I have long had this adolescent dream of following the stars of my early reading years. To wander between the Red Sea, Tadjourah, Djibouti, Lake Assal, all the way up to the Abyssinian city of Harrar. It was a kind of mystical trip, in the steps of the “man with soles of wind”, looking into the final years of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), the youthful poet whose verses enchanted my school days.
Incredibly talented, Rimbaud wrote marvelous poetry while still in his teens, at a time when he lived a desperate, violent, vicious love affair with another french poet, Paul Verlaine. The cursed pair went to and fro between Paris, Brussels and London, in the grips of a merciless relation which left them both exhausted and drawn. Verlaine went into religion, Rimbaud went to Africa.
Fleeing the unbearable shame of his affair or realizing his writing years were over (he gave up poetry at twenty), he left Europe, deciding to be an adventurer. He landed in Yemen. From there, he crossed the Red Sea to the tiny port of Tadjourah, near Djibouti, and became an obscure trader, overseeing batches of coffee beans, rich Ethiopian perfumes, ivory, even weapons ferried from abroad for the African market. He organized huge and risky caravans, riding across Lake Assal and the desert, up the dried-up mountains, all the way to the lush high plains of Harrar in Ethiopia.
Rimbaud stayed most of his final years in Harrar, an ordinary merchant, sharing his time between his Ethiopian woman, the striving European community, the Muslim culture, the goods he was trading. He never got rich, he never wrote again. Caught up by sickness (he had syphilis) and cancer, he was brought back to France and died there at 37. We know very little about his life in Harrar or by the Red Sea, just a few snapshots (he got a fleeting passion for photography) and the reports of fellow travelers.
Why would such a gifted man leave everything behind ? Why did he stop writing ? What did he find there ? All these questions have haunted my teens, mesmerized as I was by the magic of his poems, fascinated as I am still by the ” traveling itch “… I have always known that I would some day try to follow him there. Writing about Arthur Rimbaud, one of his friends called him the “man with soles of wind”… Is there a more beautiful name for a running away poet, for a man who seeks solace in unending travels ?
I put on my own shoes of wind a couple of years ago, starting my trip in Djibouti. The faded splendor of the city dates from the French presence, when the architecture started to boast with fancy cafes, shady arcades, impressive buildings, tradings with the seemingly endless richness of nearby Yemen and Ethiopia, Abyssinia as they called it then. Set at the entry of the Red Sea, Djibouti is a market town where gather the inland tribes of the Afars and the Issas. Besides the elegant squares left by the French, the narrow alleys are lined with the tiny stalls of crowds of small merchants. Tuesdays are the days when the goodies arrive from Yemen and Asia, colorful fabrics for dresses or head scarves, muted checks or stripes for the futah that men drape around their hips, knicks and knacks for the house, perfumes or incense, fruit, vegetables, meat that the flies covet… Above them, the white mosque resounds five times a day with the muezzin and the prayers. Djibouti is where Europe has met the “Corne de l’Afrique”, the strategic position commanding the access to the Red Sea, the maritime door of Ethiopia. Rimbaud sat at one of these cafes, he drank there with fellow merchants.
Across the bay, after two hours of sailing, Tadjourah is something else. “A small dankali village with a few mosques, some palm trees and a modest fort” wrote Rimbaud. Even nowadays, I find just a row of whitewashed shacks spread along the narrow beach, a small port where everybody waits for the boat, women want to buy some goods, kids climb on the decks to plunge deep in the clear waters, stray goats hoping for some spare grain, men trying to look busy in their characteristic slow motion, shunning the unbearable heat of the stone jetty. The heat in these parts is just oppressive, not regular heat, whether dry or damp. It feels heavy and wet, salty, sticky, like a thick coat on your shoulders.
When you leave Tadjourah by the road, it is like entering another planet. Some place out of this earth, or maybe something of the newly created earth, when nothing alive had yet set foot. It is a landscape of torn rocks, black and grey and red mountains, ripped volcanoes, dark lava, unending winding road where one passes walking shepherds with their camels.
Round a bend, a sudden flash of white announces Lake Assal, a geological wonder, a salted lake (ten times saltier than the sea, even more than the Dead Sea) set at 153 meters below the sea level, the lowest spot of Africa, just on the great African Rift. Between the black mountains and the white banks, the water is a deep electric blue, verging on green or turquoise, creating incredible palettes of colors, diffracting the light, blinding the eyes, drying the skin, immediately coating your feet with white shards. A mere branch left there for a couple of days will become a beautiful white sculpture of crystallized salt.
