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Volume 52, Number 2March/April 2001

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A Future in Arabic

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by Lorraine Chittock
Additional reporting by Larry Luxner

Tiny Djibouti, geographic keystone of the Horn of Africa, half the size of the Netherlands, is a cultural palimpsest, where traces of the past show through to the present. Almost three decades of independence as a free port on a busy shipping lane, a century as a French colony, and more than a millennium of Islamic faith today overlie but do not obscure the vastly older folkways of the country's original Afar and Somali peoples.

The recent history of this extremely water-poor nation includes both ethnic tensions and periodic spillovers of nearby wars. Though the truce and power-sharing agreement forged in the early 1990's between the majority Issa, the country's dominant Somali clan, and the less populous Afar people seems to be holding, the presence of some 100,000 non-natives—Yemeni traders, Ethiopian and Somali refugees, European businessmen and, under a defense treaty, 3000 French soldiers—complicate the balance in a nation whose population numbers fewer than 700,000.

Ismail Tani is chief of the presidential cabinet in Djibouti, and an adviser to President Ismail Omar Guelleh. He is also a leading man of letters who has thought much about his country's culture. "Yes, we have different races and traditions here, but Somalis and Afars have much in common," Tani says. "Our poetry, song and dance are very close, except in language. That is the problem now, to find a common language."

French, English, or Arabic? Only French was taught during the years-from 1884 until 1977-that Djibouti was a colony, and educated Djiboutians today are francophone. "But look across our borders," says Tani, speaking in French, "whom can we speak it with? When the soldiers leave, their language will also leave."

At independence, Arabic was introduced in the primary schools, and Djibouti joined the Arab League. English is now taught in high schools but rarely spoken. "Arabic," Tani says, "is the future."

As a distinct territorial entity, Djibouti was almost an afterthought of colonial history. By the late 19th century, the European scramble for Africa had reached the Horn, with the Italians in Eritrea and on the southern Somali coast, the British on the northern coast and across the Bab al-Mandab in Aden, and the French hurrying to catch up. Their prize, although late in coming, was the Gulf of Tadjoura and the land about its desolate coastline.

Until then, the Gulf's two settlements, Tadjoura, and Obock on the north shore, were of minor importance. The larger ports of Massawa (now in Eritrea) and Zeila (in Somalia) north and south of the Bab al-Mandab, the narrow mouth of the Red Sea, had long monopolized trade with Abyssinia. Inland, Afar tribesmen scared off all but the most intrepid from opening alternative land routes.

Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud, poet turned coffee trader, then gun-runner, waited out 12 full months in Tadjoura for a new partner to lead his weapons caravan after his first partner was killed. In letters to his mother, written on his upland march that was to take three times longer than expected, he decried "the horrible landscape here that evokes the imagined terror of the moon."

The French toehold, first gained as a friendship treaty with the chief of Obock in 1862, led to the creation of a French territory in 1884. That grew considerably when the colony moved to the other side of the Gulf in 1888 to the site of present day Djibouti-Ville, in order to ensure both a water supply and to implement the plan to build a railroad to land-locked highland Ethiopia.

The French had a far different view of the benefits of such a railroad than did the Somali clans through whose lands it ran. Proud people who considered walking beside—rather than riding atop—a camel to be demeaning found themselves required to heft the crossties and swing the pickaxes.

Few Somalis have forgotten the episode. Much of the tribal jewelry and weaponry still in use was fashioned from stolen railroad spikes, and Somali bards still recite execration poetry about their pressed labor. For poet Ahmed Aden Ad'Adleh, declaiming today in the shade not far from the Djibouti station, rhymed resentment is as raw as his grandfather's blisters were at the turn of the century:

A man who's never been worked like a coolie,
Nor ordered about by a crew-boss bully,
Now, he's lucky not to be treated so cruelly.

It took 20 years, a company bankruptcy, and the signing of the Anglo-French-Italian Tripartite Treaty before the railroad was completed in 1917. For the following two decades, as Ethiopia's sole legal trade link to the outside, it was the world's most profitable line. In 1930, the train attracted a number of otherwise unlikely literary travelers, who passed through Djibouti en route to Addis Ababa for the coronation of Haile Selassie as emperor of Ethiopia.

One was British writer Evelyn Waugh, who could find no pleasure in Djibouti's "stifling boulevards; the low-spirited young men at the vice-consulate; the familiar rotund Frenchmen, their great arcs of waistline accentuated with cummerbunds; the seedy café clientele."

