Al-Arabi Visits the Last Islamic Sultanate in the Black Continent

Al-Arabi Visits the Last Islamic Sultanate in the Black Continent

The Afars

Four and a half million people living in the Horn of Africa are Arabs like us. They speak our language, and write in the same alphabet. They are one hundred percent Muslims. They came from Yemen and Hijaz, and remained there. But what happened with them is the same as what happened with the Kurds, the same scenario, with the same reasons and the same justification. A prosperous nation was broken into fragments by colonialism, which cut up its body and distributed it among neighbors, and then stood shamelessly pretending to weep about its human rights.

Exactly, colonialism used a knife on the Afar body and cut it up into three unequal parts, and each neighbor had a piece of the cake. This is the same thing that happened to the Kurds, for whom colonialist generosity reached the point of cutting their homeland into five parts and distributing it too. What a plan! What oppressive injustice, and generosity that gives against the wishes of the gift!

Al-Arabi magazine went to Africa, specifically to the Horn of Africa, to witness some facts of the last moments of the disappearance of the last Islamic sultanate, after it had remained for a long time helping to spread the Arabic language and culture and the religion of Islam in various parts of the black continent.

After long years of prosperity, and long years of defending a united entity exposed to annihilation, the Afar nation was cut up between three states in the Horn of Africa. But the agreement specified also that the Sultanate would remain under the authority of its spiritual leader, the Sultan Ali Marah, who is now approaching his eightieth year, on condition that this unified Sultanate, whose area is more than twice that of France, would come to an end, and its parts would dissolve into the states among which it was partitioned, after the Sultan went to meet his Creator.

Thus the Sultanate began to disintegrate, and the countdown began for an entity whose strength everyone had once feared, and whose friendship they tried eagerly to win in a bygone age that was different to this one we are witnessing now in which we have come to ponder on memories of ancient greatness over whose ruins we continue to weep.

It was an amazing surprise for us when we learnt that Sultan Ali Marah was there in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa at the time when we arrived there. We knew that this Sultan had remained exiled from his homeland for a long time, from the when the forces of the Sultanate were waging a fierce fight in defense of the independent entity of the Sultanate against the army of the Emperor Haile Selassie, and afterwards Mengistu Haile Maryam.

We had to take this opportunity, then, and go to his large house in the capital. Although we arrived there at half past ten at night, the appearance of the interior of this house, which may have been a palace as traces of the remnants of a departed splendor were visible, was an indication in its expansiveness and length of a time of great magnificence in which the Sultan had lived, as well as his entourage who still surrounded him out of admiration and to seek his blessing. His followers still offered him the duties of obedience of their own free will, and out of a conviction that seemed eager to sacrifice themselves for him and to defend him. They regarded him as a symbol, a father and the conscience of an entity that has a wide area (25,000 square kilometers) and contains four and a half million people, all of whom believe that they have a single destiny and among themselves do not recognize those borders dividing the three states, which have tried to absorb them in their new entities and separate them from their brethren with these borders.

The Afars were not the only ones who surprised us, nor their Sultan whose presence we discovered accidentally when we were in that important African country. When one is in Ethiopia one is in a very strange world which can cause one astonishment and bewilderment at any moment.

Thus Ethiopia took us and brought us a surprise with every step. Everything we saw and approached was guaranteed to transport us from one strange world to another even stranger one. This leads one in the end to imagine oneself in several countries, not one.

In this country mosques and churches are next to each other. The sounds of the call to prayer five times a day rise up with the chimes of the cathedral bells, while Muslims, Christians, pagans, fire worshippers and people with no religion coexist and mix together throughout the length and breadth of Ethiopia. Indeed, in most instances they belong to one tribe which is broad enough to include them in spite of the difference in their religions and group loyalties, in which national feeling has the loudest voice.

