A Mosque, a Book, and a Banister

In Djibouti City, finding a French translation of the Quran can be a tricky business

By / August 2015

The Hamoudi Mosque in downtown Djibouti is considered one of the city’s most iconic structures. One gushing sightseer compared the mosque to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This sounds like a stretch, but who am I to say? As a non-Muslim female foreigner, I have never been inside.

The mosque is located in Place Mahmoud Harbi, the official name of the bus station and this section of market and city, but almost no Djiboutians say ‘Place Mahmoud Harbi.’ Mahmoud Harbi was a Djiboutian and pan-Somalist. He labored for years, ultimately in vain, to join Djibouti to Somalia and was killed in a mysterious plane crash nearly two decades before independence. Sometime after independence the area was renamed in honor of the Djiboutian politician, though staff at the Djibouti Tourism Office weren’t sure of the exact year. Previously, the area had been called Place Rimbaud, after Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet, who passed through Djibouti in the 1880s. Still today, Place Rimbaud is the moniker that lingers.

The Hamoudi Mosque stands on a triangular corner island, which gives the building a unique shape, perhaps the inspiration for the Dome of the Rock comparison. Wikipedia says the Hamoudi Mosque was built in 1906. Staff in the Djibouti Tourism Office say it was built between 1913 and 1920, by an Arab businessman named Hadji Hamoudi. People I spoke with on the streets didn’t have any idea what year it was built.

Directly in front of the mosque, across Rue de l’Ethiopie, is a food market. It used to be the fish market and reeked of slowly warming fresh fish and rotten guts. Cats prowled between tables and screeched as they fought over bones and flesh. The wall outside the fish market still has a sign painted on it, “Cleanliness is close to godliness.” Now the fish market is about two kilometers down Rue d’Arta and the milder smells associated with tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, and watermelon fill the air.

Donkey carts, buses, taxis, shoppers, and vendors cram the dusty streets, narrowed by aluminum stall overhangs and umbrellas. Some vendors sell their wares from wheelbarrows that they squeeze down walkways or park in front of open shops. Some use overturned, defunct air conditioner units as shelves or stools and hawk plastic flip flops, barrettes, and tools carefully displayed on tarps spread over the dirt. Girls stroll with circular metal trays loaded with individual sachets of red hot sauce and fried dough balls balanced on their heads. Men hold stalks of khat and slowly chew on the leaves.

Beggars, women weaving grass baskets, and people selling fresh squeezed orange juice line the curb along all three sides of the Hamoudi Mosque. Up the slight hill the mosque sits on are the ‘blue doors.’ These are the tourist market stalls, and though few of the doors are painted blue anymore, like Place Rimbaud, the name lingers.

Stalls closest to the mosque sell religious paraphernalia: tusbahs, or prayer beads, white robes for men, skull caps, walking canes, Quran stands, prayer rugs, and cassette tapes or DVDs loaded with sermons. Behind glass cases there are a few Qurans wrapped in cloth. These aren’t for sale, not to me and not to anyone. Talk of selling the Islamic holy book is highly offensive to my Djiboutian friends. Allah’s message revealed to the prophet Mohammed is too precious for money. To give the Quran a monetary value would make it too human, too fallible, stripped of all its inherent holiness.

But, vendors must earn a living and can’t pass out Qurans for free. And Muslims want their own copies of the Quran. So, how exactly does a person procure one? The stall owner and the person looking for the Quran give each other gifts. The shopper could say something like, “I’m interested in having a new Quran.” The stall owner will hand him a Quran and the shopper will lay a handful of bills and coins on the countertop. They both make a fair estimate as to the matching value of the gifts, there is no haggling, and the interaction ends.

I learned this when I was looking for a French translation of the Quran and mistakenly inquired after the availability and price of one. I was told that there were no French translations available, that I should never ask the price of one, and that even if the stall had a French translation, I would not be allowed to hold it.

A few weeks later my husband visited a Djiboutian doctor and saw a French/Arabic translation on the doctor’s desk. “My wife has been looking for a French Quran,” my husband said, and asked where I could find a copy. “She must have mine,” the doctor said. He wrapped it in a cloth and gave it to my husband without hesitating.

Along with being an iconic building, the Hamoudi Mosque is considered one of Djibouti City’s top tourist sites. My suspicion is that this is because there aren’t many tourist sites, at least not in the city. Tourists mainly come to Djibouti for the snorkeling, scuba diving, adventure hiking, and rustic experiences available far from the city center. The mosque is as closed to me as a tourist as is buying a Quran. To get a feel for the building and the affection people feel toward it, I circle the mosque several times, looking, wondering, curious about what goes on inside.

A group of teenage boys pours out of the door after the evening prayer time. They slip into their black, faux leather sandals and scurry down the steps. One of them balances on the green banister and slides down, launching himself into the cacophonous street below.

As I watch the boys who had been praying as they disappear into the crowd, I remember the long-ago feel of cold metal, the crunch of snow, the glow of a dim streetlight against ice patches on the sidewalk. I remember the onionskin pages of my Bible between my fingers and the warmth that spread to my toes when we prayed inside the church. I remember sliding down the church banister on wintery Minnesota nights.

The structure of religion and religious buildings and holy books within Islam is different than it is within the religion I grew up with. But there are similarities. One of the most fundamental similarities is that both are religions followed by people. People who don’t know the exact dates of historical events and who gift their precious books to near-strangers. People who slide down banisters after prayer.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler, is a writer living in Djibouti City. Her last piece was about Djiboutian social greetings.