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The War on Chewing

Is Khat Crack? Or Is Khat Cappuccino?

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Photos By Kelly O

I'm in the back of a Yellow cab. It's 3:00 in the morning. The meter is about to reach the $10 mark. Five more dollars and I'll be at my apartment's door. Traffic has abandoned the city. Homes sleep. A building at the top of Beacon Hill glows like a demon hospital. A solar system of streetlights revolves around the windows. I'm the center of all this. I'm drunk. The driver is trying to convert me to Islam.

He is from Somalia. He appears to be tall. His age is somewhere between 28 and 32. He has been in the U.S. for four years and already has a strong grasp of English. A cloud of Arabic music rises from the stereo. The singer is as intoxicated by God as I am by wine.

"Look, what do you believe in? What is your faith?" the driver asks.

I don't want to tell him that I have no faith in any God—or at least what is usually understood to be God. My concept of God is taken from Spinoza's concept of substance and that is a conversation I don't want to get into at 3:00 in the morning. To avoid complicating matters, and insulting him with my Spinozisms, I say that I'm a Methodist.

"We Muslims believe in Jesus," he says. "You know that? He was a prophet."

"Yes, I'm aware of that."

"So all you have to do is take the next step and believe in the last prophet. And that is it. That is Islam."

As we near my apartment, the driver, who has devoted only 3 percent of his attention to the operation of the cab, explains with great excitement the connections between Christianity and Islam, and why Islam is the superior path. We turn onto my street. We reach my building. We come to a stop. But the driver has not stopped talking; he is still making these crucial connections, still trying to trap me in his faith.

To divert him for a moment, I ask him about the big subject of the day, at least for Somalis: khat. Pronounced "cot," and also called miraa, the leaves and twigs of this shrub are said to have a stimulating effect on the mind. In the movie Dirty Pretty Things, the hero, a cab driver, uses khat to stay awake, to keep working, to keep making the piles of money that all immigrants hunger for.

Khat is very popular in Djibouti, where it is estimated that 93 percent of the men chew it, and also Yemen, where in the late '90s, President Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to set an example of how not to abuse it by announcing he would "only chew it on the weekends" (Associated Press, April 24, 2000). Khat, which is also popular with my driver's countrymen, is banned in America, and was also banned by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which ruled Somalia for much of the second half of 2006. (The ICU was overthrown in December of 2006 by the Ethiopian military.)

"Khat is bad," my driver replies. "It is not good for you."

"Why?"

"It excites you."

"What is wrong with excitement?"

"Allah is enough for you. You don't need drugs. Allah provides you with all the joy you need."

The intensity of the Arabic singer rising from the speakers behind my head brings me to the point of believing my driver. The singer is in heaven, swimming in a pool of God's greatness, intoxicated from lips to toes by the ever-loving, ever-living All. Nevertheless, I pay my fare and leave the cab without submitting to Allah, peace be upon him.

• • •

In late July of 2006, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided 17 homes and businesses in King County and seized about 1,000 pounds of khat. Fourteen members of what it called a local "cell" of khat dealers were arrested and chained to the slow and costly wheels of justice. The sting was part of a larger and longer crackdown called Operation Somalia Express, which ended with the arrest of 44 East Africans who, according to the DEA, were dealing and distributing khat in cities including Minneapolis, Nashville, New York, Washington DC, and Seattle.

The DEA's problem with khat is that it contains cathinone, which is a controlled substance. The "euphoria and stimulation" that a person derives from chewing the fresh stalk or leaves of khat is caused by this chemical. Yet khat contained cathinone back in April of 2000 when DEA spokesman Stan Skowronski stated that khat is "not one of our priorities." In August 2006, however, an FBI agent defending Operation Somalia Express claimed that the khat trade was funding terrorists in East Africa and the Middle East. Nevertheless, the DEA has failed to find one actual link between American khat chewing and Somali terror training.

The DEA also pretends to be concerned with the long-term effects of khat. "Individuals who abuse khat typically experience a state of mild depression following periods of prolonged use," claims the DEA's website. "Khat can reduce the user's motivation and can cause manic behavior with grandiose delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations..."

All of this sounds very vague—and what, exactly, is wrong with "grandiose delusions"? President Bush suffers from those without using khat.

• • •

I call Hassan on his cell phone. We haven't talked in years. Born in Somalia, tall, thin, handsome, bespectacled, somewhere between the ages of 29 and 34, Hassan was a student in a class I taught some time ago somewhere. Somehow his business card managed to stay in the pages of my Zimbabwean passport—which expired in August of 2004 and has since functioned as a wallet.

After greetings and a little catching up, I inform Hassan that I need to ask a question of a sensitive nature and that it would be best to meet in person. He tells me that he is in Minneapolis and will return at the end of the week. We select a popular Seattle cafe and make plans to meet there when he's back in town. We say our goodbyes.

A few days later, I leave my office on foot, cross Cal Anderson Park, and arrive for my appointment with Hassan a little early; he arrives a little late. After buying coffee, we get down to business: I want to score some khat. I want to feel what the fuss is about. Is this drug as bad, as dangerous, as addictive as, say, crack? Does it deserve all this media attention? Hassan is a Somali; he must know where I can get the stuff.

"It's funny you bring that up," he says in his thick Somali accent. "When you called me in Minneapolis, I was chewing khat as we were talking. Lots of khat in that city. They should call it Somaliapolis."

"What about Seattle?"

"Yes, but after the raid you have to be careful... and it's more expensive."

"Can you get some? And how much does it cost?"

