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.

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