This is a travel story. This is a drug story. This is an epic, drug-fueled travel story about chewing psychotropic foliage in the worst place on earth. Are you ready? Let’s go.
So if you ever happen to find yourself skimming through the troposphere, high above the Horn of Africa, the engines of your cargo jet clawing at the currents of sub-Saharan air rolling off the lip of the Ethiopian plateau and down toward the Red Sea, there will come a moment when you’ll have to admit that the cockpit of an aging DC-8 with a broken oil-pressure gauge and a washed-out picture of a Ugandan mountain gorilla emblazoned on the tail offers a damn fine view of the most wretched place on the planet.
Off to the right, down along the borderlands extending out toward the very easternmost tip of Africa, stretch the desolate coastal plains that the British used to call the Furthest Shag of the Never-Never Land, and that the Somali camel herders and half-starved bands of refugees refer to as the Guban, which simply means “burnt.” Off to the left, up against the back end of Eritrea, lurks the Danakil Depression, a salt-encrusted sore on a wrinkled fold of the earth’s hide. The Danakil boasts the lowest point on the continent (more than five hundred feet below sea level) and summer temperatures that frequently hit 120 degrees. Jagged shards of volcanic rock stab through the skin of this land like giant, shattered ribs.
You won’t have long to contemplate this bonescape, though, and that’s because this is only a twenty-minute flight. So ten minutes after the wheels have lifted from the dusty Ethiopian town of Dire Dawa, your crew of five — a Nigerian captain and a Nigerian loadmaster, a Rwandan copilot, a Congolese purser, and Vincent, your Rhode Island-based Nigerian navigator — will already be making preparations to touch down at the far edge of what L.M. Nesbitt, the British explorer who conducted the first successful traverse of the Danakil in 1927, fittingly christened the “hellhole of Creation.”
In fact, there it is now.
Huddling on the southwest corner of the Bab el-Mandeb, or Gate of Tears, the strait separating Africa from the coast of Yemen, sits the tiny nation of Djibouti: horrific climate, endless sand, almost no fresh water, but a strategic cynosure of the first order. Nearly three million barrels of oil pass by this place every day. It also plays host to about fifteen hundred U.S. troops at Camp Lemonier, a former French Foreign Legion post that is now America’s sub-Saharan spearhead in the global war on terror. This explains the HC-130 turboprop jets and attack helicopters lining the tarmac of Ambouli Airport — a vaguely unsettling sight, given your payload.
Stacked on the deck of the fuselage on the other side of a thick metal door just behind Vincent’s navigation desk sits a mountain of white bags, each the size of a stuffed pillowcase. This is the afternoon’s shipment of khat, a psychotropic shrub that provides the overwhelming majority of Djiboutian men with their daily drug fix. Which means that having just vaulted over the Furthest Shag of the Never Whatever, you’re seconds away from landing next to a war base bristling with irritable jarheads, accompanied by twenty-two thousand pounds of a Schedule 1 amphetamine that, back in the U.S., carries the same penalties for large-scale trafficking — up to life in prison — as heroin, meth, or cocaine.
Jesus, you wonder, could anything be weirder than this?
Why, yes. And damned if it isn’t unfolding on the tarmac right now, where a mob of ragged-looking dudes wearing sarongs is sprinting across the runway toward the plane. The good news is that these men seem to be unarmed. The bad news is that they look really pissed off.
There are about fifty of them, and they seem to be chasing two open-bed trucks, one of which is pulling a rickety bob-trailer. As the trucks pull up next to the side of the plane, the sarong brigade divides neatly into two groups. The members of the bigger group clamber up the slats on the sides of the trucks, lever open the doors to the cargo hold, and start boosting one another into the plane to attack the payload, furiously flinging out the white sacks. A few of those bundles make it into the trucks, but most are caroming off the heads and shoulders of the men still trying to climb into the fuselage.
Meanwhile, the smaller, slightly more official-looking group is storming up the mobile staircase and appears to be preparing to assault — yes, they are assaulting — the door to the cabin. And now the Nigerian loadmaster, who is on his first Djibouti khat run and has thus become so rattled that he’s clearly taken leave of his senses, has thrown the latch and removed the only barrier keeping these assailants out. So now they’re barging into the cockpit, and the leader of this charge, a mean-looking bastard who has shaved his head so close to the bone that his skull looks like an enameled eggplant, has gotten into the face of the poor loadmaster and is screaming —
“Give me the manifest! Give me the manifest!”
This guy’s rage is raw, foaming, and totally impossible to fathom. Why is he so tweaked? What is his problem?
“I need the manifest — now!”
“Who the hell is this fellow?” asks the stunned loadmaster, turning helplessly to Vincent.
