The Man Who Slept Through Heaven
The young Dutchman, Gerard, explained that he had been misinformed and so took the wrong bus from Addis Ababa for the Afhat Seman to see the Coptic Church mosaics. The only solution now was to take a morning bus at the north end of town for Begemdir and Semun.
"So you were told in Addis Ababa about a morning bus. Typical of those people, to tell you only part. What they did not tell you is about the Nefas, the winds that bring on the fevers. They blow through this town in the mornings sometimes. This summer is their season. The bus does not come at all if there is a warning of the winds. Nobody can know until shortly after sunrise. If horizon is without the blue clouds and if the flies have not come by six am, probably it will be a safe and windless day. Then word will spread that the buses can come here to Harar. Yes I do speak good English. I learned in London. Four years at a school in London. So in the summer here, the mornings are uncertain. The evenings, I mean, the late evenings, the mosquitoes come up from the marshes at Dal Es Khardosi and it is impossible to be outside. So the truth is that the only good time of day is the afternoon. The air is still and clear. No flies or mosquitoes. Itís the only peaceful time and so we call it the time of peace, a time for enjoying or for meditation, whatever you like. 'Semayat', the time of heaven. Yes, of course, I have a room for you. There is a fan. Turn it off if the winds come, and close the shutters. Take the room for one night, and we can see in the morning the chances of the Fenas. You are fortunate to have arrived so early in the morning. The rooms fill up by noon when people want to be settled before they go out for the Semayat, to walk the streets and enjoy the calm. We can talk money in the morning. Go rest, there are some hours before the 'Semayat'."
Gerard put his one bag in the room and walked out to the public square. The streets were empty; only a few people were shopping in the market. The men were tall and thin beneath their robes and the women were in white garments covered with blankets. He had been surprised how few people were generally visible on the streets in Ethiopia. Even the capitol Addis Ababa was, it seemed, a place without vitality, desolate, bereft of the busyness he had experienced in most other countries. when he was offered a cheap ticket in Cairo to fly to Ethiopia, Gerard had decided to visit some sites he had read about. He wasnít prepared for such poverty and barrenness.
After he had eaten in the market, sitting by the edge of the townís only fountain, he grew drowsy in the heat. There was no sound but the olive trees rubbing together and the splashing of water into the fountain at the center of the market. Herar seemed to be a town of stillness, of waiting. The meal lying heavily in his stomach, he turned out of the market to the long empty street lined with one-story mud buildings with corrugated tin roofs. The town did not seem friendly, but that didn't bother him, it was just a stopover place on the way to see some ruins, though even the mosaics, at this sleepy point in the morning, no longer seemed important. He made up his mind to accept the fact he had lost a day of travel; he would wait out his time in a town in which there was nothing to see or do, no surprises at all.
At the end of the main street, he came to a marsh full of sounds that, after awhile, he identified as the voices of thousands of frogs. Perhaps, he thought, the frogs eat the mosquitoes. The light, now that he could see it upon the flat landscape, moved in a strange way, slightly up towards the clouds and down towards the horizon and sideways as well, but never appeared to change its position. Did this peculiarity forecast the coming of the winds? No, the hotel owner, he remembered, had said that they would not come today.
In the next moment he turned onto another street on his way back to the hotel. In front of every building were horrible foul heaps of garbage, festering piles of rancid matter, debris mixed with scraps of food. The air was heavy with the smell of rotten fruit and olive oil and sun-baked excrement. Gerard covered his face until the stench was left behind. He rounded the edge of town along a crumbling wall, and through a large rift in the wall he saw the blank endlessness of flatlands, broken at certain spots by the warping of heat waves.Not losing recall of the location of the hotel, he explored another street with a few palms and more heaps of garbage lying by the sides of houses. An occasional robed man passed and mumbled a brief greeting.
Nearby a thickly-built man emerged from his mud house and shouted out something to Gerard. The man, whose entire body was covered with blankets, called him over to talk.
"I said 'Dasudayet', but you would not understand. It is a dialect of Amharic. At a distance I thought you were Ethiopian. Iím sorry. I called out to you hoping that you could do something for me--I could tell that you were not from here and probably you were a Christian and you would not be offended to be asked this favor. Please carry these containers of waste over to that pile across the street. Do you see it? Ah yes. You see, I am a Moslem and cannot touch unclean things so close to prayer, the time of worship at the mosque. You understand, please. We are mostly all Moslems in this town, but I lived among Christians years ago in Asman. Please, only a minute, please. The Dutchman bent down and picked up two buckets of garbage,not very heavy but putrid, and carried them across the street and deposited them into a larger mound of waste and returned to the man whose face peeked out smiling from under his garments and wrappings.
