Our final adventure in Ethiopia was in the eastern part of the country, in a small walled town called Harar.
Some fun factoids about Harar:
1. Largely Muslim, it is considered the 4th holiest city of Islam.
2. It has been named an UNESCO world-heritage site for living out its mantra of “peace, tolerance, and solidarity in every day life.”
3. It is the birthplace of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia and a heavy influencer in Rastafarian culture.
4. If you’ve ever watched a documentary about the “hyena man” who feeds camel meat to the hyenas outside the city gates after nightfall, this is the place.
5. This also happens to be where our youngest daughter spent her earliest days of life, so it is especially dear to us.
A night at the adare guesthouse
In an effort to dive into the culture as much as possible, we chose to stay inside the walled city, or jugol, in a traditional style home, because hotels are for boring people. Having visited one before, called an adare house, we knew what to expect in terms of style, but we were largely unprepared for the evening that awaited us.
First, a bit about the house:
- It has a flat roof and is insulated to maintain cooler temperatures inside during the hot days.
- The floor is cement, painted bright red to represent the blood shed during the resistance against King Menelik.
- My favorite part is the main living space. Remarkably, there is no furniture. The cement platforms are built at varying levels where people traditionally sit according to their social status. The cement is covered with ornate rugs and pillows, creating a spacious lounging vibe. The walls are busy with hand woven baskets, dishes, pots, pans, art, and a variety of prized possessions.
- A steep staircase takes you up to the second level. Once a food storage area, these days it is often used as an extra bedroom. The kids were psyched to have their own loft!
- Downstairs is a main bedroom as well as a “honeymoon room.” The honeymoon room was traditionally reserved for newlyweds, who would stay in the room for a week together, having food and water passed through a small window. Gotta keep up their strength, I guess. 😉
I could go on and on about the adare houses, but I want to get to the evening at hand.
While I had visions of the kids sprawling out over pillows to watch a movie for the first time in two weeks and me getting in some much-anticipated yoga sessions (the platforms were the perfect size or this), I soon realized the plan for our evening was largely out of my control.
Several things should be mentioned at this point:
- The family who owns the guest house is Muslim, as are most people in Harar.
- Ramadan was still in full swing. This means many things for the Muslim people, but among them is included fasting from dawn until the beginning at sundown.
- I failed to realize that, while the owners of the family-run guesthouse live in other rooms around the courtyard of the compound, the main living space in the house we were staying in is still very much the heartbeat of the home. Read: not our space.
As the sun began to set, the family brought in, slowly by slowly, a large plastic mat to protect the rugs, pot after pot, platters of dishes, and more. We chatted with the brother of the owner, a geophysicist from Addis visiting for the weekend and the first baby to be born in this home!
The owners did their prayers when the call was heard throughout the city. We were still unsure whether we should participate in the breaking of the fast.
We didn’t have to wonder for long. “Come. Eat! Serve yourselves.”
Puffs of steam rose high, as if to announce the savory delights being unveiled with the removal of each lid. Spicy falafel bites, mild-flavored donuts and fresh dates. Steamy rice, cozy lentil soup, and Berbere-infused doro wot waited to be scooped up with fresh Injera. A meal fit for an emperor.
Several friends wandered in, along with two other women staying in the guesthouse. Everyone together, eating slowly, connecting over children and life, laughing, content. Everyone welcome. No one excluded, not even my littles who lined up on their bellies, iPad at the ready, anxious for that long-awaited movie.
“They are fine, let them watch it here,” the geophysicist assured us. “They can play anywhere they want.”
A common sentiment throughout Ethiopia.
After the meal, the men got comfortable and broke out their chat, a chewable leaf popular in this area, which acts as a stimulant, and continued socializing long into the night.
Guys. Can we just stop and consider this scene for a moment?
- Our family of five are American Protestant Christians.
- Our hosts are Harari Sunni Muslims, ranging from nominal to devout.
- I am unsure of the other guests spiritual beliefs.
Yet, here we are, breaking injera together.
There is space for everyone.
There is room to talk about our different beliefs.
There is respect and honor for one another, curiosity even.
There is room for discussion, for listening, for discomfort.
It is apparent here tonight that the overarching value is humanity.
Everyone is worthy of dignity and love, and everyone matters.
I can’t help but think that this is exactly the type of thing Jesus meant for us to do when he told us to love one another.
As I mentioned, Harar is the city of peace, tolerance, and solidarity in everyday life. This is because Muslims and Christians strive (and succeed) to live in this community in harmony. Tonight, that got really real for us and we are HERE FOR IT.
Over the course of the next two days, the guesthouse owners fell in love with our kids and vice versa.
Sweet moment: upon our departure, there were hugs around and Mama Host (I’m sorry, but the intricacies of the Muslim names are beyond my scope of understanding. I can’t pronounce them or remember them and I thank you for accepting my limitations) pulled Nina in tight, with a heartfelt “I love you.”
It was one of those moments that simultaneously made me want to jump up and down with joy and also weep because it was so simple yet so profound.
This dream of an auntie has lavished love on all our kids in ridiculous proportions. She remembered Nina from three years ago, and this time took the other two under her wing without hesitation. What I love about Arafat:
- A pillar of her community, she grabs my kids by the hands and guides them through the tight alleys and mazes of the markets, greeting exactly every third person and commanding everything needed including toilets, fair prices, and special treats. I have no doubt they are safer with her than with me!
- She spent her free time one afternoon making them homemade donuts and sambusas.
- My girls admire her so much they found the exact fabric from her dress at the market and requested to have their own dresses made.
- She is so beautiful, I could die.
- She is so doting, she needs a T-shirt that says, “Children left unattended with Arafat will be given sweets, jewelry, and a kitten.” (All true).
In a world where it’s easy to believe messages that people who are different from us should be feared, I love that my kids are learning a different message entirely. I love that they are getting spoiled with hugs, “I love you’s,” and bottles of soda from their Muslim aunties when I’m not looking. My prayer is that they will take these experiences with them as they grow, undeniably ignorant to any other way than love.
To sum up:
I am pretty sure we could all do a bit better to open our arms, our hearts, and our homes to those who are different from us. Our Lord commands it and we checked it out in Harar and basically, it works.