Vincent looks at his watch and sighs.
“We’re three hours late,” he notes, and then offers an observation that, in light of this delay, stands as a spectacularly superfluous encapsulation of the obvious:
“These guys really want their drugs.”
“If you smoke too much marijuana or drink too much alcohol, you will lose your brain. But with khat, even if you use it for twenty-four hours nonstop, your mind will still be clear. These leaves give you energy — you don’t feel at all tired when you chew khat — but they also help you relax. So I really can’t put khat in the category of a normal drug, because it is unlike anything else. The only thing I can say for sure is that when I chew it, I feel like my problems disappear. Khat is my brother. It takes care of all things.”
That’s Khadar Isse Boulale, a Djiboutian we’ll meet a little later, holding forth on the merits of Catha edulis, a tree with a dull silver bark that is cultivated throughout the highlands of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Yemen, and whose leaves have been used for nearly a thousand years by Muslims throughout East Africa and parts of Arabia as an alternative to alcohol and other mood-altering substances forbidden by the Koran. Khat (rhymes with pot) is consumed with droopy-eyed languor at takhzins, afternoon chewing parties at which a dozen or so male friends sit around in a circle for up to six hours stuffing fresh leaves into their mouths and chomping away like koala bears. The bitter-tasting foliage is known by a long list of names: qat, chat, miraa, the “tree of paradise,” the “green gold.” It contains minute quantities of cathinone, an alkaloid that stimulates mental activity before ushering the user into a state of stoned-out introspection — the exploration of which is pretty much the entire purpose behind my visit to Djibouti.
Although banned throughout the U.S., parts of Europe, and much of the Middle East, khat is perfectly legal in a handful of countries lining both sides of the Red Sea, where it has become as much a national institution as vodka in Russia or wine in France. In Yemen, where legend says the first Catha edulis tree was brought from Ethiopia by a Sufi mystic in 1429, roughly two thirds of the arable land is devoted to khat plantations. In Kenya, taxi drivers, students, and even athletes rely on it to help them stay alert. In Somalia, where the drug was used to pay the militiamen who battled U.S. Rangers and Delta Forces in Mogadishu in 1993, it’s a staple among warlords and clan leaders.
But only in Djibouti — where the drug is popular at every level of society, from beggars on the street to President Ismail Omar Guelleh — do these leaves also play the wider role of desensitizing an entire population. Here, the tree of paradise suppresses dissent, helps assuage suffering, and basically keeps the place from coming apart at the seams. Thus Djibouti’s passionate affair with khat has elevated this woeful little outpost on the Horn to more than just your average narco-state, like, say, Colombia, Peru, or Afghanistan.
No, Djibouti is something unto itself. Because even though khat isn’t a narcotic, Djibouti is perhaps the only country in the world that truly fits the definition of a narco-society: a place where a drug is not so much a business as a way of life. And where khat is — quite literally — the opiate of the masses.
Tucked inside the armpit of the Gulf of Tadjoura, where the railhead from Addis Ababa meets the dense, peacock-blue waters of the Red Sea, Djibouti City is the capital of a small, predominantly Muslim republic of 750,000 that won its independence from France in 1977. The once-elegant city — whose colonnaded buildings are now sloughing off scales of stucco like a colony of architectural lepers — suppurates amid a climate of almost unrelieved misery. In July and August, the desert winds kick up and a typical day is 105 degrees. Around noon, the birds begin falling out of the sky, dropping unconscious into the streets, where solicitous pedestrians kick them toward the gutters to prevent them from being run over by passing cars.
The morning after the khat plane deposits me in Djibouti City, I decide to take a stroll through the Marche Central, an open-air bazaar wedged between the European Quarter and the African Quarter in the shadow of the great Hamoudi mosque. It’s around 11:00 a.m., and since it’s February, the temperature is in the low 90s. In Djibouti, that’s a cold snap.
The Marché Central is a vast network of densely packed stalls laden with cheap clothing, sandals, spices, and fruit. Feasting upon this smorgasbord of commerce is one of Africa’s more colorful human pageants: tribal elders, eyes milky with cataracts, dodging around lumbering minibuses and through confused herds of goats; henna-handed Ethiopian whores trolling for customers in spike heels, knockoff couture dresses shellacked to their curves; gaunt-faced child beggars, the discarded progeny of the squatter towns and refugee camps, hissing for coins; and Foreign Legionnaires pumping the pedals of their mountain bikes, clad in polished black shoes and absurdly tight khaki shorts. This procession drifts through a roiling river of words — French, Arabic, Italian, Somali, Afar — and a cocktail of odors that is heady and exotic but also makes you want to gag: a whiff of urine and rotting vegetable, a note of frankincense and freshly baked baguette, a trace of diesel exhaust topped with a whimsical finish of donkey fart.