In the days of Rimbaud, the caravans en route for Harrar used to pass Lake Assal before going inland through the mountains. Later on, the French built a railroad from Djibouti to Addis Abeba, in Ethiopia, via Dire Dawa. I had dreamed of taking this old steam train, but the stations are derelict and abandoned, the rails insecure. I took a plane instead to Dire Dawa on the border, across the naked desert and the slopes leading to the high plains. Then I drove by car to Harrar.
When Rimbaud left Djibouti for Harrar, it was renowned as a holy city of Islam, spread on fertile grounds at an elevation of 1700 meters, an oasis of fresh air after the terrible heat of the low lands. Rich of almost 40,000 inhabitants it was enclosed in thick medieval walls of adobe. One entered the city through one of the five antique doors. Beyond the walls, an incredible crowd of beggars, lepers, street vendors lined the maze of narrow alleys. Arriving by the road, I did not really know what to expect. The outskirts of the city were disappointing, an ugly conglomerate of crumbling buildings along endless dusty roads. Where was the romantic sentinel I was dreaming of ? Then the car stopped in a back street.
I walk to the foot of the huge outside wall. More than three meters thick, it is smooth, faded and curved, as if too many hands had stroked it too many times. Some nineteenth century writer said it was red and flamboyant but it is neither, more like a muted pink blending in the dust of the earth. I go through the door amidst a crowd of donkeys loaded with bunches of fire wood and women in bright dresses. The Ethiopian women have a very special grace, they wear colorful rags like princesses, their long veils floating after them, carrying their load on their heads as if it was a crown. Along the streets, they sit down on the ground and spread their fare on their coat, some fruit or some grain brought back from the fields. Besides them, the children run up and down, trying to get attention, pulling at my shirt, asking for a photo. Their brown snotty faces are eaten away by large liquid eyes, big smiles and cheeky chatter. Flies wander besides their eyes but they don’t seem to mind, just chasing the odd one trying to get too close to their mouth.
Few men are around, most of them gather by the mosques or sit down and talk away in the square. The streets of Harrar are mere alleys, lined with blind adobe walls pierced by heavy wooden doors. Houses are secluded and private behind these walls, a cool patio planted with an odd banana tree or a sycamore, some dark rooms and a clothes line to hang the washing. Here and there, more children amble along, loaded with bright yellow drums. They are getting water from the fountain or from the communal watertruck. Water chore is a noisy and busy affair, everybody queueing for the precious liquid. No running water in the houses, of course.
As I progress along the streets, yet more children flock, wanting to show me the city, one of them repeating “Rimbaud, Rimbaud”, indicating the way to a large house where the poet is supposed to have lived. Not many tourists roam in Harrar, most of them familiar with the Rimbaud legend, so the kids hope for some reward if they can guide the visitor. Some French financed the refection of a big crumbling house, deciding this must be it. It turned out it was not, Rimbaud never lived there, maybe further down the same street or maybe somewhere else. Who knows ?
Anyhow, the house has been done up as in his days, some poem has been painted in the staircase. I read the lines and find them just as beautiful as ever. Looking out of the window across the roofs of Harrar, I can imagine the poet has seen what I see. It will have to do.
The magic is elsewhere, in the dark alleys, just musing from one corner to the next, going along a sad street where lepers are still sitting on the ground, begging for some change, onto a large square where a Copt Orthodox church offers an unexpected contrast with the numerous mosques of the city. Even though Harrar is a holy Muslim place, it counts also a large number of Christian Copts. On Sundays, they gather for mass, women draped in long white veils, proud to show their difference. The Copts consider themselves as the very earliest Christians outside of Palestine. Here they cohabit in peace with the Ethiopian Muslims. According to the tradition, they work on the Christian market, just outside the main city doors. After mass, the men go to sit in the cafe and have a drink as alcohol is allowed for Christians. Meanwhile, the women stay in the square and form a large flock of white drapes floating in the cool breeze. That day, the Muslims stay away, in other parts. Their rhythm is different, commanded by the call of the mosque…
Is this what my man with soles of wind was seeking? Was he looking for that colorful melting pot, for the proud stance of these delicate women, for the feeling of distance it brings to be so far away from home or was he just fleeing without any hope of a return? Who knows? I will not know. The night is falling on Harrar. Outside the city, the hyenas start screaming and sneering, the muezzins throw one last cry. Tomorrow, I’ll go down, back to the sticky warmth of the Red Sea.