One day my brother and I decided to leave TFAI, the small French enclave on the Red Sea. Once known as French Somalia, the name had been changed to Territoire Française des Afars et Issas. Today, of course, the tiny country with the hellish climate is called Djibouti to honor its only major city. The region hosts the most uninhabitable land on Earth and a desert so hot that sand melts into glass in bleakly stifling depressions below sea level. Seismic wrenching of the planet’s crust rips apart the Rift Valley of Africa along its borders, and native inhabitants cut off the testicles of their enemies as a rite of passage into manhood.
The place was a maelstrom of chaos. French legionnaires chased demonstrators through the streets while groups of young men hassled the the white officials in return. I saw one French policeman running for his life down the principal avenue of Djibouti, with a cluster of half-dressed natives bolting after him as if they wanted nothing more than dismember his colonial butt into tiny unrecognizable (and perhaps edible) pieces.
The head and humidity combined into an awful atmosphere, mixed with automotive pollution and dust, creating air that was nearly unbreathable. Just inhaling the smog was an exercise in self-mutilation. We discovered that a train was to leave for the Ethiopian border at dusk, and we had most of the day to kill, having checked out of our last hotel with nowhere to go. The French cafés served warm beer and tepid coffee at insanely inflated prices while hosting customers completely hostile to our hippie-type looks. Local restaurants were out of the question as possible refuges. Disease was rampant in Djibouti, and cases of smallpox were rumored to be festering around the periphery of the town. We presumed that dysentery and a plethora of amoebae were incautiously served with the inedible-looking food.
To try to escape the heat and the crowds we headed for the beach. The basic facts were clear enough; the French were ostensibly pulling out of the country in a matter of weeks, leaving absolutely no one in charge and no infrastructure to help administer the territory. Rumors flew that less than fifteen native Djiboutians possessed college degrees, and only a tiny proportion had ever even finished attending the local lycées, or high schools. The was believable enough, considering the violent masses of humanity roaming the streets, looking for any target they could find that represented the hated foreign regime still controlling the country.
Neither of us had bathed or changed our clothes in days, and dripping with perspiration, we hoped we didn’t look like exploiters of the masses. We walked through the streets with our small packs, trying to blend in and stay inconspicuous. We found the beach, or rather a dirty patch of sand at the edge of the harbor with no shade or other amenities and sat down, drinking a one-liter bottle of Coca-Cola we had purchased. But we had no food and were very hungry. We had little option but to wait for the train’s departure time and get to the station to see if any sustenance could be found there. Reasoning that if the trains still functioned perhaps commercial activities within the gare might still exist, we thought we could survive the heat by dipping our toes into the toxic waste that resembled a liquid substance. Its temperature felt like the water inside a coal-fired heater from the France of Napoleon III.
We soon attracted a crowd. They had not gathered to welcome us to their about-to-be-independent nation. The first cry I heard was in the Afar language. I didn’t understand what the man said, except for the words, “Haifa” and “Tel Aviv.” Using my best French, I politely asked the guy if he spoke that language, and how I could help him. He answered quickly enough in a bitter tone, “Where were you born, Haifa or Tel Aviv?”
Excuse me,” I said. “I am Canadian. I was born in Canada. I have never been to Israel.” The last comment was not exactly true, for I had spent a couple of months in Israel the year before, but the Israelis were smart enough to keep their Immigration stamps out of foreign tourists’ passports, so travelers would not be hassled upon later arrival in Muslim countries. I had no fear of being caught in a lie on that score.
“Non!” he insisted, now pointing to my bright red hair. “You are Jewish. Only yehudi have hair such as yours.” And again he demanded, “Haifa or Tel Aviv!?”
“You are mistaken,” I said, growing worried. “Many people in my country and in Europe have red hair and they are not Jewish.” By now a dense mob had formed, and any route of escape we might have enjoyed was cut off. “Please, let me show you my passport.”
“You lie. We know you are a Jew. Haifa or Tel Aviv? Tell us now. We will hurt you if you lie to us again. Tell us the truth!” I realized that we were in trouble, and if I played along and said, so sorry, you’re right and I am a Jew, that these angry half-starved men would tear us apart right there on the beach and throw us to the sharks, assuming that sharks could survive in the murky sewage-ridden waters lapping at the shoreline.
My mind raced desperately. I had spent more than a year in Muslim countries by now, and had to appeal somehow to their religious sense. I knew that these men would know at least a few words of classical Arabic from the Koran. “Bis milleh,” I pleaded, “in the name of God, “Does anyone speak Arabic?” This surprised the men, who briefly paused in their tracks, stowing their glistening white teeth and snarling expressions of hatred. “Kul wahed,” I went on, “ta’araf arabi?” Everybody, you speak Arabic? I babbled.
At this juncture an elderly man stepped to the front of the crowd. He looked like he was about eighty years old, with a small wispy gray beard and a kind face. “You speak Arabic,?” he asked. “I also know the holy language of The Book,” which meant, I suppose, he had learned Arabic from studying the Koran.
I switched back to French and asked him if he could read. He nodded gravely. I produced my passport and showed him the various stamps within its pages I had collected , from places as varied as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Algeria, and Afghanistan. “You know well, sir, that a Jewish person would never be allowed to visit these countries.” This statement was not precisely true, of course. Plenty of Jewish people, mostly Americans, traveled in these countries, assuming they neither looked nor sounded Jewish, and made sure to hide the nature of their religion and ethnicity.