I weave across the Marché and enter an alley, passing a metal dumpster that’s throwing off just enough shade to permit two diseased-looking dogs to curl up next to the carcass of a dead goat. It’s close to noon now. The temperature is climbing, and as the heat builds into a solid wall, people shuffle out from their tin-roofed shacks and concrete-block shanties, spread pieces of cardboard on the sidewalk, and collapse to the ground like troopers felled by an attack of poison gas.
In front of an open-air barbershop, two khat vendors are perched on stools next to some wilted-looking sprigs left over from yesterday’s shipment. One of the sellers informs me in French that a one-day supply of fresh leaves costs anywhere from one to twenty dollars, depending on quality. Those are formidable prices in a country where the per-capita income averages $450 a year — formidable enough to make me wonder out loud how the hell people can afford it.
“It is because we are addicted!” cries an English-speaking customer, a man in a ratty jacket and torn sandals who has overheard my remark.
He seizes my arm and looks into my eyes with unsettling intensity.
“Do you know the cocaine leaf in Latin America?”
“Well, it is exactly the same here: We must have it!”
He translates his statement for a group of curious onlookers, at which point everybody opens their mouths and cackles wildly in agreement.
Their laughter reveals rotting brown teeth embedded in receding gums that are stained to a deep jaundiced orange. Unsettled by the surreal scene, I stumble away from the crowd, duck through a few alleys, and eventually emerge onto a street lined with three-story office buildings. Standing on the sidewalk in the middle of this block is an Indian man in his early twenties. He’s wearing a crisply pressed white shirt, and his black hair has been sculpted into a dashing pompadour.
“Why, hello, my friend,” he cries out in English, spreading open his arms and flashing a dazzling smile. “What is bringing you to Djibouti?”
Dev Soni is twenty-two years old and is hovering outside the entrance to a colonial-style office building where his family trades goods between Djibouti and Somalia. He hails from the Indian state of Gujarat — more than thirteen hundred miles to the east. He looks almost as out of place as I feel, which probably explains his eagerness to strike up a conversation. Although he doesn’t chew khat himself, Dev is delighted to share his views on the subject.
“There is an Arabic word, tafshan — it means you’re bankrupt,” he explains. “Because of the khat, Djibouti and most of its people are tafshan.” That’s a fairly bold statement, but the facts back him up: According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Djiboutians who chew khat spend nearly a fifth of their household budget on the leaves.
“And in addition to the financial problems that this drug creates,” Dev adds earnestly, “please keep in mind that if you are eating the khat on a regular basis, your penis will become smaller.”
I shoot Dev a look of alarm — an expression he mistakenly interprets as cool journalistic skepticism.
“Oh, it is clear that you are not believing me!” he exclaims. “If you are requiring some supporting evidence, let us obtain confirmation by conferencing with this gentleman standing next to me.”
This gentleman, who is one of Dev’s employees, is the first in a long line of Djiboutians who agrees to talk to me on the condition that I identify him only as Omar.
“Omar” offers up a dense stream of commentary in rapid Somali, accompanied by some wonderfully evocative gestures. The performance begins with an airy wave of the hand, followed by a delicate finger dance, then segues into a sharp nosedive that mirrors the trajectory of a wounded balloon making its final journey to the floor.
“The penis will definitely become smaller,” Dev translates unnecessarily. “The instrument cannot lift itself up, and is unable to keep itself sufficiently firm.”
This is more information than I really need, but Omar rattles on.
“Oh, my goodness, this is something new!” Dev says brightly. “Omar is also telling me that the Djiboutian women are needing the sexual intercourse very badly, but their husbands are unable to perform this duty when they are chewing the khat. This is a big problem for the Djiboutian woman. Omar says that khat is the second wife of the Djiboutian man, but that the Djiboutian woman gets nothing from it and therefore, of necessity, she is having to turn to the foreigners and the tourists for the fulfillment of her requirements. This could add a new dimension to your visit to Djibouti, yes?”
Alas, the possibility of exploring this further is abruptly curtailed.
It’s now just after 12:30, and a stir is sweeping through the capital. Cell phones are going off. People are picking themselves up from their cardboard Barcaloungers and making bulging signs with their cheeks. In the distance, a faint cacophony of car horns. And all across town, the doors of shops, offices, supermarkets, cigarette kiosks, and restaurants are slamming shut. This burst of energy heralds a glorious piece of news:
“L’avion! L’avion est arrivé.”
