Khat out of the bag

Finding myself at a loose end yesterday I decided I’d try and track down one of London’s mafrishes – a type of cafe where people from the capital’s Ethiopian, Somali and Yemeni community chew the psychoactive plant khat.

I’d heard about a Somali cafe on Lewisham Way and thought that was as good a place as any to try. The cafe owner first looked a bit baffled when I walked in and asked about khat but he sat me down, gave me tea, and went out back to ask his associates.

“Sorry, there’s no khat in Lewishman. We have internet?” he suggested while gesturing towards the empty computers at the back. I kindly declined but in reply he suggested I go to Streatham. “There are lots of restaurants there”, he assured me.

Streatham is huge, so I arrived at one of the rail stations and just decided to walk south. Slowly I became aware that there were more Somali-looking faces around but there were no cafes to be seen.

Just through chance I noticed some Somali cafes off a side street and walked into the first one I saw. “There’s none here, but next door”, I was told. The people in the next cafe said the same, as did the next, and the next, until I came to an unmarked door.

“Just go in” a cafe owner called to me from across the street, so I walked in.

The place was little dark but quite spacious. My fantasies of an East African cafe translocated to London quickly faded as my eyes adjusted to the trucker’s cafe decor. Inside, there were four guys watching the news on a wall-mounted TV.

The cafe owner greeted me as I entered. I asked my usual question about khat and he looked at me, a little puzzled.

“You know, khat, to chew?” I ventured. A furrowed brow. Thinking. “Oh, chat. Yes, we have bundles for three pounds and bundles for seven. Which do you want?”

“Give me one for seven” I said. “No problem” he replied cheerily. “Have a seat”.

This wasn’t the first time I had tried khat. Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate in the Midlands, I discovered khat in an alternative shop. It was sold as a natural curative soul lifting wonder plant from the fields of Africa.

I bought some, didn’t really know what to do with it, and just began to ‘gently chew’, as the leaflet advised, while walking through the streets of Nottingham.

So when my bundle of khat arrived, I just picked out some stems and began chomping on one end. “Wait, wait, stop!” they shouted in unison. “We’ll help you” said one and I was joined by the cafe owner and a friend. “Anyway, he said”, “you’re not allowed chew alone, it’s a social thing.”

I was given a bin to put beside my table, was shown how to strip off the stems and pick out the soft parts, and how to chew slowly. I was provided tea and water on the house and told to keep drinking fluids. Apparently, it can be a little strong on the stomach and the plant makes you go to the toilet a lot as, I was told, ‘it speeds up the body’.

I had the company of the cafe owner, a Somali Muslim, and his friend, an Ethiopian Christian.

Over the next two hours we chewed and talked. Ethiopian politics, football, living in another country, khat in Somalia, Haile Selassie, religion, languages, Mo Farah, stereotypes of Africa and family life in London.

People strolled in an out of the cafe. Some in jeans and t-shirt, others looking like they’d just walked in from the Somali desert. Everyone shook my hand. Some bought khat and left, others joined us, all the while chewing gently and drinking sweet tea. At one point I asked the Christian guy why he wore an Islamic cap. He whipped off his hat. “I’m bald” he said “and it’s the only cap you can wear inside” which sent me into fits of laughter.

Khat itself has a very tannin taste and it is exactly like you’d imagine how chewing on an indigestible bush would be. It’s bitty and it fills your mouth with green gunk. The sweet tea is there for a reason.

The effect of the khat came on gently but slowly intensified. It’s stimulating like coffee but is slightly more pleasurable. There’s no jitteriness.

It reminded me of the coca plant from South America both in its ‘mouth full of tree’ chewing experience and its persistent background stimulation. But while coca gave me caffeine-like focus that always turned into a feeling of anxiety, khat was gently euphoric.

My companions told me that it lifts the spirits and makes you talkative. They had a word, which for the life of me I can’t remember, which describes the point at which it ‘opens your mind’ to new ideas and debate.

The active ingredient in khat is cathinone which has become infamous as the basis of ‘bath salts’ legal highs which chemists have learnt to create synthetically and modify. But like coca, from which cocaine is made, the plant is not mental nitroglycerine. It has noticeable effects but they don’t dominate the psyche. It’s a lift rather than a launch.