Hence our astonishment was great when we learnt that Sultan Ali Marah was there in those days when we were in Addis Ababa. The Sultan had returned recently and settled down, but he would travel from time to time all around the Sultanate, specifically in its severed parts which had been torn up between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

Since we arrived in Ethiopia, memory made three names accompany us everywhere: Abyssinia, the Negus and Bilal the Abyssinian. Abyssinia (Al-Habasha in Arabic) was the name applied to that region in ancient times. It was called after the Habashat tribe which migrated there from Yemen after the collapse of the Ma rib Dam. The Negus (Najashi in Arabic) was the good king Ahmad Al-Najashi who gave asylum to the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (may God bless him and give him peace), and for whom the Prophet said funeral prayers in his absence after his death, and this became a legitimate custom for Muslims from that day on. In the Axum region in Tigre province there is his mosque, which has become a shrine. Near to it are the graves of the Companions (may God be pleased with them). The third name, Bilal the Abyssinian, was the Prophet s muadhin who gave the call to prayer and who had come to Makkah from Abyssinia.

The 22 mosques in the Ethiopian capital, and those which we saw along the road in distant villages and towns scattered along a road which stretches for 650 kilometres, as we were on our way to the Ethiopian part of the Sultanate of Afar, were evidence of the deep roots of Islam in that country, of which the impression has remained that it contains a weak, marginalized Muslim minority. This belief has continued to prevail since Menelik II, the King and unifier of Ethiopia, waged a fierce war against the Muslims which almost destroyed them completely. After him came the Emperor Haile Selassie who in turn continued an campaign of extermination and complete annihilation, hunting down any manifestation of Islam, forbidding any writing in Arabic or the performance of religious ceremonies. When he was driven from power by a military coup d etat, Colonel Mengistu Haile Maryam came to power, to continue the course of annihilating others.

However the Muslims, as Al-Arabi magazine was told by every one of them whom we met, are now living in better times since the present government took over, which is made up of an alliance of several political parties. Although members of the Tigre people control the leading positions, Muslims are represented in the government, and they have three ministers at the present time, as well as other senior officials. They are also represented fairly in the federal parliament, and their regions enjoy autonomy whereby they manage their own affairs themselves, and have their own governors and local governments and parliaments. Talk about the numbers of Muslims in Ethiopia has now become a matter for open discussion at various levels. Even the government has mentioned more than once in official documents that the number of Muslim Ethiopians amounts to 30% of the population, and even this estimate is seen by Islamic circles as an underestimate, and indicate that the real proportion is between 60% and 65% of the total population.

These circles told Al-Arabi that freedom of worship has become guaranteed by the provisions of the Constitution, and there are no longer any restrictions on the building of places for prayer. The Muslims have benefited from this by building several mosques, and have been compensated for the demolition of mosques and persecution of congregations which happened under previous governments. Religious tolerance by the government has reached the point that there is plenty of room to pray at Addis Ababa International Airport. Indeed, in every domestic airport there is a place where carpets are spread and prayers are held at the appointed times. In fact we saw that during our travels through the expansive regions of Ethiopia, for which we resorted to Fokker aircraft in order to spare ourselves the torment of extremely rough roads which we had tried out when we ventured to travel in the Ethiopian part of the Afar Sultanate.

The Road to Afar

In the midst of these facts, we had to travel there to see things for ourselves. So we made our way to the town of Awash, which lies 450 kilometres away from the Ethiopian capital and is one of the most important Afar towns. It took us more that four hours to reach it. The region contains other important cities, including Issa Ayta or Awsa, the capital of the province, for which the government decided recently to choose the city of Samra as its new capital. There are other cities like Gawani, Glafu (which lies on Ethiopia s border with Djibouti, Markawr, Marka Seddi, Mathara and Umm Bibara.

We set out in the company of Muhammad Awwal, the former commander of the Afari Liberation Army which had fought for 17 years against the forces of Mengistu before being dissolved recently and merged into the government army, and Muhammad Durri, the public relations employee in the Kuwaiti Embassy in Addis Ababa. Abdulrahman Karrar, a graduate of the Political Science Faculty of one of the universities in the American state of Arizona, who drove the Jeep which Sultan Ali Marah had allocated to convey us to the Afar regions. It was early morning and the sun was still hiding itself when we set off along the Debre Zeyit road in the morning traffic congestion and the choking fumes from exhausts mingled with dust from the dirt road. We passed along a long street which led to the Eritrean port of Assab as well as Djibouti which has become the only sea outlet for imports to reach landlocked Ethiopia which has no harbor.

