October 16

Tales From Origin

Ethiopia – Coins and Canines in Harar

Old Harar is an ancient, walled city in the highlands of Harar, Ethiopia. Before we go up into the mountains to visit the farmers of Ilili Darartu Cooperative, I have to search the bazaars of Harar for old coins. After all, my house and office are full of treasures gleamed from the junk shops and markets of a dozen countries, testament to the cultures and histories of the coffeelands. The streets of Old Harar are an endless labyrinth of winding, narrow, cobblestone paths with high painted mud walls on each side. Looking like a lost tourist draws sympathetic passersby to my aid. I ask if anybody knows where Fatuma lives, as I have heard she has old coins for sale. A khaki-clad official-looking fellow steps forward and tells me the “easy way” to find Fatuma’s house.

“At the end of this lane you will find a begging leper woman; go left. Stay left and left past the Muslim Market. She lives near there and many people will help you find her.”

Twenty minutes later I am hopelessly lost, surrounded by eight-foot mud walls, not a leper in sight. Some children run after me, shouting and pointing. I want to get away from them, so I duck into the alley ahead. The children fade away. I look down and realize why the kids were trying to keep me from going this way. I have found the alley that serves as the public toilet for all of Harar and most of the visiting camels. One hand on my nose, the other held out for balance, I tiptoe through this minefield of merde until I emerge out the other side. Hey, the Muslim Market!

Nobody knows where Fatuma lives, but I do get many offers from Muslim women to buy my gold earring. They have never seen a man with an earring, so I am the star attraction for the day. Finally, Fatuma emerges. She is very large and very dark. I follow her to her home, wishing I had dropped bread crumbs so I can find my way out. Her home doubles as an informal ethnographic museum of nomadic culture, with knives and shields covering the walls, the floors littered with milk gourds, basketry, and sleeping, fleabag puppies. The tray of coins she offers turns out to be the pocket change of every Italian and German traveler who has visited Harar in the last fifty years. No, this isn’t what I wanted. I manage to find someone in the ogling crowd that has gathered to explain that I want very old coins from the days of trade. Harar was once a major trading post from the African south and the Arab north, from Yemen to the east and Sudan to the west.

Fatuma produces a small woven sack and empties the contents into a silver tea tray. Jackpot! Silver and bronze coins a half-inch in diameter full of strange Arabic and old Hebrew markings fill the tray. I choose six and spend the next half hour eyeball to eyeball with the toughest old bird I have ever met. She would do well as a New Jersey divorce lawyer. She gets most of my assets and I am left with a few coins. But I am delirious. What have these coins traded for? Guns and swords? Did they buy the freedom of a slave or transfer ownership of a camel? How far have they traveled and how many hands have touched them? What karma do I hold in my hands?

On our last night in Harar we are going to see Yussef, the Hyena Man. Yussef lives in a small house outside the northern wall of Harar. Every night he feeds the wild hyenas that come down from the hills surrounding the city to scavenge through the dark lanes. Curiously, the hyenas eat the local mutts but never bother the cats. The hyena feeding is supposed to be something of a tourist attraction, so I figure we will be jostling for a view among busloads of German and Italian tourists. Actually, the entire time we are in Harar, I don’t see another Westerner.

Our taxi driver takes us to Yussef’s house just after dark. He leaves his headlights on so that we can see the action. The tourist crowd I feared consists solely of Yussef’s three young nephews. The Hyena Man, a dark, scrawny fifty-year-old, sits on the ground next to a bucket of butcher scraps. He taps the side of the bucket and calls names out into the night. Slowly, six hairy, hunchbacked shapes come prowling around the perimeter of the light. Dear God! These things are huge! I thought they would be the measly canines of Disney cartoons, or the size of the coyotes that skulk through New England backyards at night. But these creatures stand as tall and as broad as bull mastiffs. They become more comfortable with the light and inch toward Yussef’s outstretched hand, a slab of meat and gristle hanging off a foot-long stick enticing them forward. They lunge for the stick, snatch the meat, and back off. Now and then two will compete for the grab, with the larger one growling or snapping the other away. Yussef shortens the stick until it is only a few inches long. Then he puts it in his mouth, and the hyena’s snapping jaws clamp the meat a kiss away from his lips. It is mesmerizing. I have read that the Hararis had a mystical relationship with the hyenas, and something wild is going on here. I find my feet shuffling toward Yussef. He beckons me forward and hands me a stick. I stab a hunk of meat from the bucket and hold it out. The biggest hyena inches forward, keeping her eyes on mine, not on the meat. It is a weird experience, but I am compelled to draw the meat in closer; closer to my face. My body freezes when the meat dangles two inches from my lips. There is a blur of teeth and fur before me as the hyena lunges in then retreats several feet to watch me as it tears the meat apart. I abruptly come out of my odd reverie, hand Yussef a bunch of birrh, and back off to the taxi. The driver slaps me on the back, laughs, and says I am “crazy like a Harari.”

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