Diary

Charles Nicholl

Little has changed in the old city of Harar, secluded in the hills of south-eastern Ethiopia. The rusting military hardware still sits beside the road from Dire Dawa, as it did when I last passed by six years ago. The waiters still move like somnambulists through the drowsy lobby of the Ras Hotel. The spider’s web of twisting cobbled streets; the tall boys playing table football in a corner of the main square; the recumbent figures browsing on sprigs of khat; the beautiful eyes that flash suddenly out of shadowy interiors – it is all much as I remember it. So too is the smell, a gamut of aromas, from that quintessential Ethiopian fragrance of frankincense and roasting coffee, to the stench of sewage in a city beset by an almost continuous shortage of water. For searchers of the picturesque – a quality which Harar has in spades – this continuity is reassuring. The place has not yet been ‘spoilt’. It remains pungently itself. For the average Harari this may be less of a good thing: a sense of stagnation and lassitude are the reverse of this coin. It is a fairly general rule that the picturesque is based on someone else’s inconvenience.

Harar is a walled city, self-contained. Though you are no longer required to leave your spear at the city gates, you are still very much an outsider here. Only two Europeans have made any impact, in the sense that their names are known and recognised. One is the English explorer Richard Burton, who arrived in 1855 and was probably the first European to enter this Muslim stronghold. The other is the nomadic French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who worked here as a trader in the 1880s, and who made the place – more than anywhere in his brief, restless life – his home. It was Rimbaud who first brought me here, when I was researching a book about his years in Africa, and it is Rimbaud who brings me back, for the grand opening of the restored Maison Rimbaud, a handsome three-storey building of Indian workmanship which is ‘said to have been’ his house. This is the one bit of Harar that has visibly changed. Six years ago I picked my way across a rubbish-strewn courtyard, peered in disregarded corners, leant on rickety balconies, and was fed coffee and gulban (Easter bread) by an Amharic woman called Sunait who was living in a corner of the house. Now it has been thoroughly refitted. Its wooden façade gleams with varnish, its walls are stencilled with floating lines of exotic Rimbaudian imagery, its tall rooms are filled with photographs of old Harar, including some of Rimbaud’s own.

A part of me regrets this transformation, but it is the selfish, picturesque-hunting part. (Another rule: the picturesque is enjoyable in inverse proportion to the number of people enjoying it.) In fact the 700,000 birr (£50,000) restoration, co-ordinated by the Centre Français des Etudes Ethiopiennes, has been sensitively done, has saved the building from imminent physical collapse and is welcomed by the locals. A computerised record centre, ‘for documentation and research on Harar and its region’, is also being set up here.

All this has happened despite the fact that there is no actual evidence that Rimbaud ever lived here. According to one theory, the beams used in the house were surplus railway sleepers: this would date the construction to around 1902, when the Franco-Ethiopian railway first reached Dire Dawa, by which time Rimbaud would have been dead for 11 years. This has not deterred tourguides and sightseers, for whom a palpably existent house is more important than a precise location. (The writer John Ryle reports a novel spin on this: he was shown round the house by a guide who maintained adamantly that it had once been the home of Rembrandt.)

On the day of the inauguration Harar was abuzz with dignitaries and a concomitantly heavy presence of police and soldiers. At six o’clock in the evening, inside that once-dilapidated courtyard were seated two French Ambassadors, one British Ambassador, one Italian Counsellor, the Ethiopian Commissioner for Tourism, the Vice-Minister of Culture and Information, the President of the National Regional State Council for Harar, the venerable French novelist and Academician Jean-François Deniau, the scarcely less venerable British historian of Ethiopia Dr Richard Pankhurst, the mayor of Charleville-Mézières (Rimbaud’s hometown) and a clutch of visiting authors, academics, curators and journalists, among them the novelist Pierre Michon, a small man with grey cropped hair who confided to me one evening that he was no longer interested in writing, he was only interested in his baby daughter Louise; and the saturnine Rimbaud scholar Claude Jeancolas, editor of impeccably fine-tuned texts and the discoverer of the only known photograph of Rimbaud after he left Europe, other than the three self-portraits taken in Harar in 1883.

Rimbaud was not a man to be impressed by this sort of gathering and when the electricity cut out and the microphones died I thought he was about to wreak revenge. I remembered a precedent: the inauguration of the Place Rimbaud in Djibouti in 1938, an occasion whose descent into chaos is amusingly narrated by the French adventurer Henri de Monfreid, who was present. ‘Who can say,’ Monfreid concludes, ‘that this wasn’t the ghost of Rimbaud, whistling like a wind of misrule among these official puppets who serve the mountebanks of international politics?’ On this occasion his ghost seems content with the arrangements. And why not? It is a fine house, far finer than the ones he actually lived in, and the insistence that it should be his is mainly a matter of hospitality, a virtue which the Hararis prize very highly and practise very expertly.

The louche smuggler and scribbler Henri de Monfreid was himself a habitué of the region. His house stands in rolling brown hills about an hour out of Harar (half the journey in a 4×4 and half on the bony chestnut nag which seemed a rather safer bet than the makeshift little buggies which the French contingent referred to as cabriolets). It is an undistinguished, single-storey, dirtfloor house with the remains of an orchard outside. The women of the family sit patiently on the bed while the assembled experts peer through the gloom.