We arrived at the town of Debre Zeyit. A few days earlier we had visited a lake there called Hora. In its main square on some of its buses was written the name of the town of Jikbajika, in the Somali province of Ethiopia. We went along a road which in the end leads to Kenya across southern Ethiopia. Then we turned right to enter a dirt road for five kilometers before returning to a paved road to arrive at the city of Nazret, a town with a hot climate, which had been chosen a few months earlier as the capital of the province of Oromo after Addis Ababa had remained its capital as well as the capital of the country. Its Oroman inhabitants call it Adami. It is a large crowded city with about 100,000 inhabitants. On the road we saw a mosque, an orphanage and a health center built by the Kuwait-based Africa Muslims Committee whose Chairman is Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Sumait, which has brought wonderful smiles to the lips of orphans and the needy in the African countries.

Now we came near the Afar regions. As we arrived at the town of Walan Titi, we had no more than an hour s distance ahead of us. Our concern at that moment was to arrive before the time of the Friday prayers, as we had left our accommodation in the capital Addis Ababa in the early hours of the morning in order to attend the prayer service with the Afar inhabitants. But after we had passed through the limits of the city of Adami and begun to enter the area separating Oromo and Afar, crossing a dry road with only various desert plants on its edges and no trace of houses, and after our car had traveled for half an hour, its back tire began making an aggravating sound , a repeated banging which caused a loud noise. The driver stopped and we got out of the car with him, to find that this tire had been stripped off. Our stopped had stopped near a large tree under which four black-skinned, barefooted with dust-covered hair were sitting, with leather belts around their waists from which daggers were hanging. Our companion headed towards them to photograph them. They refused vehemently, and then as quick as lightning they placed their bodies in sacks made of white cloth, which we had imagined at first sight were shawls thrown over their shoulders. They remained thus, wrapped up in sacks with their bodies stretched out on the ground, until we gave them pieces of barr , as they called Ethiopian coins.

With great difficulty and limited capabilities, we removed the stripped tire and replaced it with the spare tire, but after the double exhaustion the substitute tire also collapsed. So we repeated the performance and restored the stripped tire once more to its original place, after one of the men from Oromo had given us his dagger to cut away the protruding pieces from the thick part of it. The man was wearing iron bracelets on his right hand, and had a round metal earring in his ear. After we had confirmed to ourselves that there was no way for us to travel the remaining half hour except by using this tire, making allowance for all possibilities in our minds and enduring anything that might result from a tire like this. The car proceeded with it on an extremely hot road, amidst people who emerged from the midst of the forests. One look from their very harsh and fierce eyes and the sight of their rifles loaded with real bullets or their long pointed daggers were enough to strike terror into one s limbs.

The car began to move forward and we began to read traditional prayers, so that the car could bring us to our destination. My head was full of dozens of worries and questions: what if the remaining part of the ire, which was no longer thick, burst on a road like this along which cars do not pass? Or if they pass they do not offer help or even stop. There was no agriculture, no houses, nothing but people of the forests. What would be our fate? Not only that, but also our companion, the former commander of the Afari Liberation Army, who had used the forests of that area as a center to launch a guerrilla war, told us very calmly that the area was regarded as an open zoo, and that lions, tigers, leopards, elephants and hyenas lived there and came out onto the main road from time to time.

The former commander provided this information as proof of the courage of his soldiers. He was not aware that, with the many worries that were pursuing me because of this accursed tire, it increased my terror to the utmost. My companion who had experience of the forests of Asia and Africa was calmer and tougher, at least this is how he seemed. I verified what the Afari commander had said when after a little while I saw herds of gazelles roaming freely together. Then after proceeding about half a kilometer along a road flanked on both sides by open forest, I saw a huge African elephant on the left hand side of the road. Near it was a group of deer with tree-like branching antlers.

We drew near to a very large lake called Mutahhara, which wells up out of the ground and whose area is increasing year by year. Its water is salty and not suitable for drinking. When one washes one s hands in it, it leaves foam on them like the foam from soap. Nevertheless, it is home to many swans, storks and attractive birds. All along the road one can feast one s eyes on these beautiful breeds of creatures as they stand on the coal-black soil spread around the midst of the lake, which is said to be the remains of a volcano in that region that erupted in the past. The view was beautiful, but how could a feeling of enjoyment replace the feeling of terror that was overwhelming us?

