The living room’s bright blue concrete walls glow under the fluorescent light. The air is full of cigarette smoke and the smell of coffee beans roasting. It’s Ramadan, Islam’s holy month. The old color TV transmits hypnotic praying live from Mecca. I’m in Harar, a historic Muslim town in Ethiopia, about 130 miles from the Somali border.
In front of me are piles of qat stems, a natural stimulant grown in Harar. Zeytouna, a 6-year-old girl, is hovering next to me, applying a distortion app to pictures she has taken of us and giggles. She shows me a picture with our faces elongated as if in a funny house mirror. Her mother glances at us smiling and her father continues a low volume conversation with his neighbors, lazily chewing qat leaves.
I couldn’t feel more at ease.
The First Visit
It had been a long day of traveling when I first arrived in Harar more than five years ago: a flight from Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia to its capital Addis Ababa, 6 hours waiting at the Addis airport, another flight east to Dire Dawa and a minibus ride on which a fight broke loose about a detour we took to deliver someone’s timber.
I was making the trek to Harar as a part of my 10-day solo trip to Ethiopia. A friend had recommended it for its unique culture: Harar is a historic city-state with its own ethnic group, the Harari, who speak a Semitic language and trace their roots to the first Muslims in the region.
By the time the bus approached Harar, it was already dark. At the town’s outskirts, a timid young man stepped on and started talking to me, as if in spite of himself. After a long day of traveling, I was tired and uninterested. By the time he was following me to my hotel, I had to be plain rude to get rid off him. He wasn’t threatening; he just annoyed me trying to sell me a walking tour.
But the next morning, after the hotel staff confirmed he really was a guide, I found myself following him on the narrow, dusty Harar streets. Tamrat, twenty-something and so painfully shy he had no business guiding anyone, took me around his city of less than 100,000 people. The most famous site is the walled city itself, inside of which no cars fit and donkeys, goats, dogs and chicken are almost as common a site as people.
Many guidebooks point out that the Horn of Africa’s first Islamic stronghold has more in common with the old towns of Morocco or Egypt than it does with Ethiopia. Walking the labyrinthine streets common in the Arabic world, it’s easy to see why. According to a legend, Saint Abadir, coming from Arabia, introduced Islam to the region around 940-950 and is the founder of the city. One can often hear an Arabic word here and there, mixed with the local languages.
Today, Hararis or Muslims in general are barely the city’s majority yet the small area of the walled town still boasts 82 mosques and, some say it’s Islam’s fourth holiest city after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. But this is something you’re likely to hear only in Harar, a city proud of its history and myths. Its slogan says it all: “Harar – A Living Museum.”
I learned much of this history only after my first visit. On that first walk, I noticed just the most obvious: the colors. The Harari women’s layered, flowing outfits and headscarves compete in brightness with the one-storey houses’ painted plaster walls and their geometric decorations. Bright pink on blue, brown on incandescent green and yellow on electric blue, sometimes within the same narrow alley.
Tamrat and I explored a small coffee roastery, churches and each of the gates in the wall, which was built in 1567 to protect the city from an influx of non-Muslim migrants from the south. The British explorer Sir Richard Burton famously visited the city in 1854 disguised as a Muslim and has the suspect honor of being the first Westerner, who survived such an attempt alive.
While non-Muslims were not always welcome to the walled city, the small, forgotten museum Tamrat took me speaks of the town’s long trading history. It has a display of coins from India, Egypt, Europe, Central Asia, the Middle and the Far East, many of them several centuries old. Such a story of Africa’s interconnected past would come as a surprise to most Westerners. Not surprisingly, most people know Harar, if they do, for Burton and the French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s visits. Rimbaud settled in Harar in the 1880s to trade in coffee, and according to some sources, used firearms.
Outside the main streets and sights, the town was quiet. On a side street, only some giggling girls in school uniforms and hijabs passed us. Soon after it became clear we were slowly approaching a market. The stream of people grew stronger and the product piles on the sides of the street kept increasing: clothes, household goods, soap, bread, vegetables, fruit, all in single item piles on a cloth on the ground.
When we reached the busiest part, everyone was selling just one thing: huge heaps of what looked like small tree branches with dark green leaves.
“What’s that they’re selling?”
“ You know what it is,” Tamrat answered surprisingly boldly, while he was otherwise quiet and polite.
“Oh, this is qat”? By then I already knew but was still taken by surprise by the sense of urgency it created. This was a treasured item.
Tamrat nodded as an answer. Next thing I knew, as a response to my impulsive declaration that I wanted to try the stimulant, he arranged to pick me up after lunch from my hotel and to take me to his friends’ house to chew. He’d get the produce.
