A Poet’s Dream
The literary allure of Harar Jugol.
Harar — the ancient gated labyrinth also known as Harar Jugol — is a city shaped by insularity and exchange, mysticism and magic, faith and history. For centuries, poets have been drawn here as a transcendent outpost where Islamic scholarship and the fine art of leather bookbinding thrived. Once the seat of the Harar Kingdom, this is also where a fiercely defended hive of commercial trade ushered in rare and essential goods to inland Africa.
Today, wild spotted hyenas walk peaceably through moon-drenched nights down winding alleyways. During the day, this architectural maze of sun-soaked homes disorients and delights the senses. Colorful markets offer fruit, handmade soaps and silver jewelry while tailors line the narrow streets with their sewing machines. The ghosts of kings, saints, explorers and healers live side by side with the roughly 75,000 residents who refer to themselves as Ge’Usu (“people of the city”) and who call Harar Jugol home.
Harar is the fourth most-holy city of Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), founded by Sheikh Aw Abadir and 43 other saints in 940 A.D. Located in the lush green hills of Eastern Ethiopia’s Somal region, the Harar Kingdom built 99 mosques according to the 99 names of God referred to in the Quran. Of those, an estimated 82 remain active today.
When Aw Abadir threw down his turban, the power of its impact is said to have created Mount Hakim, cascading above Harar in the distance. And circling the city is a 4-meter-high, rugged limestone wall built between 1551 and 1558, with five gates that correspond to the five pillars of Islam. For centuries, this wall kept invaders at bay while sustaining a rich culture and a unique language. The language — called Ge’Sinan (or Harari) — is a mix of Amharic, Arabic, Afaan Oromo and Somali that’s only spoken within the city walls.
Those walls completely sealed out the world until 1855, when the British explorer and poet Sir Richard Burton became the first Westerner to enter. One year earlier, he had secretly visited the holy city of Mecca, where he penned a Sufi poem under a pseudonym that detailed his unique spiritual philosophy. Perhaps sensing Harar’s strong mystical pull, he spent 10 days inside the city and declared that even its walls speak a kind of poetry.
Following in Burton’s footsteps, the French “fugitive poet” Arthur Rimbaud arrived in Harar 25 years later, in 1880. He made the old city his home for 11 years as a trader of coffee, arms and incense. Having published A Season in Hell to critical acclaim in 1873, Rimbaud was hailed as the first “modern poet,” adored by surrealists like Andre Breton and French symbolists including Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud’s tumultuous lover. Despite this burgeoning fame, the poet abandoned his decadent life in Europe when he moved to Harar via Aden. Instead, he followed a path of adventure devoid of all ties to his past.
Rimbaud’s years in Africa are somewhat shrouded in mystery, but it is in Harar that he found he could still live as a poet — absorbing the city and its people through his very senses — without ever needing to pick up a pen. Instead, he threw himself into Islamic studies as well as dangerous expeditions through the desert with Harari men and their camel caravans.
Badri Lemai, one of Harar’s best-known modern poets and singers, is a testament to Harar’s timeless inspiration. Badri lives in a traditional Jugol-style home, with its elevated platforms (representing seating hierarchies), fanciful cushions, ornate rugs and floral enamelware trays that hang proudly on the walls.
Surrounded by heaps of books, scattered papers and manuscripts in progress, Badri composes contemporary poetry in English, Amharic and Ge’Sinan. Influenced by international visionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and Kwame Nkurumah, his poems are philosophical gestures, where he asks readers to consider themselves as “giant thinkers in a school of stars.”
Badri credits Harar’s ancient Harla roots as the foundation for much of his existential thinking. His grandmother, also a poet, first taught Badri about the Harla philosophy, a pre-Islamic worldview of people known as agile giants and ruled by boastful kings and wizards. The Harla lived in the Harar region in approximately 1200 A.D. and are now considered one of Ethiopia’s lost civilizations whose energies still permeate Harar, according to Badri.
Poetry in Harar lives inside the laments of Harari folksongs and is woven into the ecstatic praise lyrics heard chanted over the air waves, at local shrines and even as ringtones on local cell phones.
The city boasts more than 100 shrines devoted to saints — those of coffee, skies and rain, those who fix what is broken and return what is lost. There is a saint of night and of day, of honey and of hyenas, even a saint who grants peace to “one who has killed a cat.” Ritual relationships with these saints bind all Hararis to the spiritual realm, charging the city with a heightened sense of awareness of worlds within and beyond the here and now.
Walking through the winding streets of Jugol, it’s hard to resist the pull of poetry in every direction. From wafting frankincense and roasting Arabica coffee beans, to sun-kissed mosques, wailing calls to prayer and candlelit markets, this city unfolds in verse after verse of altered consciousness, lighting a literary match to any poet’s inner fire.