Before leaving the lake we passed by the Sabouri area, which contains hot springs, animals on the loose and fruit trees. It is one of the large farms in the country. Before we arrived at the town of Mutahhara, the last town in Oromo where the lake is, after which begins the province of Afar, and between the two provinces, there is a massive mountain which separates them. At that time it was about twelve o clock midday, and only half an hour remained until the prayer service began.

As soon as we saw a car repair shop, we stopped. Calm returned to us then, and after that we set off for the town of Awash. On the way to it we encountered whirlwinds, whose spirals continued to rise up bearing dust as high as 25 metres. The car increased its speed to get away from the whirlwind moments before it crept on us, and entered the boundaries of the Third Afar Region at kilometer 215. It is an area that is allocated in its entirety to wild animals.

We entered Awash at one o clock in the afternoon. The prayers had begun half an hour earlier, and that may have been the reason why the main streets of the city through which we passed were empty of people. We arrived at the mosque, which is one of only two mosques in that town of about 20,000 inhabitants. We were told this by the Mayor who had intervened to prevent the congregation from obstructing our entry to the mosque, in the belief that we were not Muslims since we were wearing jeans. We had faced similar obstruction when we were saying the midday prayers in one of the mosques in the city of Harer, which we had visited two days before we visited the Afar regions, but the obstructions of the inhabitants soon changed into friendliness and a warm welcome when our companion intervened to explain the situation.

The green mosque, called the Awash Mosque after the town, was crowded with people, both inside, where the tiled floor was not covered with any carpets, and in the open space surrounding it, where the ground was hard earth. After the prayers were ended, a circle from the congregation chose a corner of the mosque and began studying together. There were lines of blue antimony on the eyes of some of them. When we came near to photograph their circle, they refused vehemently. We tried to persuade them that our aim was to inform Arab readers about the situation of the Muslims in that remote spot, their leader told us, Religion requires missionary work, not propaganda. They informed us that they had come from distant regions in the interior of Ethiopia like Dire Dawa and the province of Somalia to study, learn and try to know and understand the religion of Islam.

A Dead Life

They buried us alive. These were the words of the Deputy Governor of the Third Afar Region Muhammad Tahirou, who informed us that the Ethiopian Afari province, which lies at the north-eastern end of Ethiopia, is adjoined in the east by the Republic of Djibouti and Eritrea, in the west by the Ethiopian province of Amhara and the Ethiopian district of Wallaw also, in the south by the province of Shawa and in the north by the province of Tigre. It extends for 750 kilometres and only contains one health center which serves all the 2,550,000 Afars in Ethiopia. The number of people of Afari nationality in the three countries, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, is four and a half million. This health center is the town of Douiti, 450 kilometres from Awash. It contains twelve clinics but not a single bed.

Tahirou, who met us after the Friday prayers, described the life of the Afars as similar to the life of people who live in tombs. They have no running water, electricity or shools except only one which covers the whole Afari province, just as one small health center treats all the people. More than one third of newborn Afari babies die because of the lack of any immunization against illnesses, and 65% of the patients at this health center suffer from tuberculosis.

The Afar province is one of the extremely undeveloped provinces, and its people are extremely poor. They have no social, health or educational services, and their mosques and schools are built of wood which does not protect them from the heat, cold and rain. It never rains in some areas, and the inhabitants are often forced to walk for a whole day in order to reach water. While the problems of the inhabitants of this province are uncountable, the famine which pursues them constantly is the most dangerous problem. When there is no rain, this is enough to kill off their livestock on which they are basically dependent for their food and their daily lives.

At a time when nature has been and still is being harsh to them to this day, this people have been exposed throughout their history to continuous wars aimed at wiping out their identity in which many people and much property have been destroyed, and lands, crops and children burnt throughout the long years. Successive Ethiopian governments have tried to efface the identity of this province, and have not given it the slightest attention in terms of services. After they succeeded in impoverishing it and making it backward, they partitioned its territory into several portions and attached them to adjoining regions in the provinces of Tigre, Wallaw, Shawa and Harer. This process of effacing its identity continued until the end of the previous Communist government headed by Mengistu Haile Maryam and the advent of the present government of Meles Zenawi, which decided to reunite it as one province, under one government that runs its own affairs.