Khat, chat or qat, depending on the spelling, is classified as an illegal drug in most of the western world but it’s perfectly acceptable in the Horn of Africa, where it’s seen as a mild stimulant or, jokingly, a coffee substitute. In Harar, where the world’s best quality is grown due to its perfect altitude and soil, it’s not only acceptable but as I was to discover, a part of daily life.
Tamrat picked me up in a tuk-tuk. A bit nervous about where we were going, I was pleased to arrive at a plain, modern apartment outside the old town’s gates, with other women there. They were beautiful and proud in a distinctly Ethiopian way and only nodded at me as a hello, one of them roasting coffee beans on a gas cooker in the middle of the living room floor. Both of them were chewing qat.
There were also three young men at the apartment, who were more talkative. They were clearly excited about the foreign woman joining them at what appeared like a daily activity. Tamrat started to teach me how: you pick the softest leaves from the branch, make a pile of them on your palm and then put the pile in your cheek to chew it long and well. The chewing releases the chemicals in the leaf that produce the high, which is why it’s referred to as chewing though you do also swallow the pulp you produce in your mouth. We shared a small plate of peanuts to help with the bitter taste.
Sitting on the floor, chewing and swallowing, chewing and swallowing, the time and effort qat requires dawned on me. Like cows eating to an extra stomach, we repeated the steps for several hours that afternoon. The ritual of doing this with friends was clearly a big part of the qat culture. It seemed appropriate for a stimulant, which is popular in the part of the world not steeped in instant gratifications.
Tamrat, all smiles now and far more talkative than before, told me that everyone in Harar goes to chew qat on the lunch break. “Women, too?” I asked. “Yes, women, too, and then the bosses are mad when no-one is back in the office on time.” “Well, at least they’re speedy when they get there,” I answered, which got everyone laughing. But of course qat isn’t all that harmless.
There was one guy, who sat in the corner or rather half laid down like ancient Romans feasting, whose eyes betrayed that qat can cause some damage. Though he was peacefully chewing his bag of leaves about the size of a two-pound bag of flour, his eyes were glossy and wild as if his body and mind were not in synch. He was the first one I had noticed, however. But after getting acquainted with the look of the frequent user, I started spotting a few of them here and there.
Tamrat estimated that about half the travelers who come to Harar want to try qat, mostly freewheeling backpackers. Many come there just for it, while the rest won’t touch it. Harar exports qat to places such as Djibouti, Yemen and Somalia. It’s estimated that qat is Ethiopia’s 5th biggest export with $70,000,000 yearly revenues. Everyone at the apartment seemed to take pride in a shrewd local businesswoman, barely fifty years old, who had made a fortune growing and exporting the stimulant.
Tamrat and I shared a bag as big as the wild-eyed friend’s. After each bundle I chewed, he asked if I wanted more, before placing more branches in front of me. I realized he thought I was scared of the effect but I wasn’t. Rather I was impatient, awaiting the reward of the arduous task.
While I hadn’t come to Harar to chew qat, I had looked into the effects. Its chemical make-up and the high were likened to the coca leaf. I knew it meant that it doesn’t make one hallucinate, but alert with a dose of euphoria. This sounded like something a solo traveler could handle.
I think I noticed the smile first. My own that is. The edges of my mouth were drawn up towards the ceiling, seemingly involuntarily. Soon the elated energy and talking about a mile a minute followed. I felt comfortable and happy, and Tamrat, who less than 24 hours ago had annoyed me, had transformed into someone I felt I had known for ages. Grateful that I got to take part in the quintessential Harari activity, I apologized profusely for having been so rude to him the previous night. He waved his skinny arm high up in the air to signal me to stop talking about it already. We both laughed and I was in love with that moment.
All the chewing and talking made my mouth dry. It was clearly time for a beer. I offered to buy Tamrat one and luckily he knew just the place, a local brewery with outdoor seating. We said goodbye to the medley of people at the apartment. The wild-eyed guy, who had such a difficult name I kept forgetting it, seemed more awake now and gave us a farewell hug. The bodily alertness now somehow matched the feral look in his eyes.
Harar Brewery’s shady garden, its plastic chairs and the fresh, cloudy beer were perfect. The temperature was perfect. The chatting with Tamrat was perfect. But something about an Austrian and a German man disrupted my qat-induced perfection. Tamrat had promised to pick them up soon and he thought I should join them to go see the Hyena Man. I nodded in agreement but dreaded meeting these men, who I suspected would be deadly boring. What really bothered me though was Tamrat’s choice of words: “other guests.” It was an unpleasant reminder that the perfection I had just experienced was a purchased pleasure with a hired guide.
I had read about the Hyena Man before arriving in Harar. Feeding the wild hyenas outside the town walls was a family business, or had become one once the family had started collecting ticket money for the nightly ritual. The feeding had begun for practical reasons: during a draught a few decades ago, the hyena population had grown so hungry they started preying on the townspeople. A wealthy family, in order to protect the inhabitants, fed the animals. But the hyenas got so used to it, the family had to continue out of fear they might start attacking the people again. Now it was one of Harar’s few tourist attractions.
There were a handful of us, gathered in anticipation in a half circle around the Hyena Man. He was sitting on a plastic bucket with another bucket full of raw meat in front of him. Our backs were towards the town. The Hyena Man faced us and we all waited in silence. The surrounding cars’ headlights provided the only light to the strange scene. Little by little, the spotted animals started appearing from the darkness behind the man. They were bigger and meaner looking than I had suspected.
The Hyena Man dangled a piece of meat over his shoulder and one wild hyena jumped on his back to grab it. Next he put a chunk with a long bone in his teeth and another vicious looking animal seized the opportunity to snatch it from his teeth.
We got a chance to try our luck feeding the hyenas, too, and to my surprise a few fearless travelers did. I had no interest in getting that close to the ugly creatures. Instead my eyes wandered to Tamrat, who was looking at his phone at the back of the circle, bored at the site he must have seen hundreds of times. I wondered if he was still feeling the effects of qat like I was.
Unceremoniously, after witnessing the Hyena Man’s bizarre feeding ceremony, Tamrat said goodbye and put us into a taxi. I never asked him if he too was still high. I felt too abandoned to do so.
My suspicion about the Germanic men hadn’t been entirely wrong, but at least I managed to shock them with the story of my afternoon activities. Strolling to my hotel from the taxi stand with one of them, I heard someone shouting my name from across the street: a strange sensation in a remote town where I had been for about 24 hours. The look of surprise on the German man’s face was pure gold.
I spotted the wild-eyed guy from Tamrat’s friend’s apartment waving at me. He was now more alert, perhaps even riotous. Still feeling the effect of qat and dreading just sitting wired in my room, I followed him to a small but loud reggae bar for a beer and a bit of dancing.
When I finally got back to my hotel, my old travel Nokia rang. I assumed it was my friend in Addis Ababa but I was wrong: it was Tamrat. He wanted to make sure I got safe to the hotel having heard I had gone to a bar with his unruly friend. Maybe he didn’t think I was just another guest after all. Or the qat bonding is a real thing.
The Second Visit
Years later, I found myself again on a minibus on the winding mountain road from the Dire Dawa airport to Harar. A young man in a coat jacket was curious about the faranji, which translates to “whitey.” I told him I was returning to Harar after more than four years. “Are you a journalist?” “Something like that,” I answered. “Back to see if Harar has changed? There’s no point. It hasn’t changed in 4 years. It hasn’t changed in 10 years. It will never change.”
He had a point. There’s a timelessness about Harar, which the ubiquitous satellite TVs and WIFI don’t seem to disrupt and one gets a sense they most likely won’t. I doubt the walled city is likely to have a Starbucks any time soon.
Next the young man brought up qat, as if it was the most common conversation topic with strangers. I told him I had tried it on my last visit. “I don’t think so,” he responded confidently. “Yes, I did.” “Alone?” he asked in an incredulous tone. I explained I had tried it with my guide. He nodded but still gave me a suspicious side eye.
I didn’t tell him that I had not come back to look for a change in Harar but wanted to find out more about women and qat. Most articles and travel essays I had read after my first visit claimed that women are not allowed to chew, yet this that hadn’t been my experience. My hunch was that this had something to do with the common misconception that Muslim cultures don’t allow women to do much. But I needed to observe more.
Finally the young man’s eyes lit up when I said I had liked qat. He answered by saying that he loves it and with an elated look on his face declared that it makes one see things clearer. I was clearly about to return to the world’s qat capital.
I had forgotten how the atmosphere changes after entering the old town. People walk slower, stop and talk to each other, and instead of just shouting “faranji” after me, many stopped to ask where I was from to make sure I knew I was most welcome. Old-fashioned, small town charm and Muslim hospitality. This wouldn’t happen in a modern city like Addis Ababa. It felt good to be back.
