Richard Francis Burton

Richard Francis Burton, Harar, and Hyenas

“I doubt not there are many who ignore the fact that in Eastern Africa, scarcely three hundred miles distant from Aden, there is a counterpart of ill-famed Timbuctoo in the Far West. The more adventurous Abyssinian travelers … attempted Harar, but attempted it in vain. The bigoted ruler … threatened death to the Infidel who ventured within the walls… Of all foreigners the English were, of course, the most hated and dreaded. …It is, therefore, a point of honor with me … to utilise my title of Haji by entering the city, visiting the ruler, and returning in safety, after breaking the guardian spell.” – Richard Francis Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa or, An Exploration of Harrar. eBooks@Adelaide 2009

In 1854, having recently gained fame from his pilgrimage to Mecca, Richard Francis Burton first entered the territory of what is now Somaliland. Burton’s destination was the city of Harar, located in what is now Ethiopia, but then an independent emirate. Harar was a challenge that Burton could not refuse: rumor had it that no Christian had ever set foot inside the city walls, and prophesy maintained that the city would decline if one ever did. Burton waited in the Somali port city of Zeila and explored its environs until he determined that the way to Harar was open. He reached the city with few problems, and remained there for ten days as the guest – or perhaps prisoner – of the Emir.

Burton was not particularly impressed with Harar or its inhabitants. “The Somal say of the city that it is a Paradise inhabited by asses,” he reported, immediately adding that, “the exterior of the people is highly unprepossessing. Amongst the men, I did not see a handsome face.” Yet he found the women of Harar “beautiful,” but only in comparison with their men. He also noted that, “both sexes are celebrated for laxity of morals. High and low indulge freely in intoxicating drinks, beer, and mead” – but in Burton’s case, “laxity of morals” was not necessarily an objectionable trait. He also praised Harar’s qat (“I could not but remark the fine flavour of the plant after the coarser quality grown in Yemen”), yet seemed disappointed that the drug did not have a stronger effect.

Burton was intrigued by the city’s language, which did not extend beyond its wall: “Harar has not only its own tongue, unintelligible to any save the citizens; even its little population of about 8000 souls is a distinct race.” Immediately outside of the city, Burton reported, one encountered a different “race,” the Galla (Oromo), who, he claimed, were habitually defrauded by the merchants of Harar. The profound separation of the city from its hinterland persists. The Harari are a distinct ethnic group with their own language. The Harari tongue is Semitic, hence only distantly related to the Cushitic language of the Oromo who surround them. Harar and its immediate outskirts thus forms one of Ethiopia’s ethnically based administrative regions, officially called the Harari People’s National Regional State (see map).

Harar today boasts an emerging tourist trade. UNECSO lists it as a world heritage site, claiming that it is the fourth most holy city of Islam, with 82 mosques and 102 shrines. It has other attractions as well – including hyenas. Semi-wild hyenas live within the city walls, providing scavenging services for the Harari. Hyena-men feed the animals raw meat out of their own mouths for the amusement of visitors.

The city’s hyenas are the subject of a blog: Marcus Baynes-Rock’s delightful Hyenas in Harar. Graduate student Baynes-Rock investigates human-wildlife interactions in urban settings, and he has found a fascinating case. The key to the relationship between people and hyenas in Harar, he argues, are the supernatural creatures called jinn (or genies):

“According to my sources, there are good and bad jinn in Harar and they are all pervasive, with the bad ones occasionally possessing people. And this is where the hyenas come in. They serve the town by locating and eating the bad jinn and maybe mistakenly eating the odd good one. While humans can only occasionally see jinn, hyenas see them all the time and will chase and eat them at every opportunity. In fact it’s been suggested that a hyena attacking a person could well be a case of a hyena attacking a jinni that has possessed a person. So presumably, the ‘oo’ sound is the hyena sucking the jinn from the ground, and the ‘woop’ is the point at which it enters the hyena’s stomach, the tomb of the jinn. But it goes even further…”

To find out just how far it goes, check out Hyenas in Harar.

