Prester John and Arthur Rimbaud chewing khat

My wisdom is as scorned as chaos.

What is my nothingness

To the stupor that awaits you?

–A. Rimbaud

In the Middle Ages, when good Christians from Vatican discovered that all their knights had been slaughtered in fanatic Crusades against good Muslims, they had to resort to the world of imagination in order to keep up the spirits of the Western world. This is how Prester John came to existence.

Prester John was Pope’s imaginary pen pal from India. He wrote to the Pope that the Force would be with him on his next epic slaughtering mission, and thus scored a huge fandom among European knights, merchants and travellers. These travellers not only meant Ethiopia when talking about India, but in their accounts of distant lands were almost as accurate as Lonely Planet, mostly writing what they were paid for. One of their favourite fables was about the great Christian Kingdom in India (read: Ethiopia) where Prester John rules over all sorts of mysterious wacky creatures: one-legged sciapods, chest-faced pygmees and magical midgets.

But maybe I just found Pope’s greatest pen pal and Michael Jackson of Middle Ages, Prester John. I found him in the bundle of khat.

My first bundle.
My first bundle.

The green shoots of khat/chat (also called miraa in Kenya and Tanzania) is the favourite and only sustenance of East African truck drivers, cheap partygoers and neversleeping students. The longer you hang out with khat fans, the more you learn: for example, it tastes better with peanuts and lasts longer with a chewing gum. You can mix it with tea and tobacco. You can feed it to your camel and then eat the camel. On the streets of Hargeisa, when you hear nervous honking and sirens behind you, it is not an ambulance hurrying to save someone’s life – it is the daily chat truck, fastest vehicle in the country, bringing joy to the desperate and unemployed.

If you are a faranji sitting on a sidewalk near the market and chewing khat, they will watch you like aTV programme
If you are a faranji sitting on a sidewalk near the market and chewing khat, they will watch you like aTV programme

A fellow CSer Steve and I went to Berbera (Somaliland) for a few days to sneak around narrow fish-smelling streets and enjoy the coastal atmosphere. In the town, we came across an old bakery that apparently has a romantic story behind it: the owner Elmi Bodhari who lived there 100 years ago fell in love with a girl from the building across the street, but her parents fixed her up with another husband, whereupon the baker went on hunger strike and died. One of the dudes hanging out near the bakery decidedly told us that we must pay $20 to take a photo. ’This is the bakery of Elmi Bodhari, we call it the House of Love…’ – here his eyes fell on a bundle of chat I just pulled out of my bag for bribing purposes. – ‘What is THAT?’ His anxiety, fixated eyes and fast-paced breath were apparent symptoms of at least 15-minute khat withdrawal. ‘I love khat,’ said the guy from the House of Love. ‘I chew it in my sleep’.

House of Love
House of Love

‘Khat is evil,’ said Mohammed, the owner of the one and only unofficial Starbucks in Berbera. ‘It doesn’t grow in Somaliland, but Ethiopians keep bringing it here to control the people and use us’.

‘In our culture, when a man wants to propose to a woman, he must bring khat worth 2000 birr (100$) to her family and all the elders,’ proudly was explaining to me a guy in Harar, who just a few hours before that offered me to buy from him a ‘Bob Marley cigarette’.

Famous French poet Arthur Rimbaud made one of the best decisions in his life when he moved to Harar, a city in the East of Ethiopia, escaping from snobbish and posh French society, in order t deal arms and coffee with Yemenis. This decision also eventually led to his death, but let’s be honest – this happens to the best of us. We all must be happy for Rimbaud or jealous of him, because he spent the last years of his life in the surreal kingdom of Prester John instead of eating frogs and getting high in Champs Elysees with Verlaine.

Harar blows off your mind at the very first glance, and the more you stay in the city, the more you sink into the crazy atmosphere of sweaty markets, khat-chewing junkies and dumpster-diving hyenas. This city seems to have landed on Earth from one of songs by The Tiger Lillies.

Due to overflowing unemployment in the country and insane heat 90% of the year, most of the Harari population tries to limit their physical exercises to a rhythmical movement of the jaws masticating green leaves, and occasional turns of the head following another passing-by faranji. One time though, I saw two guys chasing a goat all around the square. The goat had snatched their bucket. A less cynical and more compassionate traveller would probably be heartbroken after just a day in this city, seeing what appears to be desperate poverty and unemployment, endless flocks of begging children and khat junkies in the markets.

But I am a horrible person and not ashamed of stealing candies from kids, splashing ice cream at newborn babies and laughing at disabled people – if they are funny. Especially if I am in the wacky Kingdom of Prester John. I loved Harar.

Khat addiction starts from mother's milk
Khat addiction starts from mother’s milk

In a nearby city of Dire Dawa, I bought a huge bundle of khat and found my way to the local market. I sat on the sidewalk and immediately attracted attention of several dozens of people who came to look at a khat-chewing faranji. The thing is, when you carry khat, you become one of them. You are allowed to take photographs, hang out in the market for hours and have decent conversations, instead of being just a walking ATM.

Khat is illegal in most of Arab and Western countries, as well as in Tanzania – the only state in East Africa to deprive its people of the green leaf. Its effects are somehow similar to caffeine, at least in my case: two handfuls of khat make me love everyone around and smile like an eejiot (or does it have anything to do with khat?). However, most of the locals seem overly fond of it and utterly unable to get on the wagon and go look for a job instead of lying in stupor on top of a pile of green leaves all day long. I cannot say f it is due to khat addictiveness or because these guys simply have nothing else to do.