The old man flipped through the pages of my passport, again nodding slowly. He rose to his feet and addressed the crowd in the local language. I still couldn’t understand, but his meaning was obvious. I was a kafir, but an innocent one, a traveler who had great respect for the holy places of Islam and who had traveled widely to become more familiar with the true religion.
As quickly as it had begun, the confrontation was over. The younger men dispersed, and I talked to the old man, thanking him for his help and wishing him a happy and God-graced life. His face held just a hint of a smile, as if perhaps he didn’t quite believe everything I had said, but since I obviously had spent so much time in Muslim countries I must have been a reasonable person, someone who should be left unmolested.
We decided that nowhere in the city would be safe now, and that our only real choice was to find the train station. Surely that building would have police who maintained a semblance of order.
We walked for several miles to get to the station, which was located at the edge of town. Keeping our heads down and our eyes averted from the milling groups of lurking pedestrians, we arrived without incident. We bought third class tickets and sat on the floor of the station to wait for the train, spreading our gear about like gypsies, still hoping that our slovenly appearance wouldn’t irritate the locals.
The train finally departed, several hours late, with us on board, crammed into a compartment built to hold six people but which contained probably closer to thirty.
ALL PHOTOS BY JACK MCGORY
3) The train after crossing into Ethiopia
We soon arrived at the Ethiopian border. The passengers became nervous; the crossing was likely to be unpleasant. By a stroke of fortune, I actually had a seat on a bench. The aisle was filled with burlap bags of indeterminate origin and strewn with personal possessions. Just as the train began to slow down for the Customs and Immigration checkpoint, a man squeezed his way into the compartment and looked at me with pleading eyes, pointing under my seat. His meaning was clear. He wanted to hide under the seat, under me. His thinking was also clear; the border guards would be less likely to inspect the area around a foreigner. The other passengers regarded the situation with interest. What would I do?
Naturally I smiled and stood up. Together we pushed huge 50 kilo bags out of the way and the man crawled under the bench. We then replaced the sacks and bundles under my feet, so my legs were stretched on top of the baggage.
A few moments later the train stopped and the Ethiopian guards stormed through the wagons. This was during the time of the Ogaden War between Ethiopia and Somalia, and the Ethiopians were probably looking for guns and fighters sneaking into the county to join the battle against the new regime in Addis Abba that coveted the wasteland between the two countries in a long-running, if obscure dispute.
The Immigration and Customs officials barged into our compartment, shoving the other passengers as if they were swatting flies. They fixated on us immediately. I don’t remember how we communicated, but they probably spoke either English or French.
“What are you doing here? Tourists are not allowed to enter Ethiopia!” one of them barked.
Several weeks previously, while in Sana’a, I had a cajoled visas for myself and my brother from the Ethiopian ambassador to Yemen himself. I was confident of my privileged status as we handed over our passports. The guards stared balefully at our paperwork and returned it, shaking their heads. “Good luck,” they said, departing. “You will need it.”
The train started with a lurch and we pulled away from the border. It didn’t travel very fast, so after an hour my silent co-conspirator hidden under the seat crawled out, shook my hand, and jumped out the window into the night. There probably wasn’t an electric light in that remote terrain within 75 kilometers, but I imagine that worked to his advantage. The other passengers smiled at my luck, my audacity, or perhaps at my stupidity. Such things are usually unknowable.
Daylight broke eventually and found us in a terrible landscape of poverty and hunger. The people who lived in this part of Ethiopia had nothing to look forward to except war, repression from the genocidal regime in Addis Abba, and starvation. We didn’t yet understand we’d arrived at the beginning of the great famine that would culminate a few years later in the mid 198os.
2) Ethiopian settlement along the railroad tracks
Eventually we disembarked at Dire Dawa. In blissful ignorance of ground truth, we wanted to visit a series of caves, where, it was alleged, the oldest painted depictions of Jesus had been discovered a few decades beforehand and dated to the 4th century AD.
Our adventures there and in the Ogaden War, and also in ancient city of Harar, will have wait for the right time to reminisce about the mindless cruelty humans exhibit toward one another when distress overcomes reason.
But on a final note, when we did arrive in Addis Ababa near the end of our time in Ethiopia, we found that Mengistu, after stirring resentment against Haile Selassie and having him murdered in his last days of helpless dementia, was now fomenting hatred of foreigners as well. Our friend Jack found himself one day confronted by a mob in Addis. None of us spoke Amharic, so we have long puzzled over what the placards say. I imagine they translate to something like:
“Heathen White Running Dogs Go to Hell!”
3) Mengistu-inspired protest in Addis Ababa
The so-called communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam was busy creating a personal hell for its own people, one that will take years of concerted effort to eradicate with the hard work of Ethiopians themselves and the foreigners who are sympathetic to their terrible government-inflicted plight.
POST SCRIPT: You have to wonder about the circumstances under which the French left Djibouti to the local elites. The country, with its strategic position guarding the entrance to the Red Sea oil routes, is firmly controlled today by the Americans, who maintain a huge military presence there. Perhaps the French had a particular plan that was successfully implemented in the long run –and at a terrible cost to the country’s citizens.