Ironically, the only hints of the colonial past today are in the shaded arcades around Place du 27 Juin 1977, the square named for the date of Djibouti's independence. African Djibouti begins at Place Muhammad Harbi, a crowded market overlooked by the Humuda mosque's squat, round minaret. Nearby is the bus station, first stop for rural migrants who have flowed cityward in recent years, giving Djibouti a population that is 75 percent urban and making it Africa's only city-state.

The town ends abruptly, as it did when Waugh visited. Five minutes after leaving the train station, he saw only "a country of dust and boulders, utterly devoid of any sign of life." Only the hardy Afar people have succeeded in living in such a moonscape. Their ancestral lands take in the northernmost three-quarters of the country, a terrain varying from the 2000-meter (6400') heights of the Gouda mountains to Lake Assal, which at 157 meters below sea level (502') is the world's third-lowest geographical point.

Also called the Danakil, after a northern subclan, the Afars are a Cushitic people whose language, customs, and warlike reputation mirror those of the Somalis. Separated from their kinsmen by Ethiopian and Eritrean borders, only in Djibouti do Afars make up a large enough part of their nation's population to play a major political role. The colony's name change in 1967 from "French Somaliland" to the "French Territory of the Afars and Issas" reflected this growing clout.

The tribe is an ancient one, and the fact that the earliest known hominid, known as Australopithecus afarensis, should have been found in Afar country (which extends into Ethiopia) is entirely fitting. The name Afar itself is probably derived from Ophir, the land of ivory, apes, and gold mentioned in the Old Testament and ruled by the Queen of Sheba. The Afar tribal structure of clans and subclans is a complex affair. J.S. Trimingham, author of the scholarly reference work Islam in Ethiopia, wrote of their lineages, "no one has yet been able to get the distinctions clear because of their aversion to strangers."

Says Hassan Ali Muhammad, a high-ranking government official and amateur Afar folklorist, "This has always been our home, so we have always been here to greet whatever foreigner landed on our shores. Arabs, Persians, Greeks, French—there have been so many, and all have found it too hot to stay."

Besides animal husbandry and fishing, the Afar economy is based on artisanal salt mining and salt export to the Ethiopian highlands. In Axumite times, pound-weight salt bars, called amoleh, were dug by the Afar from salt flats in the Danakil Depression and served as the empire's basic currency.

Hand methods are still used to mine and export salt from Lake Assal, 100 kilometers (62 mi) west of Djibouti-Ville. Its 60 square kilometers (23 sq mi) of salt flats are 97-percent pure and amount to some two billion tons of salt, with six million tons added annually by evaporation of lake water. Walking into Assal's sunken cirque at midday is like going suddenly colorblind: Just when one thinks the sun cannot drain another shade of color from the dun of the desert or the volcanic ash, the flats make everything—even the lake's bluest of blues—go briefly stark white.

Wilfred Thesiger saw Lake Assal on his way to the coast in 1934. "No where was any sign of life," he wrote in his memoirs. "No shrub nor wisp of vegetation, no bird in the sky, not even a lizard among the rocks." He must not have been there on saltcutting day.

Sun-grizzled Muhammad Qasem rejoices that he must load only one more caravan before he can return to his village to celebrate the end of Ramadan. "God willing, it will go fast, for it is hot, and I want to leave this miserable place for a few weeks," he says.

Qasem has worked here as long as he can remember, and the job, he says, has never been easy, even in winter months. He recalls an Afar proverb—so many of them center on the land's blasting heat!—that seems meant just for him: "As rain falls from morning clouds, so should a man cut salt early in the day." But it is past noon, and Qasem is still at it.

He and his six fellow laborers no longer cut the salt into rectangular bars wrapped individually in doum-palm fronds. The work now is less exacting, if just as tiring. They fill plastic sacks with odd-shaped pieces without fear of breakage. Amoleh is no longer accepted as market money.

Geochemist Ibrahim Hussein hopes to mine more than Lake Assal's salt. He is studying the feasibility of capturing the geothermal energy that bursts from the seams of this geologically active zone. Last August, Geothermal Development Associates, a US company, released a study proposing a 30-megawatt power plant at Lake Assal. The power would meet approximately half of the country's summer requirements, "an important start for an otherwise resource-poor country," Hussein says.

