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Song, dance, and the Koran: Ethiopia's Harari celebrate centuries-old festival

  Aymeric VINCENOT - AFP
Ethiopia Shuwalid marks the end of six additional days of fasting observed by some Muslims at the end of the holy month.  By Michele Spatari AFP
WED, 17 APR 2024 LISTEN
Shuwalid marks the end of six additional days of fasting observed by some Muslims at the end of the holy month. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

Chanting and clapping as they dance to the haunting rhythm of drums, the inhabitants of Harar, a fortified Ethiopian city seemingly frozen in time, celebrate the festival of Shuwalid, keeping centuries-old traditions alive.

Shuwalid -- which means the "feast of Shuwal", the month which follows Ramadan in the Muslim calendar -- marks the end of six additional days of fasting observed by some Muslims at the end of the holy month.

On Tuesday evening, men, women and children poured into the two public squares at the centre of the festivities, eager to celebrate Shuwalid for the first time since it was added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list late last year.

The Harari claim to be Sufis, followers of a mystical movement in Islam.  By Michele Spatari AFP The Harari claim to be Sufis, followers of a mystical movement in Islam. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

Shuwalid enables "community elders to share their knowledge and experiences and to give blessings to the next generations" and ensures "the transmission of performing arts, oral traditions, traditional dress and other cultural elements", according to UNESCO.

As the festivities got under way in the walled city, devotees dressed in white joyfully chanted from the Koran, high on religious fervour and on khat, a mildly narcotic shrub consumed in the Horn of Africa.

Buoyed by khat, the celebrations continued into the early hours.

'Happy and proud'

The Harari claim to be Sufis, followers of a mystical movement in Islam. Their religious practices include repeating, singing and dancing to phrases from the Koran.

The women attract attention with their colourful embroidered tunics and veils, their foreheads adorned with jewellery.  By Michele Spatari AFP The women attract attention with their colourful embroidered tunics and veils, their foreheads adorned with jewellery. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

"Shuwalid is our tradition," said Aicha Abdurahman, a 19-year-old teacher, whose hands were decorated with henna.

"I like the way we dress, the songs, the dances," she told AFP, adding that the festival was also an opportunity to socialise with other community members, some of whom travel to Harar from far away.

"This year is special. It's the first Shuwalid since it was listed by UNESCO," she said.

"We are really happy and very proud."

The women attract attention with their colourful embroidered tunics and veils, their foreheads adorned with jewellery.

According to traditional beliefs, Shuwalid offers the ideal opportunity to meet a future life partner.  By Michele Spatari AFP According to traditional beliefs, Shuwalid offers the ideal opportunity to meet a future life partner. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

Young people in particular take special care of their appearance in line with traditional beliefs that Shuwalid offers the ideal opportunity to meet a future life partner.

"It goes back to the time when young boys and girls were strictly separated. Today, they already know each other, but the tradition continues," explained Abdul Ahmed, a guide and an expert on the history of the city and its traditions.

"Tonight we're going to look for a fiance, wish us good luck," said Iman Mohamed, 20, laughing as she joined the revelry with her friend Gizman Abdulaziz.

"It's an opportunity (that emerges) once a year. That's why we made ourselves pretty," she said.

82 mosques

Located 500 kilometres 300 miles east of Addis Ababa, Harar Jugol is itself listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  By Michele Spatari AFP Located 500 kilometres (300 miles) east of Addis Ababa, Harar Jugol is itself listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

A few hours earlier, residents of Harar Jugol -- the name given to the fortified part of the city of Harar which now extends beyond the walls -- were hard at work, painting certain neighbourhoods in pastel colours.

Located 500 kilometres (300 miles) east of Addis Ababa, Harar Jugol is itself listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In addition to 82 mosques -- including three dating back to the 10th century -- and its 102 shrines in an area measuring less than half a square kilometre, it is a preserved time capsule of African and Islamic urban planning traditions.

There are still many traditional Harari houses that boast "unique interior designs", notes UNESCO.

They consist of a single room built along two or three wide steps, with a mezzanine serving as the bed, and the entire structure looking out onto a courtyard.

The old town has changed little throughout its history.  By Michele Spatari AFP The old town has changed little throughout its history. By Michele Spatari (AFP)

The capital of a 16th-century kingdom, Harar became an independent emirate and a commercial centre before it was integrated into Ethiopia in 1887.

The old town has changed little throughout its history.

At the end of the 19th century, Indian traders built houses with wooden verandas which added to the town's architecture.

The Harari -- a tiny minority numbering around 150,000 in a country of 120 million -- have been able to maintain their customs.

Their decision to organise the community "through traditional systems has preserved its social and physical inheritance and, significantly, the Harari language," according to UNESCO.

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