Harar was full of wacky characters, jus like it is supposed to be in the Kingdom of Prester John. Luckily, I met some travel companions on my first day and ended up exploring the city with them.

One of the most amazing characters you can meet in Harar is Stumpie. I can’t provide a photograph but rest assured: he cannot be passed unnoticed. Indeed, it is hard to miss an amputee that starts running towards you and tries to hit you in the face with his stump. When he caught us off guard on the way to Old Town, we knew instantly that we were at war. Stumpie assumed a threatening position right in the middle of the road and intended not to let us pass. ‘Ok, every man for himself!’ thought each one of us and bravely rushed away from the rest of the group. In Harar, only the fittest survive. I may assure you, dear readers, that I am still alive and in one piece only due to my impeccable selfishness and readiness to abandon my friends in the face of danger.

Another remarkable Harari character that owes its existence to excessive amounts of khat is to be called Greenbeard. We could never get a proper shot of him simply because the camera is afraid of him. The guy’s usually to be found in the Old Town past Shoa Gate, on the ground or standing, his face and beard covered in green saliva and khat residue. Anyway, after a few days in Harar virtually every old bearded man looks like Greenbeard or at least his close cousin, and strictly speaking, I would suggest him as the Face of Ethiopia for next Lonely Planet cover.

Everyone can become a Greenbeard
Everyone can become a Greenbeard

Now there is also the Meridian Man. The weird monument in Feres Magala square has a permanent resident. How many of you can brag about living inside a historical monument? Patient travellers can spend hours and hours in the nearby greasy beer joint, watching Meridian Man’s daily routine. He can often be seen swiping the tiled floor of his home with his jacket, polishing the walls, talking to fellow bajaj drivers or just standing in the middle of the Meridian and yelling prophecies of future disasters.

Hear me, mortals!
Hear me, mortals!

Finally, a guy who became our good buddy is a nameless deaf fellow. You don’t need to look for him, he will find you. At the very first time you might be scared of his gesticulations and incomprehensible humming, but after a few days in Harar he will be your best buddy, always giving you a high five in the street, inviting to hang out with his friends and stopping taxis for your convenience.

I threw away the remaining shoots of my khat bundle and headed back to the guesthouse where a local family allowed me to stay for a minimum price. Uncle Eli lit up a sheesha and accommodated himself on his mattress full of khat and water bottles. He called me in for a smoke and taught me some Harari language. ‘We call you — ‘ – and he said some Harari word starting with M. ‘It means that you are like us, poor but a good person.’ I marvelled that a language might actually have a word for such a complex concept.

For those of you who’re heading to Harar right now after having read all this stuff: the amazing guesthouse is called Eli Guesthouse, it is unmarked but easy to find if you head straight from Harar Gate down through Feres Magala, to the Museum. After the corner where the Coffee Factory is (can’t miss it because of the smell) and just before you reach the Erer Gate there is a dark green wall on the left with a shop and a portal. They never have water shortages (very important in Harar) and can serve you breakfast. Call 0910850423 to ask about prices, dates and how many cats do they have. When I was there, one of the cats had three adorable kittens.

Everyone wants a memorable photo with khat
Everyone wants a memorable photo with khat

Of course, for everyone the highlight of Harar is the hyena thing. Since the beginning of the century local families started feeding hyenas with porridge and meat in order to discourage them to slaughter chickens and small lambs. Until now, the feeding happens every evening at around 7-8pm, to the North from Erer Gate, nearby the slaughterhouse. Guests are welcome to feed the creatures from their mouth or hands. Honestly, it was the best Halloween I ever had.

Feeding hyena from your mouth is one thing everyone must do in their life. Hakuna matata bitches.

0 Comments Add yours

  1. psychanaut says:

    Very nice. My 2nd favorite book of professor Eco’s, after the name of the rose, is Baudolino–it’s all about The search for Prester John. Speaking of which, I just finished The Prague Cemetery, a nice case of historical fiction in which everyone involved was actually real and all the events actually happened, except for the protagonist, whom is conveniently inserted in the middle of propagating a multitude of Zionist conspiracy theories. Great stuff.
    Paul Theroux had some pretty memorable segments on Ethiopia, including hyenas, in Dark Star Safari.
    A guy I know who lived in Yemen said they are also obsessed with khat there, with the additional pleasant feature that the male populace is armed with swords at all times.
    Sorry I didn’t get back to you about recording a song with you, I’d still be up for that if you want.
    Stay safe!

    1. caorarua says:

      I might actually read Theroux in a few months when I finish my dark star safari backwards!
      Baudolino is my No1 tbh, because the character is so full of sh*t it’s just fascinating 🙂
      I’d love to see Yemen in the nearest future and then sail over to Djibouti but it looks like Yemen is pretty screwed right now and all these khat-chewing junkies with swords and guns actually don’t hesitate to use them to chop foreign meat…
      I was just about to write you another email, we’ll discuss the Skype singing then hehe

      1. psychanaut says:

        I started a consulting writing job for math education, am making good progress on my book, and am about to test for my first degree black belt in aikido. Many safe happy travels, it’s be great if we could link up on Skype sometime just to talk, I’d love to hear your voice.

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