Making this possible is the fact that Earth's crust is exceedingly thin here: Deep beneath Djibouti, movements of molten rock are pulling apart three tectonic plates like a child tearing apart puzzle pieces. In 1978, fresh lava erupted over the five-kilometer (3-mi) strip that separates Lake Assal from the bay at the western end of the Gulf of Tadjoura, known in Afar as ghoubet al-kharab, "navel of the world." At the same time, the distance between the African continent and the Arabian Peninsula widened by 1.25 meters (4').

North and east of Lake Assal, the Gulf of Tadjoura's shore is mostly a torrid zone of tumbled basalt, but inland the Sultan of Tadjoura owns gardens of banana, pepper and orange, all lushly irrigated by streams flowing down from the fogblown forest of Dai. And the 1400-meter (4500') climb up to Dai puts one in a world altogether different from that of the coast. Junipers, eucalyptus and olive trees shelter troops of baboons and grazing herds of cattle. A derelict plantation house recalls the French colonists. Dai's schoolteacher-cum-guide wraps himself in imported wool against the unaccustomed cold and tries to peek through the mist down to his home village of Tadjoura on the coast.

It is a whitewashed fishing settlement of perhaps a thousand people, with seven mosques for the seven clans that fall under the sultan's quasi-independent rule, and it stretches along a shore dotted with oleander and doum palms. Rimbaud was not impressed by Tadjoura after his sojourn of a year. "I am doing well," he wrote in a letter. "As well as can be expected in 130 degrees in the shade. Anyone who says that life is hard should come here to study philosophy."

But Thesiger, who loved hardship, was ecstatic about the place. "For me, it belonged to that authentic Eastern world of which Conrad wrote, a world remote, beautiful, untamed. Its palm-fringed beach and sparkling green and blue sea; the sombre outline of mountains across the bay, dhows at anchor offshore, with dugouts passing to and fro...the sound of a stringed instrument, the throb of a drum, the smells of dried shark's meat, clarified butter, wood smoke and spices."

More than 60 years after Thesiger, the beach still becomes animated as sunset approaches. Boys cry shrilly for buyers of their needlefish and flounder. Men tend to their nets, and women strolling bareheaded reveal some of the Afars' 98 ways of plaiting hair to signify age, marital status and number of children. But outgoing ships are still as scarce as in Rimbaud's day, when he waited a month to post a letter. Communication with Djibouti-Ville is now by an asphalt road financed by Saudi Arabia.

Sultan Abd al-Kader Muhammad, simultaneously juggling a glass of tea and a bottle of mineral water, receives visitors on this Ramadan night in a majlis full of tobacco smoke and petitioners. They have come from all reaches of his 5000-square-kilometer (2000-sq-mi) domain, roughly one quarter of the whole country. Seated beside him are the tribal electors, who install a new sultan upon the death of the old. The throne alternates between the two most important clans, and last changed hands in 1985.

A sultan's enthronement maintains all the old traditions. The twin clay drums, or dinkara , that symbolize his office are buried in the deceased sultan's house and only dug up on the day of the enthronement festivities. They are washed in the sea and a freshly slaughtered calf's skin is stretched to make new drum heads. The drums are beaten. The new sultan wears a turban cloth that belonged to Har el-Mas, the pre-Islamic founder of the clan, and a slow-moving procession steps through the village accompanied by the singing of praises.

"I have no army, for I need no army," says the sultan, gesturing to the aged retinue seated around him. "I rule by words alone." He acts, in fact, as a court of last resort. Only inter-clan cases and final appeals come to his attention, and he acts only after his council has spoken. Personal modesty, largesse from the bounty of his gardens, and consensus are indeed all that undergird his rule over subjects once fabled throughout the world for their ferocity.

The view from the sultan's rooftop sweeps over the Gulf of Tadjoura toward Djibouti harbor. Silhouetted cargo ships are at anchor there. The few dhows that might once have lazed past the hulking liners are in drydock. This busy industrial port no longer has the patience for sailpower. Though Tadjoura is still much what Rimbaud called it— "un petit village avec quelques mosquées et quelques palmiers "—Djibouti's future lies ever more with its ties to the Arab world and, beyond that, to world commerce and banking. Not much longer will it trade only in salt or the currency of an Afar sultan's "words alone."

Filmmaker and writer Louis Werner lives in New York.

Free-lance photographer
Lorraine Chittock lives in Nairobi with her husband, John Dawson. Her most recent book is Cairo Cats; she can be reached at [email protected].

Larry Luxner contributed additional reporting for this article.

This article appeared on pages 18-23 of the March/April 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2001 images.