Gray Areas


in Archive


Mohammed had a squirrelly look in his eyes, which together with his green-flecked teeth made me wonder whether to trust him. We had met that morning in Jijiga, Ethiopia, and he volunteered to show me — and then devour with me — the bleak town’s one real attraction: qat bushes. Here, near the Somali border, Mohammed cultivated qat and then shipped it all over the world for Horn-of-Africa expatriates who, like him, were utterly addicted to the numbing buzz you get when you chew its leaves for a few hours. They tasted about as bitter as you’d expect a shrub to taste. We were well into our fifth hour of chewing, and the bits of leaf gave his pearlies an emerald cast — the qat equivalent of the grotesque orange teeth one gets after scarfing a whole bag of Cheetos.

Qat induces quiet, vigorous meditation in some and unhinged garrulity in others. Richard Burton chewed qat near Jijiga and observed in the locals “a manner of dreamy enjoyment, which, exaggerated by time and distance, may have given rise to that splendid myth” of the land of the Lotus-eaters in the Odyssey. In me it induced thirst and irritation. We sat in the shade all afternoon, and even in December, the heat had me sweating out fluids as fast as I could drink them. Mohammed and I had already sat talking for longer than I ever hoped to stay in Jijiga. I chewed with him because he knew the immigration officer — the one man in town who could make my trip to Somalia possible, and could prevent me from getting thrown in jail as an illegal immigrant if I tried to return to Ethiopia.

Then as now, Somalia had no real government, although it did have a number of groups that called themselves governments and on occasion even acted like governments. Anarchy reigned in the south after the failed American intervention in the early 1990s. Violence and factional fighting had led to an uneasy balance of terror, with multiple heavily-armed groups bickering over the spoils of a ruined country. Puntland, the middle, had the beginnings of a government. And in the north, where I intended to visit, the “Republic of Somaliland” functioned fairly smoothly — there had been no fighting for years, and the group in charge held elections, opened overseas offices, and even issued visas to tourists like me. No country’s government recognized the visas as legitimate, but I picked one up anyway in Addis Ababa. The man who sold it to me ($30, cash) said no one would check for it at the Somali border, but he advised me to get the Ethiopian immigration officer in Jijiga to affix an exit stamp in my passport, so that if I came back to Ethiopia it wouldn’t look as if I had left illegally.

When Mohammed took me to the office of the groggy immigration officer the next day, the man thumped the stamp into my passport hard enough to make his inkpad jump off the table, and to make me jump a little with it. I felt a sense of irrevocable departure, of being cut loose off the map, officially no longer in a country, and officially unwelcome (I had no return visa for Ethiopia) to turn back even if I wanted to. This feeling was why I was going to Somalia. Before this trip, in travels through dozens of countries, I had presented my documents to consular officers for visas and passport stamps. Somewhere along the way I realized that proffering a passport, and the coy ceremony of the consular officers’ accepting it and returning it with a new stamp, was a form of deference that hadn’t always existed, and might be distorting how I saw the world. Had Richard Burton, when he chewed his qat not much more than a century before, presented his passport to a man behind a glass window?  Did Ulysses get a single-entry visa for Lotus-Land? In Somalia, there would be no consular officer to accept my passport, and no officials at the border to scrutinize me. It was as if I was traveling in time to when borders were just suggestions, and before the rules that govern travel today applied.

I left Mohammed behind — he waved goodbye and, while I was still in sight, turned and walked toward the qat market — and found a truck headed to Hartichek, the border post. After a while, the only structures we passed were shanties made of sticks and old flour sacks, some marked with the letters “UN” and others with the red-white-and-blue insignia of USAID.

From Hartichek, which consisted of barely more than a bus stop on the edge of nowhere, I hitched a lift in a rickety jalopy to the center of Hargeisa, a distance of 50 miles through territory where literally no government existed. By the time we neared Hargeisa, twilight had arrived, and the driver could navigate by the glow of the city lights against the black backdrop of a countryside lit only by campfires. The car deposited me at the Maweel Hotel, a friendly joint that charged a couple dollars a day for a room with a fan.

