Random Stuff I’ve Learned by Reading Too Many Novels: Khat




I am not a drug fiend. However, I consider myself to be well-informed about illicit drugs. I have, after all, avidly watched the TV shows “Breaking Bad” (meth) and “Weeds” (marijuana). Not only that, but I saw the episode of “Mad Men” in which Roger Sterling and his wife tried LSD. Heck, let’s be honest. I’ve even read Beat poetry.

Therefore, I was surprised when I read the novel Knots by Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, described by one New York Times reviewer as “the graying, balding sage of Somali letters.” This novel features a female protagonist named Cambara who returns to her native Somalia after almost 20 years of exile in Toronto.

The surprising (to me) part of this novel was its depiction of wide-spread use in Somalia of the stimulant drug khat. I had never heard of this drug before, so I was curious to learn more about it.   According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse,

“Khat (pronounced “cot”) is a stimulant drug derived from a shrub (Catha edulis) that is native to East Africa and southern Arabia. The khat plant itself is not scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act; however, because one of the mind-altering chemicals found in it, cathinone, is a Schedule I drug (a controlled substance with no recognized therapeutic use), the Federal Government considers Khat use illegal.”

Khat’s stimulating effects, from what I gather, fall somewhere between caffeine and cocaine. It produces feelings of euphoria, elation, alertness, and arousal.

It has been a few years since I’ve read Knots, but from what I remember, most of the men in the novel spent most of their time sitting around chewing khat–that is, when they weren’t busy shooting each other. It was left to the women to do most the work. I recall that many of the male characters were red-eyed and irritable because of their khat chewing and tendency to shoot each other. It was not a pretty picture.

But apparently, it is a very common picture. The National Institute on Drug abuse notes the following:

“It is estimated that as many as 10 million people worldwide chew khat. It is commonly found in the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula and in East Africa, where it has been used for centuries as part of an established cultural tradition. In one large study in Yemen, 82 percent of men and 43 percent of women reported at least one lifetime episode of khat use. Its current use among particular migrant communities in the United States and in Europe has caused concern among policymakers and health care professionals. No reliable estimates of prevalence in the United States exist.”

Ten million khat chewers and not a single American TV show about it! At least, none that I am aware of.

I am currently reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, which reminded me of the importance of khat in East Africa. In this novel, the character Hemlatha is flying from India to Ethiopia. The plane she is on descends, unscheduled, into Djibouti in order to pick up a load of khat. According to Hemlatha in Cutting for Stone,

“That lucrative khat trade route [grown in Ethiopia and exported to Djibouti and then Aden] was responsible for the birth of Ethiopian Airlines. She overheard that some problem with the railway and road transport, as well as the urgent need for large quantities of khat for a wedding, prompted this reverse export and the unscheduled stop. Khat had to be chewed within a day or so of its harvest, or else it lost its potency. Hema pictured the Somali, Yemeni, and Sudanese merchants in the tiny souks that anchored every street and byway, and the owners of the bigger shops of the Merkato in Addis Ababa, eyeing their Tissot watches, snapping at their shop boys as they waited for his shipment.”

In other words, khat is big business.

I think a new TV show is in order. I’m thinking it could focus on a hapless Minnesota English professor. Tired of eking out a living by grading papers, said professor decides to supplement her meager income by growing khat in her backyard and selling it to the East African immigrants.

What do you think? Do I have a hit?

Works Cited

 Farah, Nuruddin. Knots. New York: Penguin, 2008.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drug Facts: Khat.” <http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/khat.>

Verghese, Abraham. Cutting for Stone. New York: Vintage, 2010.


2 thoughts on “Random Stuff I’ve Learned by Reading Too Many Novels: Khat

  1. At least two weeks passed in Bangalore before I would ask why rickshaw drivers, men who ironed clothing under trees, and male coffee servers had red gums and tongue; khat was the answer.

    • That’s interesting. I had no idea until recently that it was so widespread. I’m thinking of growing some in my backyard. (The condo association might have a problem with that, though.)

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