But the almost non-existent services are not the only thing that kills in this region. The huge Awash River usually floods every year and inundates the villages scattered around it, killing hundreds of poor people. Helicopters, which usually arrive too late, pick up the remaining people who clung to the branches of trees in the midst of the water.

The Ethiopian Afari province is divided into five governorates. The first, called Awsa, contains six administrative districts and its capital is Issa Ayta. The second, the Northern Governorate, with Abaala as its capital, contains seven administrative districts, and the third, the Southern Governorate, contains six administrative districts and the two towns of Awash and Ammy. The fourth, the Western Governorate, is divided into five administrative districts and its most important town is Kalwana. The last, the South-Western Governorate, is divided into five administrative districts and its most important town is Dalfagy.

From each of these administrative districts, whose total number is 29, three representatives are chosen to represent it in the local parliament of the Afar province, which is located in the Afar capital, Issa Ayta, a city that lies 629 miles away from Addis Ababa. In the central federal parliament (the Assembly of the People s Representatives) there are eight members who represent the Afars. At the same time the present government headed by Zenawi (of Tigre nationality) contains one Minister from the Afars, namely Hasan Abdullah, the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. The Afars have five political parties which at the present time have merged into a united front.

The Afars, who obtained autonomy after the rise of the present government and the expulsion of Mengistu from power, have assumed charge of provincial affairs themselves, from the senior administration and government to the security forces. But although there are Afars at the head of these structures, there is not a single doctor or engineer in the whole of this province from the people of that nationality, of which no more than ten percent are educated. The local people say that this is due to two factors. The first is that the successive regimes that ruled Ethiopia did not pay the slightest attention to the Afars. Health services were non-existent, and education was totally forbidden. The second factor is that the Afars by nature are a nomadic people, who move from one place to another to graze their herds, depending on where there is food and water. The longest period of time in which an Afari stays in one place is no more than three months. Consequently it is difficult to organize their children in education. Nevertheless, the traditional Islamic school system provides for this one hundred percent Muslim people to memorize the Holy Quran. Children are taught this on wooden boards without the use of exercise books or any kind of paper.

Cultural Influence

When the Prophet Muhammad (God bless him and give him peace) advised his Companions to emigrate to the land of Abyssinia, he told them, If you depart for the land of Abyssinia, there is a King there under whom no one is oppressed. It is a land of honesty, so that God will give you a way out of the predicament you are in. The generous care that the Negus showed to the exiles had its effect, and Arabs and Muslims were frequent visitors to this country in the Islamic era in order to trade, as well as the coastal cities, which were busy with Arab trade. The Arabs established new trading centers along the coast of the Horn of Africa. Arab economic activity paved the way for the Muslim Arabs to mix with the local inhabitants. This helped to spread Islam among the local people gradually. From Abyssinia it spread to the countries of the Horn of Africa. The Dahlak Archipelago and the ports aof Massawa, Zayla and Berbera were among the first cities to be influenced by Islam and Arab culture. From them some cultural influences filtered across the trade routes, particularly in the coastal plains among the Bedouins of the Afar, Danakil and Sahou. From the far north, from the ports of Suakin and Massawa, another Islamic current flowed across the Beja country as far as Eritrea. In the far south, between Abyssinia, Somalia and the Afar country, that facilitated the flow of Arab and Islamic culture. A number of Islamic Emirates and Sultanates grew up in the far south along the strait of Bab Al-Mandab. These Sultanates were known to Arab historians as countries of the Islamic type.

The most important Islamic kingdoms established by the Arabs in the Middle Ages from the Afari and Somali Arabs in Abyssinia were the Islamic Kingdom of Shawwa, the Emirate of Zayla, the Emirate of Harer and the Emirate of Jama, as well as the seven Islamic Emirates in the region of the Horn of Africa. These were the Islamic Emirates of Ifat, Adl, Hadiya and Dwaru, and the Kingdoms of Bali and Sharkha.

In the Presence of the Sultan

Sultan Ali Marah, who greeted us warmly and with a friendly smile which never for a moment left his features, spoke Arabic fluently. He told us that the origins of the Afars were traced back to the Arabs one hundred percent , as they had come from Hijaz and Yemen. All of this people without exception are Muslims. The Afars have their own language which they speak, the Afari national language, but their official writing is in Arabic.