It was Ramadan. In the interest of not attracting dirty looks, I woke up before dawn to eat two oranges and gulp down all the water I could, so that I wouldn’t have to eat or drink during the day. Hargeisa is in a gentle range of low mountains, and the heat was more bearable than in the Ethiopian flatlands. At a general store run by Indians, I swapped a $100 bill for Somaliland shillings. Each dollar bought me over 5,000 shillings, but since the largest denomination was a 500-shilling note, I walked away with enough bills to strain the stitching of my pockets, plus two fistfuls of cash and a couple of wads under my hat. I wondered at first whether having money literally flapping in the breeze out of my trousers made me a target for thieves, but as I walked down the street and saw others using carts to carry cash, I felt a little less rich, and more like the forlorn backpacker I in fact was.

The hotelkeeper suggested that I make an appearance at the “government” office that controlled the movement of foreigners, and out of curiosity I did so. It was a one-story building with three chairs and a desk. Two chairs belonged to two young men who spoke some English and worked part-time for the government and part-time for Radio Somaliland. They had a stamp of their own, which they said they would press into my passport for a few dollars. I was beginning to think of these handy little things like charms or royal scepters, symbols of authority that mattered only insofar as one allowed them to. It felt good to be in a position of not really needing the stamp, as there was no one around to ask to see it. One of the men twiddled the stamp around in his fingers, as if to tantalize. I was untantalized, till I saw that the stamp used the Somali word for entry — GELID — in big letters. I laughed out loud: “Gelid” was the last word that described that country. I disgorged a fistful of shillings from my pocket (at last, my pants fit again), and prepared to wander around a capital whose government seemed so far to consist entirely of men with rubber stamps.

The city wasn’t much of a city. The markets were lively in the morning, filled with men selling junk in dirt alleys. After noon, once the hunger and thirst of Ramadan arrived, they cleared out to nap till sundown, and the city felt abandoned. I strolled to the center, the only area still active, and visited Hargeisa’s principal monument — a decommissioned fighter jet balanced precariously on a concrete pillar as a memorial to the civil war of the 1980s, when Somaliland started its push for autonomy. Tens of thousands had died in bombing by forces loyal to Somalia’s dictator, Siad Barre. The plane looked precarious and likely to tip over and crush a passerby.

I took a bus up to the airport to check schedules and found it windswept, eerily silent, and nearly abandoned after the departure of the day’s last plane. Drowsy caretakers let me in to see a plaque on the wall that commemorated the facility’s opening in 1954 by the Duke of Gloucester — an event that in the context of Somalia’s bleak disorder seemed remote and absurd. In the ghostly wind, could I hear an echo of the fanfare and posh accents? No, but not for want of trying. Near the plaque was a Somali telecom ad, a painting of a camel with a satellite dish on its back. 

After a few hours of winding though back streets, a muezzin announced the evening prayer, which in a town of daytime fasting was as good as a dinner bell. I found a restaurant where patrons gathered around a television that picked up a snowy Al Jazeera signal, and I ate spaghetti splashed with a spicy goat stew. The Somalis had picked up a love of pasta from their Italian colonizers, but they were sensible enough not to adopt the custom of using a knife and fork. We ate with our hands, an experience all pasta lovers should try. (Tip: Order al dente.)

Back at the hotel that night, I found a short Frenchman at the front desk. He was a Basque, 40, and dressed in a dust-caked, billowy white shirt that made him look like a homeless Luke Skywalker. Jean-Marc Sein told me that he took a year off work every three years and traveled around Africa. He looked grizzled, like someone who had spent months in the sun, on the backs of trucks on roads dustier than mine; the grit was tattooed into his face. He had the thousand-yard stare of a traveler who had spent years seeking something, and who could not possibly be satisfied with normal places or normal jobs. But when I asked him what he did for a living in Bidart, in the French Basque region, he said, “Systems analyst.” 

