9/02/2011

Harissa



Word of our arrival in Harissa spread fast. A small group of men met us at the oasis within an hour of stumbling in from the desert. Among them was Gura, right-hand man of Azim Ali, Harissa's chief. Intent on staying in Harissa, we decided to invite the group to share newly purified water and berbery pasta under shade of acacias and date palms. Go'obo helped explain the purpose of our trip, using Thesiger's Danakil Diary as a prop. Mohammed and Thoreau joined them in leafing awkwardly through the book. All were fascinated by the old photos of their ancestors. Thoreau even claimed to recognize one, a silhouetted figure from the 1930s.

With our old red-eyed man acting as arbitrator, we arranged to meet with Azim Ali the next morning. He was supposedly upset that no one had given him any warning of our arrival, thrusting on him the responsibility of hosting two ferengis. We camped that night between a pair of stone huts on the outskirts of the village. Go'obo seemed uneasy about the prospect of staying in Harissa.

Early the next morning I wandered into the village to buy dates from Gura. He led me into a giant stone hut stacked with burlap sacks of dates from the oasis. I took an entire bag for 150 birr. He indicated that I could return the sack when finished, a good sign that he and Ali had already talked, and would likely allow us to stay.

The clansmen's gathering that morning lasted an hour. All sat on their haunches in a wide circle, drawing figures in the sand. Azim Ali sat forward, almost in the center, balanced on a small rock and his long staff. Tall and with chiseled arms, piercing eyes and a taut, angular face, Ali had the look of a strong leader. Old red eyes began the talking, speaking slowly but with dramatic intonation, slumped in a corner of the circle, still recovering from the long trek around Dema Ali. Next went Muhammed and Thoreau, both by coincidence members of Gura's clan, and finally Gura and Ali took the stage. They weren't satisfied with our offerings of berbery and lentils, saying that they'd be responsible for our protection, no small task, as long as we stayed in Harissa. They wanted money. By the time we reached an agreement everyone had long ago finished their drawings in the sand, some had moved onto pebble tossing and others were dozing off, heads hung over knees. 300 birr ($18) was agreed upon for an indefinite stay in Harissa. Ali and Gura would invite us to take photos and video each morning. We celebrated in Gura's ari with four cups of coffee and warm, freshly-squirted milk.

It quickly dawned on us that life in Harissa would be slow. Our pastimes became fishing at the oasis, morning visits with Ali, Gura and their women, and chat. Our first afternoon as official guests in town was spent crammed into the chat house, all stuffing heaps of the bitter leaves into our mouths and chewing patiently. When it comes to chat, patience is certainly required. Back at the oasis, our fishing adventures always ended in failure, despite that giant catfish were everywhere. David and Go'obo sat on the banks for hours, spitting dates for bait and holding their knives ready, while I worked on my knife-throwing skills, perching on a branch over the water. Desperate, Go'obo tried building a fish-trap, what looked like a little tent out of some sticks and clothes, hoping in vain to lure a catfish inside. Every few minutes of sitting in the heat the idea of splashing in the water sounded new and amazing once again. Every hour or so an Afar crew would pass through quietly, seemingly aware of our deal with Azim Ali. Most gave hard, long stares as they waded through the water with their camels. Once it was a lone little boy with an odd tuft of hair sticking up just over his forehead. He sat watching us for a long while, perched on a rock with his small black kettle hung over a little staff. When a sudden sandstorm gathered in the desert to the west, our little friend led us back to Harissa and disappeared again.

Daily visits to the village core were highlights of our stay. Crouching in the darkness of portable aris, Ali explained the purpose of all the handmade utensils hung from the roofs above, from four-legged gourds to small leather cases of camel fat cream, great for rubbing on the skin. We checked out the scarred faces and sharpened teeth of the village kids as they shared giant bowls of milk, and joined Ali's women scraping gambo out of earthen ovens or braiding their hair for Eid. Thoreau did mine. One morning I joined the cattle on a walk towards lake Abhebad in exchange for giving medical advice for the cowherd's swollen red eyes. As usual, it was the kids that took to us the most. Towards the end of our stay they began visiting our camp, performing songs and dances and begging to see themselves on our camera screens. And no wonder: there was nothing to do in Harissa.