The Sultan mentioned that the Sultanate used to enjoy independence even in the days of Menelik II the Terrible, and before him during the reign of Johannes who was known for his harshness against the Muslims in Ethiopia.

The Sultan said that he had been exiled from his Sultanate for 16 years, which he had spent as a guest of the late King Faisal Ibn Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, after the aircraft of the Communist regime in the days of Haile Maryam had bombed his palace and demolished it completely.

The sultan, who acceded to his father s throne in 1944, explained that he had returned again after the Ethiopian province had obtained autonomy, and after he had agreed to the Afari army, which was a highly organized and courageous army during the days of the fighting, being merged with the Ethiopian army.

We are a mountainous region like Tihama, the Sultan added, and we have the Awash River which flows through our territory and is the source of our life. It begins in Ethiopia and flows into our territory to make it a delta which is some of the most fertile land. This delta is our Sultanate. Before we existed, Arabs known as Imams used to rule this land. The last of these was from the Yanbu region in Saudi Arabia. Then came my ancestor Da Hasan Karadfu and ruled this region. I am the thirteenth generation descended from him. Karadfu is a characteristic that was applied to everyone who ruled this Sultanate. It means leader, commander or ruler.

We own the entry to the Red Sea, the Sultan added, and we control it. And this strait Bab Al-Mandab has caused us many problems. We are trying, in whatever way we can, to keep our land away from any foreign domination. When Israel asked us to give it bases in return for helping us to develop agriculture and industry, we refused firmly. What

would we get from a gang that plunders and kills and violates the rights of the Arab Palestinian people?

Customs and Traditions

The Afari nationality, to which more than three million people belong according to official statistics of the state, and four and a half million according to what the inhabitants insist is the actual reality. They are distributed among three neighboring states (250,000 in Djibouti where they represent one third of the inhabitants who are made up of two nationalities, the Afars and Issas, 200,000 in Eritrea , and 1,550 in Ethiopia according to official statistics in the three states). The Afari Triangle where they live spreads from Awash and Zola and extends with the heights of Abyssinia (1,100 km.), and from the east to the west (660 km.) from Assab to Awash which is 630 km. from Djibouti. They are not bound by the international borders separating these three states, each of which has taken possession of part of the Afari Sultanate. The tribes are in contact with each other, as Sultan Ali Marah informed us when we went to see him at his headquarters in the center of Addis Ababa. It takes place without an entry visa from a region in one country to an Afari region in another country.

Although there are five Sultanates in the three countries, namely Awsa in Ethiopia, Rahit and Badu in Eritrea and Tajor and Qawbaad in Djibouti, the only surviving one after the collapse of the Sultanates is Awsa, whose Sultan Ali Marah obtained an oath of allegiance from all the Afari people, thereby becoming the only Sultan. He has thus become a national symbol, but nobody is expected to succeed him afterwards. This means that the present Sultanate of Awsa will dissolve in the end into the entity of the state, after the Afars of Ethiopia, in whose area Awsa lies, obtained autonomy. Consequently the last Islamic Sultanate in Africa will come to an end.

Marriage among the Afars is always by mutual consent, and the bridegroom pays a dowry to the bride. Despite this, the bridegroom also is responsible for equipping the marital home. This is in the Afari towns. But in the central and southern regions the traditions are different. According to a traditional marriage, a girl must marry from her original tribe, or in the event of her marrying outside her people, permission has to be obtained. Normally an Afari man marries two or three wives. They say that this is an Arab tradition . The average family has between five and seven children in the towns, and in the countryside this number rises to between 15 and 20 children.

Since there is no discrimination between the Afars, the most modest young Afari man can ask for the hand of the daughter of the Sultan or the richest man in the tribe. He can marry her without objection as long as there is agreement and mutual consent between the two sides. One accepted Afari tradition is that, when drought prevails, a man considers himself rich if he owns thirty camels (of which at least six are males), and a herd of livestock amounting to 100 animals.