"You are very kind. What are you doing in this town so remote? Are you going to see the Coptic mosaics? Very interesting! You should also see the famous obelisk near Axum, the ancient capital. Then you catch the bus for Labbela tomorrow."
Gerard interjected that he would catch the morning bus if the Nefas didnít blow through town tomorrow. He added that he had understood the bus to take was the one that went to Gonder.
"And who was it that gave you this information? Ah yes, the hotel owner. I know him. He neglected to tell you that going a few miles further to Labbela would save you hours of walking. And the heat at the time you arrive will be terrible. 'Nefas', who taught you this word? Oh this same man. I am surprised that he, being Eritrean, used this word."
Gerard said he understood the hotel owner was not Eritrean. The hotelkeeper, he said, had taught him another word and that was "Semayat", which in English meant heaven.
"Again he told you only half the truth. The full term for this time of peacefulness is Mengiste Semayat, meaning the government of the heavens. That is, how do you say, yes, literally what it means. These people are always omitting something,a word or a fact. Once I spoke to him on the subject of the Holy Koran and do you know that he omitted five prayers from his Ramadan services? And the rules of purity, he only acknowledges ten. You canít talk to these people. Really you canít. But I am keeping you. I thank you kindly for your service. You should go and rest before the 'Mengiste Semayat' -- donít forget the 'Megiste' part. That is the principal that governs the degree of peacefulness. It is so much to explain and for you to understand. So my friend, 'Enshala', and know that I thank you and Allah thanks you and the scavengers thank you."
The Dutchman waited for the man to stop speaking; it seemed pointless to do anything but simply listen to these men. At last, the man bowed and said "Salaam Allekum". His words had ended.
The sun was very hot. Gerard covered his head with the scarf he had learned to carry in Africa against the late morning sun. Heading towards his hotel he thought that heaven should be a cooler place and wondered what could possibly change the blazing sun and how would these putrid odors of garbage heaps be eliminated and perhaps transformed into what he imagined heaven would allow--jasmine or lilac or roses? It would take a radical change, perhaps a miracle, to create a contrast that could be thought of in such lofty and ethereal terms. Heaven, he thought, might be for him, at this point, a soft bed under a ceiling fan in his hotel room. In this advancing heat he nearly dozed while walking the streets. He closed his eyes against the mounds of refuse outside the market gates, the heap of bones and inner organs rotting in front of the butcherís stall, the sun-baked rinds and blemished peels from tossed-out fruit piled against the market gate.
At the hotel Gerard got his key from the floor sweeper. As he climbed the stairs, the sweeper called out to him in one of the Ethiopian languages, "Ibakih, sir," then smiled and pointed to the old clock above the hotel desk and said, ďFellagalio, hulet.Ē The man raised two fingers in the air, and, again pointing to the clock, drew a circle in the air twice, saying "Semayat."
Gerard understood; it meant that in two hours it would be'Semayat' the time of day the inhabitants of Harar called Heaven. In his room the bed was not soft but it was, however, a bed and, for an instant, Gerardís imagination succumbed to a half-defined feeling that he could sleep for a lifetime, or at least until the end of Ramadan next month. So when he awoke many hours later, stupefied as if lingering behind a curtain of wonder, he imagined this was precisely what had happened. In the next instant he arose, his head clearer, to gaze directly at the sky. It was reddening into the glow of twilight. He had slept through heaven. As Gerard looked at the vanishing sun, a vague feeling of disappointment came over him, a sudden sadness as if he felt himself deprived of a phenomena, a prized and collective experience, shared by the townspeople that, now having been missed, made him separate.
The realization gave him an abrupt and frightened sense of hurry. He rushed out of his room and down the hotel steps. He wanted to be outside under the sky to catch any last glimmer of that revered time of day about which there had been so much talk.The floor sweeper saw him rushing towards the door and shouted out in alarm akind of warning, ďNo, no Sir.Ē And a woman who he had seen in the kitchen also warned him, waving her arms yelling, "No, donít leave, not time to go. Not now, sir, not time!"
Gerard bolted through the front door and went out into the fading light and empty streets. He retraced the route he'd taken earlier in the day; passing under several arches, turning onto a dirt street, then turning again he could see the gates of the market, and the foulness of air pierced his nostrils. A strange sound, high pitched, whimpering, could be heard coming from the direction of the market.