To fully appreciate the mayhem that’s about to ensue, you need to understand that less than forty-eight hours after khat has been harvested, it starts to lose its potency — and by the time the plane lands at Ambouli Airport, the clock has been ticking for about eighteen of those hours. So as soon as the wheels hit the ground, every khat trader in Djibouti is fixed on a terrifying image, somewhere inside his head, of the molecules of cathinone (the good stuff) breaking down, leaving useless cathine (a mild chemical resembling ephedrine, which is found in cold medicines and diet pills). Chained to this unstoppable molecular slide is a price that drops every hour.
My lesson in how this all fits together begins the following morning, when I meet Khadar Isse Boulale (Mr.”Khat-Is-My-Brother-It-Takes-Care-of-All-Things”). Khadar, thirty-nine, is a San Diego taxi driver of Somali descent who’s here to visit his ailing mom and to chew as much khat as he can get his hands on. With his rounded jawline and closely trimmed mustache, he looks a bit like Martin Lawrence. After running into Khadar on the street and hiring him as my driver and translator, I inform him that our mission is to follow the drugs.
“Cool,” he says. “Let’s do it.”
Shortly after noon, Khadar parks his uncle’s silver Mitsubishi outside the airport and gives me the lowdown on how the khat business works. Djibouti’s entire supply is plucked each afternoon from the terraced fields near the ancient walled citadel of Harar, Ethiopia (where legend holds that the magical leaves were discovered almost a thousand years ago by an inquisitive, foliage-nibbling goat), and the country’s khat importers all belong to one of three organizations. At one end of the market are about a hundred high-volume traders in the Société Générale d’Importation du Khat (SOGIK), a private co-op that deals primarily in cheap, inferior leaves. On the opposite end are about 180 boutique agents who work under the umbrella of two private syndicates and who are collectively known as the particuliers. These are the guys who bring in the high-end product.
As Khadar is explaining all this, the khat trucks exit the tarmac and enter the parking lot. This is the signal for the particulier importers to leap into their fleet of souped-up Land Cruisers and Mitsubishi 4×4’s and start racing the particulier truck (nobody really cares about the SOGIK vehicle) down the tree-lined promenade leading to the main entrance. The moment the particulier truck clears the gate, Khadar deftly wedges his 4×4 into the middle of the accelerating entourage.
The Djiboutian drug derby has begun.
We roar out of the airport en masse, bang a hard right, and tear toward the city. On all sides, SUVs are cutting one another off while traders lean out the windows to jeer and bellow insults. Inside the khat truck, the baggage handlers are clinging to the rails to avoid being sling-shot into the street.
Two miles down the highway, we make another right and race toward a dirt lot across the street from the Omar Hasan Construction Depot. This is where the particuliers’ partners — the next link in the distribution chain — are waiting alongside a hodgepodge of taxis, Land Cruisers, dirt bikes, and scooters. As we rooster-tail into the lot, I look back and see that the baggage guys have already started catapulting the sacks from both sides of the moving truck. The bags land all over the street with moist thuds, and the agents stage a shoving, cursing free-for-all as they scramble to read the names stenciled on the cloth.
Amid this chaos, Khadar spots an acquaintance. His name is Mohammed Hassan Ahamed, but he goes by his English nickname, Blue (his favorite color). Blue, who is twenty-two and is wearing a bright-red Oakley T-shirt, happens to run a delivery route. And yes, for the specially reduced price of $200 — a sum that is swiftly haggled down to twenty bucks — he grants us the privilege of playing chauffeur to him and his leaves.
All around us, khat is being shot-putted through the windows of Land Cruisers, rammed into the trunks of taxis, and lashed onto scooters and dirt bikes. Blue swings his four sacks into the Mitsubishi, leaps aboard, and pounds furiously on the back of the driver’s seat:
“Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!”
Khadar mashes his foot to the floorboard.
While most of the delivery cars around us are plunging directly into the city’s slum districts, a handful are heading straight for Djibouti’s port, where the leaves will be loaded onto speedboats and rushed north to the coastal towns of Tadjoura and Obock. There’s also a dark-blue Land Cruiser with smoked windows that is supposedly express-delivering Ismail Omar Guelleh’s personal stash to the presidential palace. (I.O.G. reportedly likes to get together with his khat posse to chew leaves three or four afternoons a week.)
As we roar down the Boulevard du General de Gaulle, Blue pulls out a razor blade to gut the cotton sacks and divides the bundles inside into groups. He’s also yelling at Khadar to pour on some speed because — fuck! — we’re getting totally dusted by two solid lines of 4×4’s. The phalanx on the right is plowing through the dirt on the berm, the one on the left is half straddling the median strip. The dealers inside these vehicles are all loudly berating Khadar.