In 2003, UNESCO gave Harar the “City of Peace Prize” for the peaceful co-existence of its ethnic and religious communities. In addition to the numerous mosques and shrines, the walled city has a Catholic and an Ethiopian Orthodox church, which was built on the grounds of the destroyed Grand Mosque when, in 1887, Harar was made part of the Orthodox Christian Ethiopia. Before that it had been an independent kingdom. Some sources credit the peacefulness to the old town’s communal nature and the shared qat-chewing sessions.
While I was enjoying talking to people on my first walk back, I was kicking myself for not having made any preparations. I had long since lost Tamrat’s number and had no plan for how to proceed with my research into women and qat. I had arrived just relying on my good travel karma and on Harari hospitality for something to happen. And something did.
Taking shelter from a bit of rain at the main square, a sweet-smiled young man approached me. He made illegible sounds gesturing that he wanted to show me something while writing “deaf” on his phone and pointing to his chest. I followed him to see the view over the hills surrounding Harar, which lies almost 5,000 feet above sea level. The sun was starting to set but the young man kept leading me further into the old town. I followed, trusting his gentle eyes and the friendly smiles of the people we came across.
Finally he stopped at a door, which led to an inner courtyard of what seemed to be someone’s house. He gestured me to follow. We crossed the big courtyard to a dusty, old antiques shop. It was filled floor to ceiling with curios such as old postcards, tribal jewelry and daggers. A big man was lying on a mat on the floor. I connected instantly with Amir the shop owner who struck me as a jovial hedonist.
Just at that moment, Harar’s many mosques announced it was time to break the fast, as if playing a loud and polyphonic symphony. After knowing me for two minutes, Amir invited me to break the fast with his family. But before that he still had time to say: “I need to move back to Canada. Here I just chew qat 10 hours a day.” Sure enough, right after iftar Amir and his neighbor each whipped out a big bag of the dark green stimulant. I had already felt lucky having been invited to a homemade dinner in a traditional Harari house and then this!
That night and the next, I dined with Amir and his family sitting on the floor and eating from a big, shared plate covered with dark-colored injera, stews, vegetables and salad. Amir’s six- year-old daughter Zeytouna sat glued to me and made sure our hands touched each time we reached for more food.
Both nights, the shared meal was followed by qat chewing with an endless seeming stream of neighbors and friends. Some popped in to say hello, some stayed a while, some stayed to chew. Whether they lingered on or not, most of them showed up with their own bag of qat; a big part of Harari Ramadan celebrations. After sundown, the qat chewing begins right after iftar, to continue until the prayer time and breakfast at dawn. Then much of the Muslim Harar sleeps or naps throughout the day.
Confirming my hunch, several local women came to Amir’s house with their own bags of qat. They seemed surprised but pleased to see a foreign woman partaking in the Ramadan celebration. Amir, his wife and other guests jumped up to show respect to one particularly dignified elderly woman, who seemed to be a community leader. She didn’t stay but was also carrying a big bag of qat on her way to someone else’s house.
Later that night a Somali woman came by and stayed to chew with us. Her loud joking gave away that she had been at it for a while. She was particularly interested in me and at one point started pointing at my breasts. Amir translated that she admired mine. As we were all laughing, she lifted her looser upper garment to reveal a remarkably flat chest and made gestures of four babies having sucked them empty.
Some people didn’t chew, like a gentle elderly man, who came to Amir’s house both nights with his granddaughter. She was a few years younger than Zeytouna and filled with excitement to see her. At first she didn’t notice me because I sat on the highest tier of the pillow-covered concrete seats that lined the living room. After her grandfather pointed at me, she stared with a look of suspicion in her eyes. Slowly I witnessed the suspicion turn into fear and finally she started desperately crying. “She has never seen a faranji before,” Amir explained.
During that night, I sometimes got lost in my own thoughts, lulled by the TV’s broadcast from Mecca and the quiet and even stream of Harari chatting. I tried to analyze the high that slowly arrived after about two hours of chewing: I felt relaxed and stimulated at the same time, at ease and hyper aware. I watched Zeytouna’s grandmother roasting the fresh coffee beans for our coffee. Amir passed a few beans for me to taste and announced, “we have fresh coffee every night.” I could feel the affection for the Harari way of life swell in me.
Later I was wondering how much of that fondness had to do with qat and how much with the community I had so effortlessly been accepted to enter. Most likely the two were inseparable. This is what Amir must have meant when he said, “qat opens doors, as it has for you.”
The next night, I had difficulties finding my way back to Amir’s house. I had left the previous night following Assafa, the deaf young man, and paid no attention to the way. I only knew the general direction and Harar’s old town is notoriously difficult to navigate. I had to call Amir several times on the way. The patient tuk tuk driver stopped by several people I passed my phone to who told Amir where I was. Finally Zeytouna appeared from an alleyway calling my name and running to give me a hug.
