‘High in Hell’: Chewing Khat in Djibouti

Travel Blog  •  Michael Yessis  •  08.23.06 | 2:08 PM ET

imageIn the latest issue of Esquire, Kevin Fedarko ventures to Djibouti to explore the world of khat—a legal “psychotropic shrub” that helps shape the culture of the country and the region. “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,” Fedarko writes.

He continues:

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.