from The Stranger – March 14, 2007
The War on Chewing
Is Khat Crack? Or Is Khat Cappuccino?
By Charles Mudede
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.”
“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.