Of Rimbaud and Insider Information on Disasters Foretold

by Maniza Naqvi Tej

One perfect morning over several hours and cups of Tomoca macchiatos, under a clear blue sky and a sun whose warmth is like the perfect heat of a clay oven—I sit listening in at a café to the conversation at the table next to mine. Impossible not to, the short story which has engrossed me has come to an end. What better option then, but to keep the magazine open in a habit of reading and just listen instead. Two recently acquainted friends, I decipher, by way of an embassy dinner party two nights ago, sitting at the adjacent table and as Fereng as I, are arguing, or so it seems to me, about the local newspapers.

I find myself educated thus on Rimbaud and on how to read the local broadsheet and tabloids. I write here only what I have heard, from the two and not at all an opinion that I may hold myself. Far be it for me to hold such opinions for I am only here to mind my own business, and in the intervals to enjoy the mild climate and the coffee that the day has presented to me.

The scholar amongst the two, whom I have mistaken by his accent at first to be South Indian, is from Mauritius, and who, as I have understood from the conversation till this point, is on his way to Harar tomorrow, to deliver his own opinion at a local university on a paper on Arthur Rimbaud, who in this paper has been presented as the resident of Harar 1801-1807 and as the arms salesman and importer of brilles. Apparently, Arthur Rimbaud had inside information on market demand, through his friend in the palace of Emperor Menelik, the Swiss born Alfred Ilg, who was the chief advisor to the Emperor. Ilg kept Rimbaud informed about the royal household’s demands for such things as mini carafes or brilles for Tej. All this is news to me, this sunny morning, not only the poet, but also his trade. And it bears repeating, that he was the importer of arms and of the fragile long necked glass decanters from Italy called brilles, favored by the elite of Ethiopia as the vessels of choice for serving the traditional honey wine, Tej. So while other scholars would comment on his poetry, this scholar was to shed further light on the paper to be delivered there on Rimbaud the businessman in Harar, contributing to the weapons and alcohol trade. He was in the rather novel position of having to speak not of the poet’s art but rather his reasons for being in Ethiopia and his craft.

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