Jean-Marc and I spent another day in Hargeisa before heading to Berbera, Somaliland’s chief port. Along the way, we stopped for tea — Ramadan’s rules for fasting permit moderate consumption on journeys — and talked about what had driven us to Somaliland. I had my Burton. He had Arthur Rimbaud (who spent time running guns and trading coffee in Harar, Ethiopia, and Aden, across the Gulf from Berbera), but also a more pressing and modern desire: the wish for a national homeland. He hoped for a Basque state in his lifetime. Coming to Somaliland, where a population was establishing its own state through sheer force of will, was a voyage of inspiration. Here was a stateless people who had made good. From then on, I looked at every building and every Somaliland citizen through his eyes, wondering what allowed this country to stand up through war and misery, and finally to have achieved something halfway to independence. Surely whatever Somaliland had, the Basques could have as well?  That thousand-yard stare now had the look of confusion, and maybe also of pain.

In Berbera, we shared a room in a grubby hotel uphill from the waterfront, near a neighborhood of older buildings that still showed traces of Berbera’s two centuries of Ottoman rule, ending in Burton’s time. It was Eid al-Fitr, the final day of Ramadan, and most of the city was sleeping through the swelter in preparation for a feast that night. The seaside was beautiful, ruined only by the awful soupy humidity, which made the atmosphere feel hot enough to boil me alive and thick enough to let me swim through the air, over the harbor, and up to my second-story hotel room and its glorious old ceiling fan.

Rusted hulks of freighters lay far to the west. No one was out, not even fishermen, and when I let the water lap my ankles I found out why — it had the gooey consistency of warm spit. But it was one of the prettiest beaches I had ever seen, made prettier by the knowledge that I was there at the dispensation of no one in particular. I could stay, I could go: It was a form of travel-as-trespassing, with a vague thrill of transgression, a feeling that countless interactions with consular bureaucrats in embassies around the world had made me fear I missed experiencing by a century or two. I savored a sweet moment of reverie, then returned to Earth when I realized I would kill a man for a glass of lemonade. 

Back in the town center, a Somali spotted me and (with typical Muslim hospitality) invited me to dinner at a restaurant in town with him at sundown. I brought along Jean-Marc, and the Somali brought a small boy, the youngest of his five sons. Jean-Marc and I ate pasta with fish — a surprisingly rare commodity for a seaside town — and he snacked on dried dates, goat-sauce spaghetti, and qat. The boy hid behind his father’s bench, peering through the slats, for much of the meal. We were, said the man, the first white people he had seen. “He will go back to his brothers and say, ‘I have seen something very interesting today!'”  

Jean-Marc interrogated the man lightly about his government — how it had managed to rise to an impressive level of legitimacy despite near-universal discouragement from Somaliland’s neighbors. The Arab League looked unkindly at Somaliland’s insistence on independence, and the warring clans to the south would surely rise up to retake the north if ever they banded together. But the man waved off the concern, and said his country was safe, and that it didn’t need recognition anyway. “Look around,” he said. “We have what we need.” He held up a handful of spaghetti as if it were threads of gold, then ate it with sloppy gusto. “If they come back,” he said, referring to the groups in the south, “we will defeat them again.” At this Jean-Marc looked dejected, perhaps imagining the French Air Force pounding his Basque village of Bidart the way Siad Barre’s planes had pounded Hargeisa. Somaliland existed because of violence and the threat of more violence. This was a price of independence.

I never saw or communicated with Jean-Marc again, but I know he continued to travel in Africa — a strange choice for a person who loved his home as much as he said he did. Perhaps it was a natural, frustrated response for someone whose homeland was doomed to remain split in two, its independence stymied and its destiny unfulfilled. In any case, independence was a destiny Jean-Marc never lived to see. I wrote to a Basque newsletter in Bidart, which reported with regret that he had died of malaria in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina-Faso, in 2006. • 2 May 2008