- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

HARAR, Ethiopia — Some 150 years after his death, the memory of Arthur Rimbaud is being kept alive in the unlikely setting of this ancient Muslim Ethiopian city, where the French poet spent a few years, fueling a myth that has become a major draw for tourists.

Across the street leading to the main square in Harar’s old town, large banners proclaim “150th anniversary of Rimbaud, 1854-2004.”

Rimbaud never lived in the house that now bears his name here. However, the time he spent in Harar on and off between 1880 and 1891 generated a myth that is often far removed from the historical record but has proved a boon for tourist guides.

Asked if she knew who the poet was, a woman named Salam, 26, replied: “He is a Frenchman who did a lot of good things for Hararis, such as the Rimbaud house.”

There are few remaining traces of Rimbaud in this city of 130,000, which is the spiritual heart of Ethiopia’s large Muslim community, and many residents confuse the poet with the film character Rambo — which sounds very similar to Rimbaud — portrayed by American movie star Sylvester Stallone.

Antenna, 19, said she was very fond of the French poet, although she clearly knows very little about him.

“I adore what he does. Later, I would like to follow on his footsteps. But I would appreciate if someone could give me his address so I could send him a letter in France,” she said.

Guides, meanwhile, flock to Feras Magala Square, offering to take visitors on a tour of what they call the “real Rimbaud house.”

But the “Rimbaud house” that has been turned into a museum after being restored and reopened in 2000 was in fact built after the years that Rimbaud spent in Harar.

Rimbaud, who wrote the poem “The Drunken Boat” and “After the Flood” or the “Orphan’s New Year,” apparently stayed at the Wesen-Segen hotel — located between an Orthodox church built by the late Emperor Menelik in 1887 and a candy store — when he first arrived in Harar in November 1880.

He was by then a trader and gunrunner in the vast desert land that was then called Abyssinia. There is little left now to suggest that the hotel was then the Bardey trading house. But the owner proudly shows off his establishment to visitors.

“Rimbaud apparently lived here, in a ground-floor room,” he said.

Guides also claim that Rimbaud also lived in two other houses in the city, although they seem not to agree on their locations.

“Rimbaud was not known when he was alive, but today his fame is a boon to tourism in Harar,” said Ahmed Zacharia, the town historian.

“Rimbaud was a pioneer, we must continue to nurture this link he created with France and turn it into a commercial, economic and tourism partnership between the two countries,” concurred Harar Mayor Zeydan Bekri.

On Oct. 20, Harar sealed a sister-city agreement with Charleville-Mezieres, the northeastern French town that is Rimbaud’s birthplace, on the anniversary of his birth.

“We started with the Rimbaud museum in 2000. Now we have this twin-city agreement. This house is a place to promote tourism. … In Harar, we make a lot of pretty baskets, we have gemstones. These things could be sold in France, particularly in Charleville-Mezieres,” said Fuad Ibrahim, president of the Harar region.

He said Harar currently attracts 5,000 foreign tourists a year and expressed hope the figure might double.

At age 19, Rimbaud turned his back on poetry for a life of travel and adventure. After traveling around Europe for a couple of years, he headed for Abyssinia.

At the end of a tumultuous life, he returned to Marseille, in southern France, where he died in November 1891 at age 37, after his right leg was amputated, probably because of complications of syphilis.

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