Richard Francis Burton and the Somaliland Shilling

As a de facto sovereign state, Somaliland has its own currency, the Somaliland shilling. As is true elsewhere, the images on its coins and banknotes convey symbolic messages about the country. Somaliland’s bills, for example, depict both its sovereignty (showing its supreme court and central bank) and its pastoral heritage (with figures of sheep, goats, and camels). There is nothing unusual in such monetary imagery. What is curious is the one person depicted on Somaliland’s money, appearing on both the five-shilling and 1,000 shilling coins. Rather than an illustrious Somalilander, as might be expected, the coins show a famous – or perhaps infamous – British explorer of the Victorian era, Sir Richard Francis Burton. In selecting Burton, Somaliland advertises its heritage as a former British colony – and in so doing distances itself from the former Italian colony that constitutes the rest of the so-called country of Somalia.

In some respects, Burton is an odd choice to showcase Somaliland’s connection with Britain. In current academic circles, he is often denounced as an agent of imperialism, and a particularly bellicose one at that. Burton’s exploration of Somaliland, moreover, was not very successful. Preparing to chart the interior, his party was attacked by Somali warriors before it could leave camp. Burton was speared through both cheeks, one of his British companions was killed, and the other was captured. The expedition was so disastrous that an official British inquiry was established to determine whether Burton was to blame. Two years later, he was finally exonerated.

Yet in other regards, Richard Burton makes an ideal figure for Somaliland’s coinage. Unlike most European explorers of his time, Burton genuinely respected the peoples he encountered, and was always fascinated by their beliefs and practices. As Greg Garrett shows, he viewed “African natives … as a source of potential knowledge.” Burton was an uncannily gifted linguist who had supposedly mastered more than two-dozen languages. His cultural facilities were so acute that he could easily pass as a Muslim from western Asia, most often as a Pashtun. (Although he almost gave himself away by on his famous trip to Mecca by urinating while standing rather than squatting.) Beyond being an adept explorer, Burton was an accomplished writer, translator, ethnologist, poet, fencer, and diplomat.

Whatever his faults, Richard Burton was an extraordinary man whose accomplishments ought to be remembered. In the United States, they seldom are. When I mention his name to my students, most draw a blank. A few mention a Welsh actor.

In his time, Richard Burton was a popular and widely reviled figure. He certainly captured public attention. Who could better excite the Victorian imagination than a brilliant explorer in imperial service? But Burton was anti-Victorian in his sentiments, and he loved to shock, mock-bragging that he broke all of the Ten Commandments. His interest in foreign cultures fully extended to sexuality. Burton was intensely, and omnivorously, sexual. He gained early attention with his investigations into the boy-brothels of Karachi – rumor had it that he sampled as he spied. Burton’s advice for learning a language was simple: find a lover who speaks it.

Burton’s interest in sex was reflected in his translations. He is best known here for his rendition of 1001 Arabian Nights – and for the fact that his translation was not expurgated. But Burton did not just include the erotic passages; he expanded and embellished them, discussing them at length in footnotes. The sexual content of the famous compilation appalled Victorian Britain, resulting in legal issues. Burton himself scandalized British society. Had his private papers been made available after his death, he might have continued shocking the fascinated public for some time, but his wife burned them.

The erotica of 1001 Arabian Nights continues to generate controversy – only now the outrage lies in the land of its origin. An Egyptian state-run organization recently republished the collection of tales, only to be denounced by a group of Islamists lawyers arguing that the “obscene” work should be banned. Egyptian intellectuals, however, are fighting back. According to Elan: The Global Guide to Muslim Culture, the chairman of the publishing house that reprinted the stories has responded firmly: “The fact that the first edition was sold out shortly after it was issued shows that Egyptians are avid readers and that they will not be influenced by a bunch of people who take advantage of Islam in order to suppress freedom.”