When I started thinking about doing a post on the leafy green illegal drug endemic to Ethiopia known as khat, which is spelled a couple different ways, but pronounced in Ethiopia with a very hard "CH" sound, I was trying to come up with clever ways of flipping the word "khat." At first, I was thinking something along the lines of "This Khat Don't Got Nine Lives" or maybe doing a riff on my beloved Union Square eatery, Chat-n-Chew ("Khat-n-Khew"). But the first idea was too corny, and the second was way too much of an inside joke with myself, so I decided on the above title as a pretty safe compromise.
But now that I'm looking at the title "Khat Got Your Tongue?" I'm realizing that it is all wrong. For someone who isn't familiar with khat and its narcotic effect, let me explain un-briefly:
The first time I tried khat, I was on vacation in Ethiopia a few months after graduating from college. I was cold-chilling in Ethiopia at the time, not really doing much of anything besides writing in my journal and reading a bunch of books, including the sweeping Look Homeward, Angel.
I know some people who don't know much about Ethiopia might assume I was reading Thomas Wolfe''s novel by candlelight or bonfire or some shit, out in a hut in the middle of the desert. They would be wrong (and probably racist fucks) however, because, like in most other so-called developing nations, there are two classes of people in Ethiopia, not the 3 or 4 we're used to here in the States. There, you're either rich or you're poor. And since my relatives do alright for themselves, I'm considered what you might call well-off, a spoiled brat, a Holden Caulfield in Addis Ababa. (We're not super-rich, mind you, like some of the folks laundering that aid money and shit--cough, cough, Meles, cough, cough--but like I said: we do alright.)
So, I was sitting pretty during these months, writing, reading, playing tennis when it didn't rain, taking mini-buses everywhere, and generally getting bored out of my mind. That was by day. Night was a different story. I couldn't wait for Saturdays, when one of my cousins would invariably call to invite me to one of the nightclubs that dot Addis Ababa, where I'd drink a gang of Rum-and-Cokes until I got drunk and not dance with girls. Part of the problem was the really strange DJ sets, which usually included all of the following in seemingly random order: Shakira, Busta Rhymes, traditional Ethiopian iskista music, Sean Paul, and Bob Marley.
My khat experience happened by day though. I got a call from the young friend of one of my New York relatives, a girl whose name I will not disclose here for fear that my mother will read this and hunt her down, and she told me that her and her friends were planning to go to what is known as a "khat bet" (or khat house). Khat houses are sprinkled in covert places and private residences throughout Addis, where the drug, though not strictly enforced and actually used ceremonially in some forms of Islam, is frowned upon by the authorities.
This khat bet was in the back part of what looked like an auto repair shop, though maybe it wasn't an auto repair shop, because it was pretty clean and they only had a couple cars and not that many tools. Hmm. Anyway, they led us to a clean, well-lit back room that was strewn with rugs and pillows, and they brought us tea and coke and lots of sugar. "What's all this for?" I asked my friend.
"It's for the taste," she said, rubbing her index finger and thumb together in a puzzling gesture. "It's very...bitter."
There were about six or seven of us waiting in silence. If I remember correctly, I had that same feeling you might have if you were on a diet but had just ordered a bacon cheeseburger: shame mixed with anticipation.
"[Name redacted] will kill me if he finds out I took you to a khat bet," my friend said, referring to my New York relative. I shrugged and smiled and watched as the little boy who was tending to us finally came in with the leafy bushels wrapped in plastic bags.
I watched as the people around me started to pluck the leaves off the tiny branches with practiced skill and then stuff them into their cheeks. It reminded me of the way people in the South would stuff chaw into their lower gums. There was some intense mastication and more silence. I reached for a thin, flimsy branch of my own. The khat was fresh, which is what it needs to be for you to get the full effect. (Most of the khat that gets smuggled out of Ethiopia and finds it way to the States is usually dried and not as potent. But these little twigs were mad green, and thus they were gonna be mad potent!
So I thought.
A bit reluctantly, I stuffed the first couple leaves into my cheek and started chewing. To be honest with you, I felt stupid doing it. I was waiting for someone to come out of a hidden room somewhere in the back and, yell: Gotcha, bitch! It felt like I was chewing on tree leaves or some shit. They were bitter as hell, and I was pounding one Coke after another trying to wash out the taste. I was grunting and groaning at first and made the mistake of swallowing the leaves a couple times--let's not get into the whole threat of bacteria, which is quite real with fresh produce in Ethiopia (and reason #2 why my mom will kill me when she reads this), but several branches later and I was getting the hang of it. The only problem was I wasn't feeling anything.
I kept sipping Coke and looking nervously around the room. People were starting to talk more now. In fact, they were talking a lot and in really fast Amharic and I was having a hard time trying to keep up. People started telling jokes and laughing. They were all just talking at once and telling jokes and doubling over in laughter and gasping for air with tears of laughter rolling down their faces. Meanwhile, I couldn't understand a damn word and kept waiting for my high.
This is stupid, I thought. Maybe I'm immune to khat because of all the weed I've smoked in previous years. I was waiting for a weed type of euphoria, but. Nothing. I left the khat bet an hour or so later with my friend, and before dropping me off at my house, she reminded me to keep our little drug excursion a secret from [Name redacted]. I smiled and promised that her secret was safe. I shrugged and said, "Anyway, it didn't work on me."
My grandmother was in the living room, praying on her beads when I came in, and (God forgive me!) I lied to her about where I'd been. A cafe, I said. Drinking coffee. I felt a bit jittery during our exchange, but I merely ascribed it to the act of lying, which doesn't come naturally to most people.
So, still feeling a bit jittery and a bit bummed out that the khat hadn't worked on me, I started writing in my journal. It was about six in the evening when I started writing and griping to myself about how stupid khat was and how stupid I was and how stupid of a country Ethiopia was and how stupid my life was and how it was all because these stupid leaves didn't work on me...
It wasn't until about three in the morning that I realized something was wrong with me. I'd written about forty pages in my journal like it was a paragraph. Whoa, I realized. I'm fucking high on khat! This is awesome!
So, getting back to my title, you'll see why I say that it's completely wrong. It sends the message that khat might be some kind of drug that keeps you from communicating, that khat is some kind of weird shyness-causing drug--which, for anyone who's ever done it, couldn't be further from the truth.
You get wired. You get focused as fuck. It's like drinking a dozen Red Bulls and taking a few Ritalins. Students at Addis Ababa University are notorious for using khat to help them stay up all night studying before big tests or during the writing of term papers.
And if you're curious, it was this bit of news, about a proposal to make a legal khat-based wine, that prompted this lengthy, seemingly khat-induced reverie. Apparently, they're saying that the wine will not have the amphetamine kick that I felt that night, which strikes me as bullshit, because why make it in the first place. Can't be for taste. Khat is fucking disgusting.
But what do I know: I'm high on khat.*
*Mom, this was a joke.