In the event of disagreements occurring between the Afars and other nationalities, the case is brought to the civil courts which deal with it. But if a disagreement arises between one Afari and another, there is a traditional settlement which is reached through the Sheikh of the tribe, and it is the duty of the litigants to accept it.

The Afars have a large number of tribes, of which there are three major ones, the Hamdi Sirat, and the Badawi Tamila, of which the Dahnamila is an offshoot. Generally the origins of any Afari are from these three tribes. Each tribe has a Sheikh who is chosen by the elders of the families, who in turn have been chosen earlier by the families.

The basic Afari meal is milk and bread, the favorite food of camel herders. In the towns the main meal is rice and meat. In Ramadan, milk only is consumed for both the iftar, the evening meal to break the fast, and the suhur, the pre-dawn meal before the day s fasting begins.

The Afars are meticulous about fasting in Ramadan, just as they are meticulous about saying the Eid (religious festival) prayers in public squares and mosques wearing new clothes, and on visiting each other to exchange the season s greetings. In the celebrations held after the Eid prayers, drums are beaten and songs are sung about the Prophet. They are also very meticulous about performing the ceremonies of the pilgrimage. They used to do this during the time of Haile Selassie and Mengistu by infiltrating across the Djibouti border and the Red Sea coast to Saudi Arabia, but this has ended at the present time, since the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, which was established after the overthrow of the previous regime, organizes pilgrimage trips for those who are able to go on them.

The Afar province is an extremely hot desert, with a very large area. It includes extensive land that is suitable for agriculture and raising livestock. It is also famous for growing cotton, but does not really benefit from its production because of lack of resources. Most of the inhabitants of the province are nomadic Bedouins who depend for their livelihood on raising livestock and move to wherever there is rainfall. And the province suffers from drought from time to time, which causes famine and poverty. At the same time the towns of this province lack basic infrastructure. There are no modern installations or social centers, nor can people travel from one town to another except riding animals or on foot.

Who Are the Afars?

The word Afar is of Arabic origin. The Arabs who migrated to that region applied it to its inhabitants since ancient times. This people are also called Danakil. The originators of this name were the Yemenis, who attributed this people to the family of Ankali which used to rule them in antiquity.

The Afari people are regarded as one of the oldest Hamitic peoples who settled in the Horn of Africa region. They played a prominent role in that region in various phases of history through which it passed. This people had a long political history of self-rule like other peoples in the world before European colonialism came. It had strong Sultans like Adal and Ankala in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Islam entered the region early on. Most historians believe that Islam probably came to this province through the Prophet s Companions who migrated to Abyssinia in the first and second migrations, because that region was connected to the region of the Negus, the King of Abyssinia at that time, who was host to the Companions who migrated. The province has a history that is deeply rooted in Islam, and major Islamic kingdoms arose in it, like the kingdom of Afat, which arose after the fall of the kingdom of Shua. Some history books mention that the Imam Ahmad Ibn Abdullah Ibn Ibrahim, nicknamed Gharran, who conquered most regions of Abyssinia between 1500 and 1559, was one of the people of this region.

The regime of Sultans continued to rule the Afari people until recent times. It is a system which has an Islamic tribal character. In addition the province contains Islamic antiquities, ancient mosques and rare hand-written manuscripts.

The most important Afar tribes which live in Ethiopia include the Damohita, the Modaitu, the Karau, the Maandina, the Warabtu, the Umintu, the Lutu, the Tohadtu, and the Harunba which is an Arab tribe which merged with the Bal aswa tribe.

The Afaris in general are characterized by their slender build and short stature, but their muscles are tough. They are dark-skinned with a tinge of ruddiness, and they have fine noses, thin lips and thick curly hair. They are in general abstemious, put up with the hardships of life and endure unpleasant circumstances. They are noted for their physical strength and hate manual labor. By nature they are inclined to fighting and raiding. They are skilled hunters and their profession is herding camels and sheep. They occupy the pasture lands, moving from one place to another. Being professional hunters they seldom miss their targets. Afaris always go out to hunt lions and tigers, carrying no weapons but a dagger and a spear.

The ornaments of an Afari man are his weapons, which are a spear, a dagger and a small, beautifully shaped shield. A woman s ornaments are silver earrings on her ears and bracelets on her hands.