“Sorry, man!” he says sheepishly, addressing Blue in the rearview mirror while tossing me an explanation for why everybody’s so upset. “I’m only doing eighty-five.”
We approach Quartier 4, a warren of cinder-block shacks lining a grid of dirt alleys with open sewers down the middle.
“Where the hell are we going?” demands Khadar.
Blue barks out a flurry of commands in guttural Somali. Khadar chops the transmission into second gear, slides into a right-angle turn, scatters a clutch of terrified goats, plows through a miniature lake of black sewage, and skids to a stop. Blue flings several bundles through the window toward a vendor named Sadho, already besieged by a dozen customers.
“Go! Go! Go!”
“Where? Where? Where?”
“Right! Right! Oh,shit!”
We’re hurtling directly toward a Land Cruiser coming from the opposite direction. Both vehicles refuse to give way, so we take the same turn together — and barely avoid a three-way collision with a taxi that’s blasting out from the street we’re trying to enter. Since everybody’s delivering khat, backing up and giving way is completely unthinkable. Instead we face off, grille to grille, and trade insults until everybody scrapes past and roars off.
Our next stop is a stall run by a man in an orange shirt. On Blue’s orders, I hurl some bundles at this guy’s head. Khadar has barely slowed down.
We weave through more goats and nearly run over a man who has ventured into the street with a wheelbarrow. By this point, Khadar’s horn is blaring continuously. More bundles land in my lap and go sailing out the window at stops four and five. At stop six, Blue himself disappears with his own armful of khat — apparently this is part of the plan — and Khadar thunders out of Quartier 4 onto a paved boulevard, where several dozen vehicles are all jumping the median as they try to enter or exit the slum.
As we pull into our last stop, Khadar stares at the dashboard with a look of stunned disbelief. A bead of sweat the size of a coffee bean is sliding down the bridge of his nose.
“Jesus,” he says, mopping his face with his shirttail. “This is nothing like driving a cab in San Diego.”
It is now 1:16 p.m.
At 12:30, eleven tons of primo Ethiopian Catha edulis were cruising along at three hundred knots inside the belly of the khat plane. In forty-six minutes, it’s been off-loaded, divvied up, and fire-hosed out to virtually every corner of the country. The only way to move those leaves faster would have been to bring the cargo freighter in over the rooftops, open the doors to the fuselage, and carpet bomb the place.
“Nothing gets in the way of the opium of the people,” observes Khadar. “And now begins the best part of our day. Time to brouter la salade!”
Among the Djiboutians who belong to President I.O.G.’s Issa tribe — which forms the elite levels of business and government — “grazing the salad” can be as rarefied and as refined as a Japanese tea ceremony. The ritual begins when participants enter the home of their host toting their rubtas, or bundles of khat, and are ushered into the mabraze, a special chamber lavishly appointed with Persian rugs and richly upholstered cushions. Pitchers of incense-flavored water and chilled bottles of soft drinks are placed before the guests. Ornate spittoons are set about the room. After everyone settles in, a selection of poetry may be recited, or a piece of music performed on a traditional instrument. And, of course, there is conversation — especially during the first hour or so, before chewers slip into a contemplative phase of dreamy introspection.
I’m anticipating something along these lines when Khadar invites me to his mabraze. My hopes sink, however, when he parks the Mitsubishi deep inside the trash-strewn slum of Quartier 6 and we enter a tiny courtyard that seems to be hosting an international convention of houseflies. The floor is littered with cheap rugs and orange plastic water jugs. A poisonous potpourri of odors drifts from an outhouse five feet away. In the alley, two angry women are shouting to be heard over a wailing baby and a bleating goat.
This is the headquarters of L’Association l’Avenir, one of Quartier 6’s many khat-chewing clubs. The “Association of the Future” has about twenty dues-paying members, mostly men in their thirties or early forties who grew up in the neighborhood. Those who aren’t unemployed hold down jobs as clerks, policemen, security guards, or dockworkers.
“We’re kind of like beer buddies in the U.S.,” Khadar explains. “We chew until 7:00 p.m. or so, then we go out drinking.”
The place quickly fills up as members appear in their futas (sarongs), clutching their bundles of leaves. Each arrival glides through the doorway and offers a hearty “Bonjour, mes amis” before slipping off his sandals, hitching his futa, and folding into the circle. When introductions are made, I learn that in addition to Khadar, I’ll be chewing with Awole, Ladir, and eight more Omars.
Khadar builds a nest for himself with three pillows, unwraps the leaves we’ve bought from Blue, and delivers an off-the-cuff tutorial.
