In December of 1880, the mercurial French poet Arthur Rimbaud entered the ancient walled city of Harar, Ethiopia, a journey that had involved crossing the Gulf of Aden in a wooden dhow and 20 days on horseback through the Somali Desert. Several years before, the author of the prose poems “A Season in Hell” and “Illuminations” had abruptly renounced poetry and embarked on peregrinations that would take him around Europe, Asia, the Middle East and, finally, Africa. At age 26, Rimbaud accepted “a job consisting in receiving shipments of bales of coffee” with a French trading firm in a thriving corner of what was then called Abyssinia.
Then as now, Harar was a market town threaded with steep cobblestone alleys that wind between high limestone and tuff walls. Today those walls are painted with geometric designs in green, white, pink and blue. As one strolls down the narrow, mazelike streets lined with single-story dwellings, the city, fortified and enigmatic, feels closed off. Donkeys carrying bundles of firewood wait patiently for their owners near the crenelated entrances of the city’s historic gates. In the densely populated Old City, there are over 180 mosques and shrines, some dating to the 10th century. Occasionally one comes upon open-air markets where spices, khat leaves and coffee beans are sold in huge sacks.
Rimbaud arrived in Harar “sick and completely helpless,” according to his employer, Alfred Bardey. He rented a rough, clay-walled house with a thatched reed roof. The man credited by many with reinventing modern European poetry would reside in this preindustrial Ethiopian city for nearly five years, during three distinct periods between 1880 and 1891, the longest time he ever stayed anywhere as an adult. It was a life he had visualized years before he began his travels. “I sought voyages, to disperse enchantments that had colonized my mind,” the 19-year-old author wrote in “A Season in Hell,” a hallucinatory collection of nine poems that had been published seven years before his arrival in Harar, featuring a narrator who rages at, and then roams, the world. “My life would always be too ungovernable to be devoted to strength and beauty.”
Rimbaud’s travels had been preceded by a dramatic flameout in Europe: His lover, the French poet Paul Verlaine, had shot him in the wrist with a revolver in a Belgian hotel room. Living with his difficult mother in a farmhouse in Charleville, his constricting hometown in the French Ardennes, was intolerable for the high-strung poet. It didn’t help that “A Season in Hell,” which would later bring him acclaim, was barely noticed at all when it was published in 1873.
And so it was that the poster child of the “decadent movement” ended up in Harar, a city 300 miles from Addis Ababa that predated the Ethiopian capital by nearly a millennium.
Harar had been a Sufi Muslim center of learning closed to outsiders for hundreds of years before the explorer Sir Richard Burton entered the city in 1855. As soon as Rimbaud heard about the place he begged his employers in the Arabian port of Aden to send him there. No matter that the region was viewed as dangerous and that several other trader-explorers had experienced run-ins with the warriors of the Danakil desert. The adventurous Rimbaud immediately recognized Harar as an intriguing business prospect at the edge of the known world.
“In exile, life was a stage where literature’s masterpieces were played out,” the poet wrote in “Illuminations,” several years before moving to Harar. “I could share untold riches that remain unknown.” (There is no evidence that Rimbaud wrote poetry again after his 21st birthday; however, he sent hundreds of evocative letters about his new life in Ethiopia to his mother and sister back in France.)
In Harar’s Old City, now a Unesco World Heritage site with a layout dating to the 16th century, a willingness to walk in circles, doubling back often, is a necessary precondition for exploring. There are no signs. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across the cheerful woman who serves cups of milky tea made from toasted coffee leaves to patrons sitting on buckets; or the man who feeds swooping falcons from his bare hand at the camel market; or the lane called Mekina Girgir where tailors mend clothing on antique pedal-operated sewing machines, and where vendors sell fritters and syrupy, fried sweets from banana-leaf baskets.