The guys in the cafe were not unaware of its downsides though. “Don’t chew too often” they told me “it can become a habit for some”. I was also told it can have idiosyncratic effects on sexual performance. Some find it helps, others not so much.

Not everyone was there for khat. Some guys chewed regularly, some not at all, some had given up, some only on special occasions. Some just came to hang out, drink tea and watch the box.

Towards the end when I felt we had got to know each other a bit better I asked why the cafe was unmarked. The owner told me that while khat is legal they were aware of the scare stories and were worried about the backlash from less enlightened members of the community. ‘Immigrants sell foreign drug’ shifts more papers, it seems, than ‘guys chew leaves and watch football’.

Eventually, I said my goodbyes and decided I could use my buzz to go for a walk. I made London Bridge in a couple of hours. But I think my newfound energy came as much from the welcome as it did from the khat.

Link to Wikipedia entry on khat.

14 thoughts on “Khat out of the bag”

  1. Remarkable story, even more so considering how one plant species can become so “political”. It sounds like it would make a great pesticide alternative and can grow in many environments; but also sounds like it requires a tremendous amount of water to grow so I guess greenhouse growing is out.

    Poison Garden has a good (and as always, opinionated) article on it.

  2. Psychostimulants can be a lovely thing. Truly nightmarish for people who develop a ‘problem’ with them, but when things are under control … truly lovely.

  3. That was an amazing experience to read about. Let’s hope our government sees it as the equivalent of coffee and not of hash, so that people can go on enjoying it.

  4. Khat is Drug accounting to world health organisation (WHO ) khat is baned drug all western country’s except UK and legality of khat is sending wrong message to young people ,it is legal it must be save which is far from the through .

    the second point is the chemicals of khat is baned subsistence in UK ,cathine and cathinoine and when you combined them together in the form of khat it is legal how come ? the other point is in 2010 there was drug known as a MIAW_ MIAW wich is again processed from the khat plant , miaw-miaw was baned quickly after reported deaths of a view white boys , the question is WHY khat is steal legal . the answer to that question is ACMD who ignores khat , but it will not be long the victort will came and if the British government agrees with stupid ACMD khat report 2013, we will take the case to the court , we will WIN , we shall WIN ,and we are going to WIN.

    1. Dear Mr Abukar Aware, you are really pathetic and have a massive ego. This is obvious by the way you describe yourself as “the main anti-khat campainger” as though you are doing something to help your community. You have helped criminalise them. If you wanted to sincerely help them you would get them health advice, not try to make them criminals overnight. The Tories wanted to ban khat but didn’t have an excuse but you provided one by claiming (falsely) that you speak on behalf of the Somali community, they know you are just a toad and desperate for attention, but they used you like their little stoogey uncle Tom. You are a traitor, a liar and a disgusting human being. Anyone who goes behind the back of his own people without advising them first is despicable and has no morals. For your information, scientists and even Theresa May herself know that khat is relatively harmless but you went ahead with your silly attention-seeking campaign. You didn’t trust your own people to restrain themselves and quickly sought a ban as though they were incapable of exercising self-control as if you know whats best for them. You know that most of them will just seek another addiction just in a different setting, like a pub or club, but like I said you didn’t think of the consequences, you just wanted to make a name for yourself and had nothing better to do. You had problems with khat, because you chewed it everyday and now you think because you quit everyone should quit. Who are you to tell us what to do?!?! I hope you get your comeuppance soon, you hypocrite!

    2. Stop trying to mislead people with your unscientific claims about MIAW MIAW, which is a synthetic drug, khat in it’s original state is HARMLESS, the AMCD advised against a ban! Do you have a scientific background? Do you even have a degree? And don’t tell me, “I might not but in my experience blah blah” like you always do when confronted with evidence. To seek a ban on a plant just because you had problems and to actively campaign just shows how little trust you have in your own wisdom to change peoples views about khat, you disgust me.

  5. It does not not come out of nowhere that Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen are amongst the politically and economically most successful nations in the world.

  6. Beautiful! What a fun story to read. I would be interested in reading more intrepid stories from our in-house neuroscientists. Thank you for sharing and adventuring!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: