Saturday, July 31, 2010

The City of Hyenas

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article on its site about the Ethiopian city of Harar and its relationship with the local hyena population. In most of Africa these giant carnivores are loathed as dangerous, man-eating pests.  (This reputation is not entirely unearned, given their bone-crushing jaws and sophisticated techniques of pack hunting). In Harar they have become a tourist attraction,  with people paying money to watch Youseff Mume Saleh feed the beasts he calls "family."

There is also a spiritual component to this. One town elder says that the hyenas can transmit messages between the worlds, "like the CNN or the BBC." Legends have grown up around the annual ritual of feeding the hyenas porridge. It supposedly was begun by local "Muslim saints" and has become a means of divination.  (If the hyenas spurn the porridge, danger is afoot: if they clean their plates and leave nothing behind, a drought is coming). And it appears to have practical applications as well: there are far less hyena attacks in Harar than in neighboring areas where the hyenas are met with hostility.

After the recent discussions in our corner of the blogosphere, I also noted the ways in which Islam and local beliefs co-exist peacefully within Harar.  The people identify as Muslims, go to mosques and practice Salaat.  But they also preserve folk beliefs about the spirit world and the nature of certain animals. While many seek to turn Christianity into an oppressive monolith of "Fundamentalist" belief, far more wish to do the same with Islam.  We might do well to remember African Islamic traditions like Zaar and Gnawa,  powerful syntheses of monotheism and local animistic/spiritist practices. Just as the Christian world has engaged with and been engaged by folk magic and mysticism, so too has the Islamic empire.

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