In the center of the Old City, called Jugol Harar, a grand merchant home with a fine wooden facade has been turned into a museum dedicated to Rimbaud and his time in Harar. In a room with colored glass panels and a painted ceiling, the small but informative exhibits include self-portraits taken by the poet with a camera he ordered from Lyon. Rimbaud’s shot of a man sitting amid pottery in his storehouse was very likely the first photograph of Harar. “When he was here, he was somebody else, totally,” said the museum curator, Abdunasir Abdulahi, a Harari whose great-aunt knew Rimbaud as a child. “She said he was a Muslim and they used to play in his house.”
The Arthur Rimbaud Cultural Center opened in 2000, and now “young people are starting to believe Rimbaud was really a white man who loved Hararis, who wanted to die in Harar, who preferred Harar to his sophisticated, nationalized Europe,” said Mr. Abdulahi. “His mind was peaceful here.”
Previously, many locals had been dismissive of their famous former resident because they suspected he might have been a spy. In fact, the French trader was genuinely fascinated by the city and its surroundings, and set about mastering the regional languages. “With the common people he spoke in Arabic but with his servant he spoke in Harari,” Mr. Abdulahi said. “He spoke Harari perfectly and he learned Amharic and Oromo as well.”
In Rimbaud’s time, Harar was a major trading hub, where prized goods from the highlands — coffee, animal hides, gold rings and musk of civet — were exchanged for foreign goods that had arrived at the coast by wooden dhows. For his job, Rimbaud spent much of his time riding to faraway markets to source goods, or “trafficking in the unknown,” as he described it to his family in a letter before he set off on an expedition in 1881.
“There is a great lake a few days’ journey from here. It’s in ivory country. I’m to try and get there. The people of the region are probably hostile,” he informed them, before giving instructions on how to collect his back wages if he didn’t return.
Rimbaud highlighted the risks and difficulties of his life in Africa in letters to his disapproving mother. “This last expedition has exhausted me so much that I often lie in the sun, immobile like an unfeeling stone,” he wrote. Another trip he described as “insane cavalcades through the steep mountains of the country.” Did the author remember that in “A Season in Hell,” he had written what now seems like an ode to the very landscape he was complaining about? “I loved desert, scorched orchards, sun-bleached shops, warm drinks. I dragged myself through stinking streets and, eyes closed, offered myself to the sun, god of fire.”
Grumble he might, but according to his boss Alfred Bardey, Rimbaud was “always impatiently waiting for the next occasion to set out on adventures . . . I could sooner have held on to a shooting star.”
By the late 1880s, the former enfant terrible of the Parisian literary scene was at the center of much of the foreign trade in southern Abyssinia. It didn’t always go smoothly: When the future Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II decided he needed guns, he turned to Rimbaud, who spent months acquiring antique European rifles for the capricious king, only to be promptly swindled when he delivered them:
“Menelik seized all the merchandise and forced me to let him have it at a reduced rate, forbidding me to sell it retail and threatening to send it back to the coast at my expense!” Rimbaud complained in a letter to the French consul.
Frustration aside, Rimbaud’s procurement of weapons for Menelik II may have been his greatest contribution to modern African history. Scholars reckon that the guns he sold in 1887 likely helped the emperor defeat Italy in 1896 when the country’s troops tried to invade Ethiopia. As a result of the rout at Adwa, Italy signed a treaty recognizing Ethiopia as an independent nation.
Rimbaud would not be around to witness this triumph. In 1891, after the pain from a swollen knee became unbearable, he was forced to leave Harar to seek medical treatment. Sixteen porters carried him on a hidebound stretcher to the port at Zeila, 200 miles and 12 days from Harar. It was the same port where Rimbaud had first set foot in Africa, 11 years earlier. By the time his ship reached France, it was already too late: His cancerous leg had to be amputated.
From his hospital room in Marseilles, the poet and explorer thought fondly of his time in “beloved Harar.” “I hope to return there . . . I will always live there,” he wrote that summer. In November 1891, at 37, Arthur Rimbaud died while dictating a note to the director of the Messageries Maritimes shipping line. “Let me know what time I shall be carried on board,” he requested in his letter. Until the end, the brilliant polymath was determined to return to the city where he had finally found a kind of peace.