He continued walking. Again the sound, this time a rattle--or was it a groan or grumbling? And now the noisecame from the opposite direction down another street. The rancid odorsincreased, so he knew he was near the garbage heaps. The noise subsided, left him amazed at the complete emptiness of the streets. Nobody stirred; doors of houses appeared to be bolted, shutters latched. The streets were completely silent until again he heard a strange sound. It certainly wasnít the chorus of frogs he had heard earlier. It was much louder than the drone of insects. There was a pause, and then, as if the town had waited for him to get settled into walking more comfortably, the winds returned with a succession of loud and shrill sounds, rhythmic, fluttering like laughter.
At the very edge of the marke't darkness, he was able to make out a shape, a hunch-backed hideous shape. A hyena. Its eyes glittered feverishly. Its enormous jaws were grinding into a heap of garbage, ravenous teeth and tongue dripping saliva. Seeing Gerard, its ears went back; it whirled around to get a closer look. Gerard froze at the sight then began walking backwards, one slow step after another. Behind him came that high scream, he lurched, turned around and staggered at the sight of another hyena devouring refuse, only some feet away from him. Its stiff erect nostrils were red with blood; its speckled, heaving hide shone in the last glimmers of sun. Gerard eased away and then stood still, trembling as if a fever were upon him. He kept his eyes on both hideous beasts, that seemed were so absorbed in eating he could slip away down a side street. The wind had picked up in the half-dark; ahead he could just make out a distant movement. A cloud of mosquitoes, he thought, but at his feet hyena tracks were plain enough, stretching through the dust and dirt clods.
Just as he was about to break into a run for the hotel, a shadow cut across in front of him. The movement he had seen was the dark hides of two more hyenas approaching him. He froze, puffing audibly, the blood pounding in his ears. Then he saw that, in every direction, on every street, bent over and growling around the garbage heaps were hyenas feeding, grotesque packs of devouring hyenas. The red eyes of one of them looked into Gerardís face; the creatureís eyes were motionless and fearless and fierce. Gerard turned from side to side but could not decide how to escape.
The hideous brotherhood hissed and growled among one another, the feasting mouths tore viciously at the garbage; one vomited a stream of putrefied meat and fluid. He heard their distant laughter and saw blackness spurting from the twisted iron-jawed mouthcorners. Gerard felt a dizzying rise of blood; at any moment he might faint.
Suddenly something struck him from behind; darkness covered him, and he struggled under what felt like layers, one after another, of cloth covering him. Shaking, he felt his body rising off the ground. Under the swarm of covering he could feel sharp pressure-- somehow he was being carried, bouncing and twisting. Quite suddenly again it all changed, and he was lying on something soft and the unwinding cloth that had enveloped him could be seen to be blankets. His eyes opened; he saw a man standing over the bed he had been tossed upon. He recognized him--the man who had carried him away from the hyenas, carried him to safety, was the man whose garbage he had carried.
"You remember me? We met, you carried my garbage out earlier, same garbage those beasts are eating now. Donít you remember what I said?Ē
Gerard was still shaking, though his shock easing off, stammered. "What? You never told me!"
He was quickly interrupted, "I said I thanked you and Allah definitely thanked you."
Gerardís fear turned to outrage and he screamed, "No one told me about the hyenas.Nobody told me that the damn streets filled up with them."
Again,the man interrupted, "Remember, I said, that the scavengers thank you. Harar is famous for our hyenas. The beasts are our garbage disposal. This is the only place in the entire world where this happens."
"Hyenas!" Gerard shouted. "Those are deadly beasts. I could myself been eaten alive!"
"But you see you werenít, I rescued you. Nobody goes in the streets when it becomes dark. Night is the time for the hyenas. Not for you, my friend. Time for scavengers. Thank Allah there are angels among us to set things right."
Gerardís anger grew apace with his bewilderment. "You said nothing of hyenas. No warnings. You said the hotel owner omitted things, told only part. Look at you, what you omitted."
"My friend. I have long heard words that come not from the heart, words written in desire to change destiny. These words are sermons. Fate cannot be avoided. The hyenas were your fate, my friend. You slept all through 'Semayat'. Right? That is what I am told. So you see your destiny, what a good story it is that is being told through you. Donít you see? It is the story of the man who slept through heaven and woke up in time to get a glimpse of hell."