To a connoisseur like Khadar, the varieties of khat are as distinct as chardonnay from tequila. At the bottom end of the spectrum you have miyal, a mild, pale-green leaf that has no kick whatsoever (the O’Doul’s of khat), and medetcho, which is known to cause dukak, or khat nightmares. There’s also a wide range of midprice options: sweet- or nutty-tasting leaves in which the khat cognoscenti can discern gossamer suggestions of apples, raisins, and almonds. The Dom Pérignon of Ethiopian khat, however, is warata,whose virtues Khadar proceeds to extol.
“Okay, let’s examine this,” he says, caressing our twenty-dollar rubta of warata as if he were smoothing the fur of a small pet. “See how the base of each stem looks like the head of a nail? This shows the branches were taken off the main trunk and are of superior quality. Warata is moist and crunchy. Nice and clean, too. Ripe — just like fruit.”
He extracts a succulent sprig and carefully snaps each leaf with his forefinger to ascertain tenderness. Leaves that pass this flick test receive a crisp twist where the stem meets the twig. In this manner he rapidly strips the stalk, tossing the rejects to the side while popping foliage into his mouth and building a huge wad in the corner of his cheek. Taking a swig of Coke, he leans back, emitting soft burps of pleasure.
This is the most animated stage of a khat party. Ribald jokes are exchanged. Unsolicited little gifts — a khat sprig here, a cigarette there — go sailing across the courtyard to friends. Somebody touches a match to a stone crucible and the air fills with the astringent aroma of frankincense. The flies begin to subside.
I tentatively cram a few leaves into my mouth and decide that this might be a good moment to inquire about something that’s been bugging me ever since my chat with Dev Soni.
“So is it really true,” I ask, addressing the group with Khadar translating, “that khat will cause your dick to shrink?”
Four or five arguments simultaneously detonate in French, Somali, and Arabic. At first I’m afraid that I’ve violated some unknown rule of khat-chewing protocol. But then I realize that, no, this is just a run-of-the-mill, Djiboutian-style debate. Eloquent gestures are being made. Animated expressions are being conveyed. Some complex and possibly quite beautiful ideas are clearly being sculpted and buffed. Ah, yes: Here, at last, I am about to witness the penetrating nuances and delicate shades of meaning that form the timeless wisdom of the mabraze.
Finally Awole, a policeman who spends half his monthly salary on khat — and who has a trickle of green slime dribbling down his chin — stands up.
“Khat is an aphrodisiac!” Awole shouts at me. “Don’t you know what an aphrodisiac is?! It means that after you eat it, all you wanna do is bone the ladies.” He performs the Elvis Pelvis while pounding his fist into his solar plexus. “When I chew khat, I gotta fuck all night long. There is no stopping!”
Omars I through IV beat their chests in solidarity with Awole, while Ladir and Omars V through VIII produce cries of indignation and some unflattering remarks about the size of Awole’s unit.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
“He’s telling the truth!”
Eventually the antiaphrodisiacs shout down the chest-beaters and their spokesman presents a rebuttal.
“When you eat khat, you relax,” declares Ladir, an unemployed dockworker with sharply etched features who’s looking decidedly worked up. “When you don’t have a job and you chew khat, you are calm. You feel like your problems disappear. Here in the mabraze with my khat brothers, we don’t worry about anything. And do you know why? Because with khat, everything is possible. With khat, people stop fighting. With khat, there is only peace.”
A chorus of approving grunts suggests that maybe this is an idea everybody can get behind. Concordance seems within reach — until Awole realizes he’s got a problem with where one of the Omars has chosen to sit and attempts to perform an eviction. A shoving match breaks out. The group scrambles to separate the combatants. It takes several minutes to persuade Awole, who already has his shirt off and looks ready to brawl, to get dressed and sit back down.
Khadar turns to me with a wry smile.
“We all know khat’s no good,” he says. “We spend too much money on it. We don’t work. We don’t buy shoes for our kids. Divorce, domestic fighting, so many problems…”
He sighs, eyes shining with a lacquered liquidity in the fading afternoon light.
“But still, we gotta have khat. What else can I say? This is how we live.”
Well, at least they’re not in denial.
Then something odd happens. Just as I’m preparing to write off Khadar, his friends, and the entire population of Djibouti as a bunch of drug-addled freaks, I realize that a marvelous feeling is running through my arms, across my belly, and down the backs of my legs.
When I’d first crammed the leaves into my cheek and bit down, the sensation had been pretty unpleasant. The taste was acerbic and the texture was coarse, what you might expect if you munched on a pile of hedge trimmings. A film of green scum coated the back of my throat, my mouth turned dry, and for the next forty-five minutes I felt like I was about to retch.