When there wasn't any chat, Gura and Ali were nearly as bored as us, wandering into our camp several times a day just to sit, eat dates and catch up on village events, which were mostly to do with eating dates. Dates soon became our number one pastime. We quickly invented a flurry of exciting new games, from the spit-the-dates-into-the-cup to make-the-world's-biggest-seedless-date-ball. Old classics like hit-the-stone-off-the-fence also came in handy. Sometimes the heat reached 60°C in the middle of the day, zapping all energy and forcing us inside the stone hut, where we'd eat hundreds more dates without the pretense of any game. Like an afternoon chewing chat, the minutes, hours and days in Harissa started to blend into one uncountable heap. I began to look forward to the task of purifying water. When Muhammed had smoked all the Business Royals, he resorted to reading David's Portable Thoreau, holding it upside down and staring in wonder at the strange barcode. Go'obo once even suggested calling the helicopter to come save us. Only on the afternoon before Eid, a day I feared would never come, was the boredom interrupted.



Issas (Somalis) had been spotted just across the Awash to the south. Suddenly all the village men took off in a sprint with their guns, headed towards the oasis. Some ran with only their staffs and curved knives. We were told to stay behind with the children and women, the latter ululating wildly, cheering on their men with piercing war cries. They seemed excited. David and I purified some more water.

Keeping our eyes on the oasis, we spotted Muhammed first, returning along with two black-clad boys, one with a big rifle slung over his shoulder and a finger-length gille. Muhammed's gait was as light-hearted as ever, a carefree spring in his little legs and his long, curled hair bouncing with each step. He was laughing. We soon learned that the skirmish had ended with three Issas and one Afar killed. Everyone seemed pretty content about the outcome.

Unlike every other night, there was no rain the night before Eid, and no wind. We sweated to sleep in our tents to the familiar sound of hyena calls, anxious for the big day.

One the morning of Eid, Harissa put on it's Sunday best: button up shirts, colorful sawrandas or skirts, bright green and purple plastic sandals and guns over shoulders. All walked in a solemn procession to Big Harissa, a few kilometers to the south by the outlet of the Awash, not far from yesterday's skirmish with the Issa. Instead of an actual mosque, our destination was a knee-high circle of black stones, divided into two halves for men and women. As in any church service, a small eager crew crowded to the front while most showed up late and stayed towards the back. The Quran was read purely phonetically as all tried to ignore the crying naked baby under a nearby acacia. Most looked bored, maybe hungry, and even though most hadn't actually fasted a single meal the last month, all seemed excited about the end of Ramadan. Following the service everyone filed out of the stone circle, then woke up to socialize and exchange daggu before heading back to their villages.

We bought our Eid goat from Gura. Thoreau cut its throat with my knife while David held its legs, then Muhammad strung its corpse from a beam in our stone hut. He and Thoreau then started the task of separating the meat from bone, holding their gilles between their teeth while sawing strips of flesh into manageable chunks. They made use of each organ and all of our zip-lock bags to store them. Blood was splattered across the dirt floor of the hut. I stepped outside to call Denmark on the satellite phone as it was Joanna's birthday. She asked about buying us Fleet Foxes tickets for November, reminding me for a moment just how far removed Harissa was from our world, one that I now appreciated on a new level. Stepping back into Camp Harissa, I scared off a dog trying to escape with the goat's head.

Late that afternoon we made a final trip to our beloved oasis, taking a last bath and soaking up the wild remoteness of the place. David and I agreed that while having been well worth the trip, Harissa could never be our home. We could sport our own sawrandas but neither of us would ever approach the life of the Afar. I was already starting to lose my taste for dates. Back at the camp, a troop of boys from the village showed up after dark for some spectacular singing, jumping and clapping. We later joined the half the village in singing and dancing outside the thorn-fence compound, all nearly invisible under the new moon. While the celebration had a bit more to do with Eid, we considered it our farewell party. The next morning would begin the trek to Hadola and onwards to Afambo.















4 comments:

Explorer Mikael Strandberg said...

Fantastic job on all levels again, Joey! Well done!

Kalen said...

Is it just me or are Ethiopian people unusually attractive?

Anthon Jackson said...

Thanks, Mikael. And I agree, Kalen. They're not a bad-looking lot.

Kristen said...

I want to do my hair like the girl in the second to the top photo. You didn't happen to go over her styling techniques while you were traveling with them did you?