Rimbaud’s house is historically dubious and Monfreid’s shack frankly disappointing – the unexpected high point in terms of historical house-hunting was provided by the British Ambassador, Gordon Wetherell. A tall, genial man in his early fifties, he had already upstaged his Gallic counterpart by giving the first part of his speech at the Maison Rimbaud in fluent Amharic. On the morning of our return to Addis, I went off with him and his wife Rosie in search of the farm which his Yugoslavian grandfather had built and lived in during the 1920s; and with the help of a villager whose father had worked there, we found it.

Though nominally the offices of the local Peasants Association, the house is deserted and crumbling – precisely in that state of suspended animation which is so suggestive to memory and imagination, and which is swept clean away when a place becomes a museum. The remembered verandah is no longer there but you can see just where it was; those gnarled frangipani trees must have been planted when the house was built; those unusual rock formations are surely the ones in that little painting they have somewhere at home – and suddenly something flickers amid the broken masonry, that vestige which dead people leave, cunningly hidden, in the houses where they lived.

Back in Addis, luxuriously billeted in the Ambassador’s residence, I found myself once more in a house with stories to tell. In 1896, in the newly founded capital of Addis Ababa (‘new flower’), King Menelik II granted a gasha of land to each of the superpowers – Britain, France, Italy and Russia – camped on his doorstep. A gasha is about 36 hectares, or 90 acres. The Russian patch has long since been split up and the Italians had some of theirs taken away after their occupation of the country, but the British and French Embassies still sit amid their full swathes – indeed the Addis Embassy is probably the biggest British diplomatic patch in the world. With its slope of shimmering lawns and rustling woodlands, its ancient shade-bearing trees and rare Himalayan cypress-pines, its paddock, golf course and tennis courts, it has something of the air of an extremely exclusive country club. Addis is a distant rumour beyond the security gates, a smudge of monoxide in the high mountain air.

The original residence was a huddle of thatched Ethiopian tukuls (still standing) and a reception-tent. In 1900, a visiting Brit described the place as ‘luxuriously furnished’, with newspapers and periodicals, and ‘files of Reuters telegrams, which were forwarded by camel post from Zeila to Harar, and thence by telephone’. An early Ambassador (or, technically, minister, as it was men a legation rather than an embassy) was Wilfrid Thesiger. His son and namesake, the explorer, was born here in 1910. He recalled seeing the infant son of Haile Selassie carried up the steps of the residence in a basket suspended from his tutor’s neck.

The residence is a large, low, bougainvillaea-clad house of local stone and cedar. Built in 1910, it radiates Edwardian optimism and opulence. A document in the Embassy’s excellent library informs me that the building costs came to £21,208, a fair whack then. Old photograph albums show tea parties and gymkhanas and many district commissioners. Empress Zauditu pauses beneath a parasol, c.1920, the daughter of King Menelik and the owner of the city’s only motor car.

From Addis I travelled north on a brief trip into the old Christian heartlands of Abyssinia. Unfortunately, I had no time to get to the ancient Tigrayan capital of Axum – flights there have been suspended because of its proximity to the battle-front with Eritrea. (At Bahir Dar, one is ordered to shutter die window on take-off and landing, so I cannot report the strength and disposition of Ethiopian fighter planes there; at Dire Dawa a few days earlier we saw a dozen Migs below, skulking in a light camouflage of thorn-scrub.)

Near Bahir Dar are the Blue Nile Falls, discovered – leaving aside the generations of locals who knew about them all along – by the redoubtable Scotsman James Bruce. The Embassy has a handsome first edition of Bruce’s five-volume Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1790), though not even this quite prepared me for the scale and verdancy of the scene. In Gonde there are ghostly palaces and the sumptuous interior of Debre Selassie church, decorated in the late 17th century with vivid Ethiopian versions of the life of Christ. The guidebooks sometimes refer to these as frescos, but in fact they were not painted a fresco (on wet plaster) but on sized cloth later stuck to the walls.

At Lalibela I scrambled among the strange, labyrinthine rock-churches, hewn out about eight hundred years ago by workmen still unknown. On the night before my return to Addis, and thence to Europe, I sat in a house in the friendly, dirt-poor village. It belonged to the family of my guide for the day, a cheerful, intelligent, devoutly Christian young man in his early twenties called Yeheno. His room was as long as his rather short bed and about the same across; the door gave straight onto the street where children played in the dust. There was a vintage poster of Al Pacino as Serpico on the wall. Yeheno’s younger sister was preparing coffee – a bed of pepper-tree leaves, a scraping of frankincense in the burner, the sharp tonic of the first infusion (etiquette demands you take three, the last being quite mild) – and Yeheno was filling me in on the family finances. His father, an ex-policeman, receives a state pension of 80 birr a month; his older sister, whose husband was killed in the civil war in 1991, receives a war widow’s pension, also 80 birr a month. The family’s regular monthly income was therefore 160 birr – a little over £12. This is by no means the lowest economic rung in Ethiopia – the second poorest country in the world, by some reckonings – but it was the rung I was sitting on at the moment. The fact that 160 birr was almost exactly the sum I was paying him for one day’s services as my guide highlighted the situation further. And so Yeheno’s house in Lalibela had – like those other houses in Harar and Addis – a story to tell: a story which one knows in outline, under such rubrics as Third World Debt and the Cost of Global Capitalism, but which one does not so often hear viva voce.