“How did you sleep last night?” Amir asked almost immediately. “Pretty well. The beer did the trick I think. ” Amir had advised me to have a beer and luckily I had been able to maneuver one from my hotel’s already closed bar. “Where is your luggage?” was the next
question. I was too lazy to pack and move again though Amir had insisted I moved to his house. He seemed disappointed but then gestured me to rush to eat. The mosques had announced already that it was time to break the fast and the injera and spicy beef stew was getting cold.
That night, a man I had briefly met before stopped by to hand me qat branches like a bouquet of flowers. Amir translated his words: “my qat makes you high.” I thanked him and couldn’t stop laughing. He left immediately after, seemingly satisfied having delivered the gift. Amir’s neighbor took this as competition. He set to quietly separate leaves from his qat branches, which, without me realizing, were meant for me. “These are even stronger,” he declared and handed them to me. He then left to open his meat shop for a few hours to return later.
Apparently qat has many different qualities, which I hadn’t realized on my first visit. The cheaper ones are bitter, will make you wired and give you strange dreams. Amir and his friends, who were store owners from established families, only dappled with the more expensive, smoother qualities. The one I had chewed with Tamrat was obviously cheaper, which is why we also needed the peanuts to cut the bitter taste. At Amir’s we chewed only the smallest and softest leaves. The rest were given to the goats. This is a town where even the goats get high.
Assafa was also again at Amir’s house. He seemed to enjoy his qat and by gestures asked if I liked chewing. My broad smile and thumbs way up cracked him up. Assafa didn’t know sign language but Amir and his neighbors had developed a system of gestures to communicate with him. But of course it wasn’t comprehensive. I was torn between feeling bad for him for not being able to express himself more fully and admiring the community for making the effort.
Soon I found myself again witnessing the hyena feeding ritual. Amir translated that Assafa wanted to take me to see the Hyena Man and his slight nod suggested he thought I should go. I knew it was income for Assafa so I did, though reluctantly. We went somewhere way outside of town, which meant that this wasn’t the original act but a competing new one. The scene was as eerie as before, if not more so because I was the only tourist there.
This Hyena Man made it clear I had no choice but to let the hyenas jump on my back to get their nightly meat. Assafa wanted to take pictures on my phone. When I felt the massive weight of the first animal’s body on my back, to my own surprise I found it exhilarating. Assafa seemed to be chuckling. By the time the second and the third hyena jumped on me, I too was laughing and the pictures Assafa took reveal my huge smile, as if I was now a fan of hyenas.
Back at Amir’s house, Zeytouna showed me her present: she had been busy separating qat leaves from the stems and had prepared two ready-to-be-consumed bundles, one for me and one for her father. I was touched and gave her a kiss to her cheek. Nodding towards her I said, “Daddy’s girl.” Amir was beaming and agreed that she was “his little princess.”
Enjoying Zeytouna’s gift, I thought about her childhood. She had been born in Canada, but Amir and his wife – who also chewed with us but just a few leaves here and there – had moved back to Harar when Amir’s mother had fallen ill. She passed away more than a year ago leaving the house to her son. Amir struggled between the idea of going back to a productive life and enjoying the communal life in Harar. I could see its benefits for Zeytouna: she was growing up as a part of a safe and close-knit community.
But she was also required to help her mother at six years old. Yet she looked happy clearing the dinner table and serving the guests coffee, the next moment playing a game on her dad’s smart phone. At that moment it seemed like an ideal childhood. Was I romanticizing because I was on my second night of chewing qat? Probably. Or maybe it was the warmth of small traditional communities, which usually made me suspicious, that qat helped me see clearer.
I saw no signs of contempt for women chewing qat during my two visits to Harar. But then again it was mostly male travelers who reported that women were not allowed to chew. I wonder how much of that misperception has to do with the traditional Muslim societies’ gender segregation: it’s customary to put a high price on women’s modesty, which can be tarnished by contact with strange men. It’s probably also not considered modest for women to chew in public. But if you’re a foreigner and don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Clearly being a woman opened as many Harar doors for me as qat did, also to spaces hidden from foreign men.
As we said goodbye, Amir warned me: “Don’t trust everybody in Addis like you did here.” “Don’t worry. I know big cities.” Perhaps it was the quality of the qat, or that there was no monetary exchange involved, but I didn’t feel abandoned by our good-byes like I had with Tamrat. Rather I felt nurtured. On the minibus to the airport I kept thinking about qat. Without minimizing its potential dangers, there is something to be said for a stimulant that helps a traveler connect with a community and feel more wholesome as a result: a true travel high.