Harar: Finding Rewda

I have a pattern when it comes to traveling: First, buy tickets to destination. Second, sink into an abyss of planning, strategizing and researching so deep that it supports unique forms of sea life that cannot survive outside of that profoundly pressurized environment. That second stage generally starts with finding hotels and places to stay. 

I look for places that manage to mingle both charm and a budget price tag. In Harar, the obvious choices were two traditional-Harari-houses-turned-inns run by sisters; Rewda Waber Guesthouse, run by Rewda, and Zubeyda Waber Guesthouse, run by ... you guessed it. I found a few photos online and the only decision left was to decide which sister to choose. Based on a recommendation (or really, a direct order) from a trusted traveler, I decided on Rewda. 

Harar not being the kind of place where reservations are easily made ahead of time, we showed up in town with little more than Rewda's name and the knowledge that she was somewhere in the briar of Jugol. 

In the first minutes after stepping out of the bus and into the buzzing energy of Harar at midday, people, donkeys, cars, bajajes and buses whirring around us, finding our way to Rewda suddenly seemed utterly ridiculous. I locked eyes on a tall building, identifiable as a hotel, in the near distance and we sidled into traffic to be carried there by the current. 

We landed at the Belayneh Hotel and decided it was as good a place as any to dump our bags for the moment. We committed to one night, thinking we would use it to get our bearings and then switch to Rewda's place. It was cheap at around $20 a night, clean enough and had a bonus in the form of a small balcony with fantastic, bird's-eye views of Showa Gate and the Christian Market.

After a quick and futile scrub and an equally futile map consultation, we set out with the intent of finding Rewda to get the next few nights booked. Of course, Jugol being the marvel it is, we decided to take it slow, drinking it all in as we wandered down streets and alleyways. 

It's not difficult to stick out as a foreigner in Harar, and you'll attract a fair bit of attention. We had a few offers of guide services, and once we'd been wandering around for a while and I was feeling the need to take care of business, I asked one young man if he knew where Rewda Waber Guesthouse was. He recognized the name instantly, saying he knew where it was, but. But it's closed. "Rewda is dead."

We'd been planning to stay at her guesthouse, yes. But we had above all been eager to meet this woman we'd heard described as a treasure, the kind of person who genuinely cares for her guests and makes them feel at home. We thanked the young man for his advice and he quietly walked away.

We continued our exploration of the town and decided to look into Zubeyda's guesthouse. We stopped into a crafts shop on Feres Megala, the central square in Jugol, and while we were there, asked if they knew where Zubeyda could be found.

A quick, gesture-rich conversation among the few people in the shop. No, they said, Zubeyda is closed. Her sister died this week, and her sister's husband, and she is in mourning. 

I hadn't imagined that Rewda had so recently passed away, and the tragedy of her death compounded with that of her husband, in one week, seemed mindbending. Not knowing what was the right way to express our sympathy, we simply told the assembled people who were trying to help us that we were so sorry to hear this news.

The next day, we hired a guide who we hoped could show us some hidden treasures and give us some local insights. He asked if we wanted to see a traditional Harari house, and we told him it was one of the things we most wanted to see.

He took us to Zubeyda's house. Which was open. A group of women of varying ages was washing linens in the courtyard. They smiled and greeted us warmly. Zubeyda and Girma, our guide, showed and explained to us the richly symbolic decorations of the segmented room, with its central riser and alcoves — used to denote guests' and residents' rank by where they are seated — and the sectioned-off room intended for newly married couples, which is notable for having a window through which relatives pass food and water during the days of the honeymoon. The home was refreshingly cool, even in the heat of the day, and had that welcoming air that's as impossible to define as it is to force. It would be a perfect place to stay. 

Girma told us that Zubeyda said her brother-in-law had recently died, and that was why her sister's guesthouse was closed. We expressed our condolences, but I was confused. I told Girma that two people had told us that Rewda had died. "No, no," he said. "Her husband." I wondered if what we had encountered was an example of the translating hazards of the telephone game, or some more profound cultural message that when you lose your husband, a part of you dies as well. 

As we walked out, Girma indicated Rewda to us, among the women doing the washing. She looked up and nodded, with a small but warm smile.