"Yes, of course. Would I be a Somali if I could not get khat? What kind of Somali is that? I can get it between $50 and $100. It varies, you know. Sometime there's lots of it and the price goes down. Other times, like now, it's hard to find and the price goes up." I give him $100 and ask him to do his best. "Okay, I will. I will. Khat is great. You will enjoy it."

As we walk out of the cafe, I ask Hassan what he thinks about the Islamic Court Union and the war with Ethiopia. "Everything about Meles Zenawi [the Ethiopian leader] is like George Bush, you know? He steals the election just like Bush. He is unpopular just like Bush. He goes to war, saying he is fighting Islamic fundamentalism. Again, just like Bush. And Bush supports him."

"But what about the ICU banning khat?"

"That was unfortunate," he says, shaking his head regretfully. "You know, the ICU did a lot of good things. They brought down the chaos. They opened the airport. Opened hospitals. They are not all extremists. Some of the judges are moderates like me. But they did a wrong thing by banning khat. It's too popular. It's like banning coffee."

• • •

It's common to compare khat with coffee—very weak coffee. One reporter, Kevin Sites, who experimented with it while doing a news story in Somalia, described the effect of chewing "a whole tree of it" to "a double latte at Starbucks." Caffeine, like cathinone, is a psychoactive substance. We drink coffee because it is psychoactive, because it alters the mind's state, shifting it from one condition (tired, heavy, sleepy) to another (awake, aware, stimulated). And it is this—Somalian coffee—that the American government has decided to declare war on. And as with all our wars on human desires, this war will waste money, enrich criminals, and ruin lives.

Ironically, the Americans who are leading our wars on drugs and terror have the same attitude toward khat as those who are suspected of supporting terrorists in Somalia. In November 16, 2006, Islamists in Somalia banned khat because, according to Somaliland Times, it "causes insomnia, apathy, anxiety and heart problems..." (Issue 252). The ban caused protests not only in Somalia but also in Kenya, where most of the khat that Somalis consume is grown. (The khat exported to America also comes from this area, usually by way of the UK, where the plant is legal.)

"Hundreds of Kenyan khat growers in the eastern province of Meru, where many farmers have uprooted coffee in favor of the profitable khat, held street protests, saying the Somali ban had denied them their livelihoods," reported the Scotsman (Jan 2, 2007).

The Islamic militia, the ICU's muscle, used force to confiscate large amounts of khat, burned it publicly, and offered harsh words to users (who tend to be men) and no monetary compensation for dealers (who tend to be women). "Many have held that the light drug khat is the main misfortune of Somali culture, but banning it overnight was not even a realistic option for the many women seeing their marriage and economy ruined by khat-chewing husbands," said the Somaliland Times (Issue 252).

Immediately after the Ethiopian army captured Mogadishu in late December, the Islamic government's ban on khat was lifted. Flights began arriving from Kenya and the men of Mogadishu resumed the centuries-old habit of getting buzzed from the sticks and leaves of khat.

According to the blog In an African Minute, one Somali stated, "Mogadishu without khat is like Paris without nightclubs."

• • •

"Let's meet now. You have to get this fresh." It's a week later, and Hassan is calling from Pioneer Square. "Where are you?" he asks.

I'm on the other side of town but I make it to the corner of Second Avenue and Yesler Way in 10 minutes. The hour is 6:00, the Smith Tower is behind me, and the streets are alive with people Artwalking. Hassan pulls up to the corner in his SUV, rolls down the window, and tells me to get in. Hiphop thumps out of the speakers as he drives to a quiet spot. He parks, reaches behind his seat, and retrieves the goods—40 sticks wrapped in a green and yellow banana leaf. The plant is still fresh, which means that 40 or so hours ago it was picked by a poor farmer in Kenya. Twenty hours afterward, the plant arrived in London. Twenty hours after that, it was on the streets of Seattle. This is the global economy at its best: commodities traveling at the speed of need.

Hassan takes a twig from another bundle, puts it into his mouth, and says, "This is what you do. You chew the stick like this: Chew at the back of your mouth, chew until you get all the juice out, then suck it, then swallow everything." I follow his instruction. I chew the twig. It's bitter. It tastes a little like the peel of an unripe banana. It tastes like those dangerous berries that lure eyes but revolt the mouth. I swallow it, thank Hassan for the bundle, and leave the car. In a matter of moments the light in my head goes bright and the world becomes brighter, and I start wandering through the art galleries of Pioneer Square.

The first thing I notice about khat is that it doesn't improve the experience of bad art. In fact, it makes bad art worse because the ontological distance between you and a painting is significantly shortened. All of the colors, shapes, aspects seem right in front of you. Khat sharpens both visual and audio details. It triples the number of pimples you see on any given forehead and doubles the number of syllables you hear slipping and sliding on saliva. It also makes the user very talkative. It doesn't make me smarter, just faster at saying whatever is buzzing about my mind.

A minus: Khat does not make you feel sexy. It inspires lots of chatting, but no chatting-up. Some claim that in ancient times khat was used by the faithful so that they might stay up all night praying to Allah. It also kept them in the mosque because it weakened their drive to go to bed with a lover.

When sleep finally comes to me, long after the galleries have closed, it's heavy and thick with dreams. The next morning I am still buzzing, and the buzz lasts for the rest of the day. There's no crash in the end; no hangover, no headache, no lethargy, nor the pressing desire to chew more. Khat is not cocaine or mushrooms; it's not even whiskey. The effects and aftereffects of khat are not remarkable.

The only thing remarkable about khat is the sudden concern of America's drug warriors.

 

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