Now, though, the cathinone is finally starting to kick in, and my entire body seems to be marinating in a kind of faint thrum. At first it’s so subtle that I attribute the reaction to the lovely lavender light suffusing the courtyard as late afternoon wanes into the pre-evening twilight known as As-saa’a as-Suleimanya, or Solomon’s Hour. But then I realize that no, it’s not the light: A calming vibration is creeping across the top of my head, somewhere around the roots of my hair. Ever taken Vicodin when you didn’t really need it? Like that.
It would be overstating things to call this euphoria — the feeling is too delicate for that. I’m relaxed but completely lucid. I find myself savoring long, drawn-out sighs. The mere act of breathing — exhale, pause…inhale, pause — has become intensely sensuous and pleasurable. And with this new feeling, the cares and worries that I’m always schlepping around quietly cast off their tethers and drift toward the horizon.
This is what the Arabs call kayf, an untranslatable term referring to a blissed-out state of languid, dreamy tranquillity. As the kayf steals over me, I realize that the same thing is happening to everyone else. Together we have entered the second phase of our khat chew. Conversation subsides and we all lie back, working our wads and gazing at one another with the heavy-lidded contentment of a herd of dairy cows chewing their cud.
The goat outside is still bleating. The baby continues to wail. The two women haven’t stopped screeching at each other, and the courtyard still stinks. But none of this matters in the slightest. In fact, the irrelevance of these nuisances only underscores the luminous truth embedded in an obscure bit of Red Sea folklore cited by Kevin Rushby, author of Eating the Flowers of Paradise, the most eloquent testament ever written to the magic of khat:
If one’s heart is at peace,
Even the asshole of a donkey can be a mabraze.
For the next several days, I wake up late each morning (one of the leaves’ side effects) and wildly irritable (another one), having spent most of the night lying awake and staring at the ceiling (downside number three). I stumble to the market to toss away another chunk of my rapidly dwindling finances (the most notorious side effect of all), purchasing that afternoon’s fix. Then I make my way over to Quartier 6 to graze the salad with Khadar and the boys at l’Avenir. At which point Djibouti’s wretchedness — its heat, its filth, its odors — smoothly fades away.
After the bitter taste subsides, the mellow tide surges in and suddenly, there I am: floating in a lagoon off some distant archipelago along the outer frontiers of my consciousness. Yeah, baby…
Yet another characteristic of khat is that your mind remains clear even as you get high. So over the next few afternoons, I stumble upon several Catha edulis — lubricated epiphanies:
Day Two, 4:15
For a bunch of deadbeats, these l’Avenir guys have a pretty extensive set of tools.
While munching on an obscenely large wad of ripe and delicious khat, most of which has been stolen from Khadar’s share (I seem to have eaten all of mine), I note a mysterious doorway on the far side of the courtyard. A peek inside reveals a storage shed. On the floor are a dozen battered shovels. Lining one wall, a row of picks. There’s a blue electric generator on the floor. And piled on a rickety wooden table, a stack of ledgers.
Weird. What the hell does all this have to do with chewing khat?
Day Three, 2:20
Actually, nothing. And everything.
Today the flies are especially bad. As we sit around swatting at them, the guys start talking about a young woman in the neighborhood named Halimo Mohamed Doualeh. Ladir explains that when Halimo died unexpectedly a few weeks ago, they carried her body to the mosque to wash and purify it in the traditional manner, then took it to the cemetery and dug her grave. (It turns out there are no funeral services in Quartier 6.) Then Awole mentions that shortly after Halimo passed away, another neighbor, a sixty-year-old woman named Fatima Hadi, lost power in her home. So the l’Avenir guys hauled out the generator and got Fatima’s fans turning until the electricity could be restored. (Each summer, dozens of Djiboutians die from heatstroke during power outages.) At the moment, the members are using their shovels and picks to clear a nearby lot for a soccer championship, and their monthly dues (which are recorded in the treasurer’s ledger) are being used to set up some English classes for local kids.
Day Four, 3:03
So, in addition to being a drug den, l’Avenir is sort of like a mutual-aid society for stoners.
Which, let’s face it, isn’t really that big of a deal. As I’m working at the wad of khat in my cheek and marveling at the club’s altruism and civic-mindedness, yet another argument starts up between the two women in the alley. And it suddenly occurs to me that the wives behind whose backs these guys are constantly having affairs must surely be less enthusiastic about the social benefits of the green gold. In a country whose infant-mortality rate is 10.4 percent, where half the population is unemployed and 70 percent of children are malnourished, one soccer field, one grave, and one old lady’s electricity hardly make l’Avenir the Djiboutian analog to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. At the same time, however, these minor acts of decency and largesse do suggest that what these guys find seductive about khat (in addition to its delightful physical effects, of course) is the excuse it provides to get together and the sense of purpose that these meetings create. Which provokes a rather shocking quest ion:
Day Five, 5:50
Is it possible these guys aren’t actually addicted to chewing khat?
