Hyenas and cities do not mix. Addis Ababa has some experience with this: An estimated 300 to 1,000 of the foul pack hunters and scavengers live in the Ethiopian capital, culling the feral dog and cat population but also at times victimizing the homeless who live there.
That is what makes the Ethiopian city of Harar, in eastern Ethiopia, such an oddity. In Harar, the hyenas have been fed outside the city walls for centuries. The practice started with Sufi Muslims, who fed them leftover meat to mark an important Muslim holiday. Even as the practice has evolved into more of a tourist ritual, hyenas still play an important role in the mythology of the town’s beleaguered Sufi community. I wanted to see them for myself.
Hennok takes me to where a narrow alley opens onto a small field. There I meet Solomon, a local butcher, propped up on a piece of cardboard. He has a basket of meat scraps in one hand and a weak flashlight in the other. In the cool mountain air his flashlight pans the small field, and sets of ominous eyes glow back. A cackle of at least 20 hyenas sits up and stares in our direction. The animals slowly begin approaching. The flashlight signals a free meal is to be had. Solomon says he uses beef scraps from a Christian butcher shop. The only other hyena feeding site in Harar is run by Yussef, a Muslim who feeds hyenas camel scraps, but Christians don’t eat camels, Solomon tells me, for religious reasons.
Solomon tosses meat to encourage the beasts to draw closer. I join him on the cardboard, snapping photos as he and his friend hold out pieces of raw beef on sticks. Hennok assures me that “these hyenas are smart animals” and that they would not bite the hand that feeds them. Soon, with some encouragement from Hennok, I have a skewer clenched between my teeth and am face to face with Africa’s second-largest predator. After feeding a hyena or two in this manner, I suddenly feel a hyena’s paws on my shoulders. Startled, I move to stand, and the animal bolts into the darkness. The Ethiopians laugh at my shock. They held a skewer of meat over my head, and the hyena used my shoulders like a stool to get it. “This one is a new trick,” says Solomon with a broad grin.
The city was founded by Arab immigrants in the 11th century. Thus the people of Harar have long considered themselves linguistically and ethnically distinct from both the Oromo people (Harar is in Oromia) as well as Amharic-speaking Ethiopians. The city soon grew to be an important nexus for the trade of two stimulants: qat and coffee. Centuries later, the British explorer Richard Francis Burton claimed to be the first Westerner to breach its walls, in the mid-1800s, by posing as a Muslim scholar. “The coffee of Harar is too well known in the markets of Europe to require description,” he wrote.
The French poet Arthur Rimbaud lived in Harar from 1880 to 1891. He worked in Harar as a coffee trader and gun runner, witness to an era in which several competing powers traded control over Harar. In 1887, Harar fell to the Ethiopians, who attacked the city to thwart Ottoman-Egyptian expansion in the region. In the 20th century, Harar again became a center of intrigue. It was bombed and occupied by Mussolini, and then communist Czechoslovakia built the town a brewery (with nonalcoholic malt also on tap for Muslims).
To help visitors get a better understanding of the area’s history, Abdullahi Ali Sherif opened a small museum filled with artifacts he collected that were related to the town’s history. The museum includes everything from antique Qurans to a plastic statue of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa brought back by an expatriate worker.
I found Sherif sitting behind his museum on a mat, enjoying a midday qat chew, piles of green leaves at his feet. (Qat, a mild narcotic, is legal in Ethiopia.) We discuss his museum and efforts to save Harar’s artifacts and culture. When I ask him for his opinion on the greatest threat to Harar’s way of life, I expect to hear gripes about disinterested bureaucrats. He doesn’t hesitate: “Wahhabi,” he says. “Hararis have gone to the Gulf and become radicalized. They control three of the 87 mosques inside the Old City. They are against our traditional Islam. This place has a certain harmony, but with them, there might be trouble.” He worries about the numbers of extremists. Hararis often use Wahhabi as a term of opprobrium for a host of new Islamic groups that have little more in common than their distaste for Harari’s Sufis. Yet his fears seem justified, given that in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere, extremist groups have destroyed the shrines—and more—of Sufis, whom Wahhabis view not as fellow Muslims but as apostates.
The morning after the hyena feeding, Hennok leads me to the Tomb of Sheik Abadir Umar ar-Rida, the founding saint of Harar’s Sufis. For centuries, Harari Sufis have been ritually feeding hyenas on Ashura, a Muslim holiday.
Feeding hyenas has always served a practical purpose as well, he says. Highly territorial, hyenas outside Harar defend their territory from other cackles, helping reduce the risk that the animals will attack humans.
The head of the shrine is wearing a bright green turban and blue robes when I visit. He has a neat silver beard, and one of his eyes is glazed over by a cataract. He introduces himself as Mohammed. As I interview him in broken Arabic, he delicately chooses choice leaves from a neat pile of qat at his feet. Also present are half a dozen of his devotees, including a young boy with a Qatar Airways eye mask sleeping in one corner.
Leaving the shrine, I encounter a group of youths walking around the edge of the Old City in their fresh school uniforms. Rashid, 17, impresses his friends by talking to me in English. A few schoolgirls giggle as we chat. When I say I just visited the Abadir shrine, he gives an embarrassed look. “The sheik there, his head is gone from chewing qat. You know qat? We need to remember the real Islam, not this stuff.” Rashid tells me his father is working in an Arab Gulf state. Roughly 50 percent of urban men age 15 to 30 are unemployed in Ethiopia. Many young men hope to go overseas for work in Europe or the Gulf, often paying exorbitant fees to recruiting companies or smugglers.
Harar, once a center for international trade, is now a nexus of these competing ideas. At a small informal bookstore near Harar’s bus depot, the shelves are lined with unregistered SIM cards and Islamic books. The stall also includes Islamic texts ranging from ones by Harun Yahya, a Turkish Islamic creationist, to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an inflammatory Egyptian preacher who lives in Qatar. Elsewhere in the city one finds Western brands for sale, and in a traditional cafe I find a group of students huddled around a Filipino teacher tutoring them in English. In 2011 the state-owned Harar Brewery became a subsidiary of Heineken International, which purchased the company for $78 million, promising to offer more jobs.
In the 1990s, Harar was awarded a UNESCO prize as a City of Peace because so many different ethnic groups lived there harmoniously.
I couldn’t help wondering as I fed the hyenas, though, “What happens when the meat runs out?” Christians and Sufis and other Muslims lived perfectly well together in the old, fat days of Harar. But with the economy today flatlining and with hope for jobs and a better life getting dimmer, it seems that peaceful coexistence, whether between Wahhabi and Sufi or man and hyena, becomes even more unlikely.
A version of this article was originally published on Roads & Kingdoms on Oct. 20, 2014.