The Present Situation

The Afari province in its present situation is nine provinces and two administrative districts which have constituted the federal system in Ethiopia since the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (AHADQ) assumed power in the wake of the overthrow of the Haile Maryam regime. It has followed a new program which is radically different from the previous regimes, since it established a federal system for Ethiopia, regarding this as the best for a country which is made up of several nationalities. The Afari Liberation Front under the leadership of Sultan Ali Marah allied itself with it and took part in the London Reconciliation Conference, and the conference of the ruling Ethiopian Front in 1991 adopted a decision whereby it agreed to the right of each of the different nationalities to establish federated governments for themselves within Ethiopia. Thus the Afars in Ethiopia, according to the law and the Ethiopian constitution, have a province which enjoys local autonomy in the framework of the Ethiopian federal state.

The area of the Afars province, one of the nine provinces which enjoy autonomy, is one fifth of the area of Ethiopia. Its inhabitants, who are all Muslims, represent 4% of the inhabitants of Ethiopia. They used to have several political parties, which at the present time have merged as one party, the Afari United Democratic Front. The Afars provincial parliament consists of 48 members. This parliament elects 15 of its members as a political bureau which represents the executive authority. The political bureau chooses 16 members for the local government, the Regional Council of ministers. They are chosen in varying proportions from all the parties which make up the United Front. The province is represented by two members in the national federal parliament of the Senate (which is different from the central parliament and the legislative authority, whose members are chosen by direct free elections from all the provinces and with the participation of all the political parties in Ethiopia).

While this is the situation of the Afars in Ethiopia, in Djibouti they form one of the two most important nationalities, Afars and Issas, the latter being the more numerous nationality. They used to participate with the Afars of Eritrea, who live in the north of the country on the Red Sea coast in the Eritrean province of Dinkala, and also with the Afars of Ethiopia who live in Tigre, Wolo and and Shua provinces in the north and west of Djibouti. The Afars of Djibouti occupy an area of 20,000 square kilometers out of Djibouti s total of 23,000 square kilometers. The most important Afari Sultanates in Djibouti included the Sultanates of Rahit, Tajor, Obak and Gawbaad. According to the agreement concluded between the government and the Afari rebel movement led by the Front for Unity and Democracy, the two main groups in the country, an Afari, Dilita Muhammad, was appointed Prime Minister of Djibouti.

In Eritrea the Afars had an important role in embracing the Eritrean revolution from the time it erupted in 1960. Many Afars from the various tribes joined its ranks. The province where the Afars live is known as the southern coastal province or Dinkala, and the gateway through which the first Arab immigrants came to Eritrea as a whole. There has always been a distinctive racial and geographical distribution in this province. It saw the landing of the Semitic or Qahtani Arabs north of Zola and Massawa, and from there they penetrated deeply into the Eritrean plateau and Tigre province. It also saw the landing of the ancient Adnani or Hilali Arabs from Hadramaut who migrated to the Dinkala coast and settled there.


From the towns of the Afari province the car conveyed us to the same road which had exhausted our strength in the morning and caused one of its tires to burst. But no other course was open to us but to submit the reality of the situation. We surrendered to our fate and the car headed off with us to Addis Ababa. On the road we encountered hundreds of Afari herdsmen and their long processions of livestock, the glint of the weapons with which Afari herdsmen adorn their shoulders shining blatantly. After the dust of the processions of herdsmen had dispersed, Lake Mutahhara came into our view where girls and boys were swimming naked as they had been when their mothers gave birth to them.

Then the words of Deputy Governor Muhammad Tahirou rang in our ears, What are the Arabs and Muslims doing about the Afars, who are attacked by diseases, poverty, illiteracy and backwardness, and who have suffered long years of neglect, oppression and attempts to wipe out their identity? Do not those who resisted fiercely and endured indescribable torture in order to preserve their Arabic language, Islamic culture and rituals and their identity? Do they not deserve a glance from their brothers who have remembered the needy in distant countries and for a long time have forgotten these shy but strong people near them who take pride in their religion, language and culture and also in themselves?

That is what we wanted to say, and have tried to get across, after we were there and saw the moments which came immediately before the disappearance of the last Islamic Sultanate, not only in the Horn of Africa, but also in Africa as a whole.


Zakaria Abduljawad


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