Or, more accurately: Does the nature of their addiction have as much to do with the alchemy of companionship as with the chemical reactions unfolding inside their brains?
The Djiboutians, as it happens, are way ahead of me on this notion.
“So, my friend, do you finally understand that khat isn’t everything?” remarks one of the Omars, whose rounded belly is rolling over the top of his purple-and-green futa. “What’s important is being together. To talk. To laugh. To help one another out. Without that, we have no community. That’s everything, is it not?”
On my final afternoon in Djibouti, Khadar announces that the members of l’Avenir have a gift for me. While Ladir, Awole, and the Omars all smile, he presents me with an object wrapped in tissue paper. It’s a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and it must have cost them a small fortune. Deeply touched, I spend my flight home sampling from the bottle while wondering what sort of damage I’ve done to myself by noshing all those leaves.
While enthusiasts claim khat offers relief from malaria, flu, infertility, and gonorrhea, unpleasant side effects can include hemorrhoids, hypertension, migraines, and chronic borborygmus (a “rumbling noise” produced by wind in the bowels). Oh, and constipation, too. During a short-lived ban on khat imposed by the British in southern Yemen some years ago, sales of laxatives reportedly plummeted by 90 percent.
Confusing? Yep. But that’s khat for you. Depending on where you’re at and who you’re listening to, the drug could either be legal or illegal, an innocuous habit or a toxic vice. It may imbue you with so much energy that you want to bone the ladies all night long, or it could render your nether dimensions even less impressive than they already are. Khat can be none of these things, all of them put together, or hover inside some tangled psychotropic DMZ that only further confounds one’s notions of what addiction truly means and what a narco-society actually is.
Which is why, a thousand-odd years after that ancestral Ethiopian goat initiated the long, strange, tempestuous affair that is khat, those emerald leaves remain a deep and abiding enigma.
Sort of like Africa itself. And especially Djibouti.
When I finally made it home, I decided that I truly hated the place. Despite the pleasures of khat, Djibouti, I told my friends, is a reminder that some parts of the world are beyond redemption. Djibouti is awful. Djibouti is the only country I’ve been where I will never, ever go back.
Eventually, though, that all changed. Slowly and resentfully, I found myself being dragged around to the realization that in the process of hating Djibouti so much, I had somehow managed to fall in love with the place, too. And not for the reasons you might expect.
I did not, for example, fall in love with the way Djibouti’s filth and Djibouti’s misery can suddenly, at odd and infrequent (and probably khat-induced) intervals, be overtaken by transcendent moments of exculpatory beauty: how the shadow of the minaret on the Hamoudi mosque can caress the broken lines of the Marché Central; the care with which a woman gathers her robes as she prepares to step across a puddle of sewage; or the way the light lies down on the Red Sea just before Solomon’s Hour. Maybe those moments were enough to make my heart break for Djibouti, but they weren’t enough to make me love her. No, I came to love Djibouti for the chaotic and dysfunctional esprit de corps of l’Avenir.
Never, anywhere, have I encountered human beings who sail the inside of the toilet bowl in such marvelous style — and who do so while displaying such unapologetically defiant, fuck-you élan. And in the act of acknowledging my admiration for this attitude, I realized that the boys of l’Avenir had imparted something else, too.
When I die and am sent to hell as punishment for all the terrible things I’ve written about the most maligned place in Africa, I’ll crawl off into some dark corner to contemplate my sins. And there I’ll run into a group of Djiboutians lounging around on a pile of ratty rugs: Khadar, Awole, Ladir, and eight guys who still insist on being called Omar.
There won’t be any khat, of course — the plane only lands in heaven. But there will still be a mabraze, and that’s because these guys will be sitting around speculating about what it would be like if they actually had khat. They’ll talk about how, when the plane arrives, you can hear the symphony of car horns. They’ll reminisce about the tumultuous insanity of the drug derby racing through the slums. And then they’ll remind one another what it’s like when those who are pure of heart, but also those whose hearts aren’t so pure, can all duck through the door, offer up a “Bonjour, mes amis!” and settle down together to shoot the breeze and brouter la salade.
In so doing, they will have pulled off that most incorrigibly and most triumphantly African of achievements. They will have trumped the devil himself. Because there at the center of Creation’s hellhole, inside the asshole of the donkey, they will have managed to chisel out a sliver of paradise.
Even if it exists only in their own minds.
— Published in the September 2006 issue