and regain his sharp eye. With amused interest, the qadi had watched this come and go throughout the long and leisurely meal.
Time the tale as a toad times a fly, and he would have Amara. The bit of danger thrilled him, adding flame to his desire.
Abu’s bowels quaked when the Amir’s official messenger, his negariw, entered Abu’s courtyard. The negariw handed Abu a small scroll which was tied and sealed with the Amir’s insignia. Abu hid his shaking hand as he broke the seal, untied the silver string and read the Amir’s instructions The negariw watched. Abu was being summoned. Now.
Abu gulped and begged leave to clean up. The negariw seemed to be expecting this and granted consent but remained in the courtyard while Amara waited on him with salted coffee and berbere spiced goat cheese.
In his bedroom, Abu threw up. He took a deep breath, summoning all his intelligence to the forefront of his mind. He didn’t know what lay in store for him in the Amir’s palace, but he knew he would need a full measure of wit to keep his head on his shoulders.
Within the hour he was ushered into the Amir’s favorite sitting room. The most beautiful baskets in Harar ornamented the walls. The carpets were unlike any Abu had seen in the kingdom. All The colors and patterns on the walls and floors harmonized to soothe a weary soul. Though Abu appreciated fine appointments, today he narrowed only on what mattered.
As custom dictated, Abu greeted the Amir first with a light handshake and inquiries as to his general health. He observed deep creases in the Amir’s brow and he saw the ruler work to keep his eyes open and focused.
Behind the Amir was one other man, the qadi. Abu greeted him too. And Abu saw the cold stare of the ridgeback agama lizard in the qadi’s gaze, only interested in two things, its next meal and mate.
That’s when Abu knew this was about Amara.
He cursed himself for ever confiding in the qadi. But he cursed the qadi much more colorfully. Silently.
The Amir and the qadi were lounging at a feast. Meats, cheeses, fruits, honey pancakes, dark coffee, and more. Abu sat. The Amir gestured to the fresh injera bread stacked on a beautiful basket next to his cushioned seat, and though, not hungry, he knew better than to refuse the offer. The trick--eat just enough. And to know exactly how much, he watched the Amir.
He noted the qadi eating like one playing chess. Deliberate. The Amir, though sad, stuffed wads of food into his mouth, but watched Abu with big eyes. He ate to ready himself for something.
Abu could see that the Amir wanted to talk but didn’t know how to start. Abu felt like a man happening on a cobra in a garden. But he didn’t dare show it. For a second time, he regarded his own fear and sent it packing.
The Amir finally spoke, and his words chilled Abu.
The Amir spoke of the qadi. This confused Abu at first. The Amir spoke of a dream. At first Abu feared the qadi had told the Amir of Abu’s dream about Amara. But he soon realized that this was about the qadi’s dream.
In this dream the qadi had apparently spoken with the Amir’s late father, dead now these many months. The Amir said the spirit complained of being cold, that he wanted his old cloak. Maybe someone could bring it to keep warm.
The qadi’s plan to have Amara for himself spread out before Abu like a battle plan on a scroll. Abu already knew what the Amir would say next.
The Amir said not just anyone could deliver the cloak; few could be trusted with such a task. But the qadi had spoken favorably of Abu, a man above reproach, a trustworthy man.
The Amir wanted Abu to carry the cloak to his father. In the otherworld. The tricky part was this: he must be buried alive to get to the other side.
Abu pushed a piece of honeyed injera into his mouth along with a piece of cheese and washed it down with a gulp of Hararan coffee. This to give him but a few precious seconds to think.
He could not speak against the qadi for he was a trusted holy man, nor could he deny the request.
And Abu’s response came to him like a splash of cold water on his face. Clear. Bracing. To refuse would be death. So, Abu agreed to the plan, but asked two concessions. First, he requested to be buried next to his own father, which was in Abu’s garden. Then, he asked the men for one month to put his affairs in order.
The Amir looked at the qadi. The qadi barely holding back his lizard lust, gave an almost imperceptible nod.
Sadness evaporated from the Amir’s eyes like noon fog giving way to the sun. Abu almost felt good for the ruler.
The grateful Amir sent him home with an ass loaded down with baskets of gifts and food from the palace kitchen.
Abu knew what he had to do.
- Protect. Send Amara away, (with their servants) to her mother.
- Prepare. He must foresee her needs.
- Lie. She could never know.
Protect. Prepare. But a lie? Could he? He must, but he had neither the capacity, nor the will to lie to her face, not even to save their lives.
But act, he must.
And with a white face. He told her the truth, just not all. Something horrible had happened. He must send her away for some weeks. She must trust him.
And she did. Was it that simple? No. But in the end, and in a short time, that’s how it turned. For though she pleaded to know all, he was a wall.
Now, his beloved wife protected, he worked out the details for how he would delicately drive a stake into the heart of the qadi’s reptilian plan.
On the day of his burial, Abu greeted the Amir and the qadi at the door to his house, his face resigned and somber, yet fearless. When the Amir asked him if he had any last words, Abu pointed to the mark next to his father’s grave. The Amir’s servants dressed Abu in a shroud and brought him to his father’s grave.
They lowered him into the pit, and then, placed the wrapped cloak upon his chest. The qadi hid his evil excitement as the gravediggers covered the living man with fresh dirt. They were done in minutes.
But Abu had prepared a breathing tube made of clay next to where his head would be. He pushed around with his head to find it and start breathing. Next to the tube lay a tunnel.
Abu stayed still until he was sure the men were gone. He crawled out through the tunnel, where he picked up a hidden disguise and left town on a donkey; in fact, the same donkey gifted by the Amir. He rode a day’s journey away from the walled city.
Then, Abu hid for several weeks. He stayed long enough for the Amir to believe he had traveled to the underworld and completed his task.
Finally, ready to complete his plan, in plain clothes, he traveled back to Harar, straight to the Amir’s palace. Upon entering, Abu was escorted to the cushioned sitting room. For a few minutes, he waited, admiring the colorful baskets hung on the wall of the room.
Soon, the Amir entered obviously excited to see Abu.
After a formal greeting, Abu spoke. He told the Amir of his father. That he looked well, that he was pleased with the cloak.
The next lie he told was the tricky part. Abu knew this: that the Amir’s father had suffered a loveless marriage with the Amir’s mother. He also knew that the Amir had always blamed his mother for treating his father so poorly. So he told the Amir that his father wanted to get remarried in the otherworld.
Abu watched the Amir’s face shine as he told him this news, so he continued.
He explained that his father wanted the Amir to send a holy qadi to him in the underworld to bless his marriage quickly.
This the Amir did, burying the qadi alive the very next day.
Abu stayed in Harar long enough to know the qadi was now one with the earth. Then, he went to Amara as fast as his donkey could get him there.