Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

khat, qat
The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?

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Down-home Dutch cooking in Amsterdam

Dutch cooking, AmsterdamDutch cooking isn’t one of Europe’s famous cuisines. Yet while it can’t compete on the world stage with Italian or Spanish cuisine, Dutch cooking can been really good and travelers to The Netherlands shouldn’t dismiss the culinary side of their trip. Here are three cheap to mid-priced restaurants that will make you appreciate Dutch cooking.

De Stadskantine
This “city canteen” at Van Woustraat 120 is run by friendly folks who decided there needed to be a cheap, quick, cafeteria-style restaurant in Amsterdam, something between the grab-and-gulp fast food joints and the sedate sit-down restaurants.

They succeed admirably. The long tables allow people to mingle in an informal atmosphere and each dish is already prepared so you don’t have long to wait. This is especially good if you’re just visiting Amsterdam, because you can rest and refuel without losing a big part of your sightseeing day. The servings are hearty and the food well-prepared and healthy. I had the turkey with tomato sauce, potatoes, and green beans. This isn’t haute cuisine; this is tasty, filling food the way you mom used to make, assuming your mom was Dutch.

De Stadskantine has only been open eight months and it’s already hugely popular. It hasn’t made it onto the tourist trail yet and the only language I overheard was Dutch. The menu changes regularly and there’s always a meat dish, a fish dish, and a vegetarian option. Entrees are all under ten euros ($13.50), a bargain for Amsterdam. Check out their website for what’s on today.Restaurant Moeders
This restaurant at Rozengracht 251 is named after and dedicated to mothers. The walls are covered with photos of them and you can donate one of your own mom. They also offer specials if it happens to be mom’s birthday.

The odd decor doesn’t stop with the mother obsession. The restaurant looks like a cross between a diner, a cafe, and the cluttered living room of some old spinster who lives with 50 cats. That’s a good thing, as you can see from their website. Oh, and none of the cutlery or dishes match because they was all donated by the diners the first day it opened.

So this is one of the most distinctive looking restaurants in Amsterdam, but how’s the food? Excellent. I had a hearty stew that was just the ticket on the cold drizzly night I went and left no room at all for dessert. Service was friendly and prompt. This restaurant fills up quickly so book ahead, way ahead if you want to attend their annual Mother’s Day party. They also serve High Tea.

Haesje Claes
This large restaurant housed in three connected historic canal homes has been popular with locals and tourists for years now. While many such places coast on their reputation, Haesje Claes doesn’t.

It’s great for dining alone like I was because the decor gives you plenty to look at. The rooms and tables are lined with old decorative tiles from centuries past, and one room has an ornate Baroque ceiling the owner salvaged from some old building. The atmosphere is homey and intimate with a relaxed, cheerful crowd and friendly waitresses.

The food was cleverly done without being pretentious. Spoiled for choice with the appetizers, I ordered the Taster, which comes with six starters including cheese croquet, shrimp croquet, potato salad, fried tripe ball, and a couple more that I’ve forgotten. All were excellent except the tripe, which was, well, tripe. The venison steak I had as a main was well-prepared too.

In all, these three restaurants should satisfy your appetite no matter how long you walked around Amsterdam that day, and they’ll each give you an insight into the underrated world of Dutch cooking. All are reasonably priced. I’d pick De Stadskantine as my overall favorite for its good value and fun atmosphere. Haesje Claes is best for a proper sit-down meal in historic surroundings. Restaurant Moeders is the place to be if you’re traveling with your mom or you are a mom.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s Torture Museum!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Photo of the day – Under the Glow dome

photo of the day

Today’s Photo of the Day is from the Dutch city of Eindhoven, where the GLOW festival of light is going on now through Saturday. Eindhoven is the hometown of electronics company Philips, made a multinational brand by Anton Philips who is the subject of the sculpture here. Each year, the town hosts a forum of light-based art and architecture installations, performances and events; in 2011, the theme is illusion and reality. Mr. Philips is standing under a dome of 30,000 lights, over 80 feet high, illuminating the entire square outside the main train station. Flickr user toffiloff captured a great perspective, making the sculpture and light installation even more impressive.

Send us your favorite festival photos for a future Photo of the Day by adding them to the Gadling Flickr pool.

Dutch government to ban skunk weed

skunk weed, joint, marijuanaThe Dutch government is planning on reclassifying skunk weed as a hard drug, the BBC reports.

All marijuana with more than 15% THC content will have to be removed from the country’s coffee shops. The new rule will go into force next year and will affect about 80% of the pot sold in coffee shops.

The Dutch government has already announced plans to ban drug tourism by requiring customers to prove residency in The Netherlands before being allowed to buy marijuana. That plan will also go into effect next year, assuming it actually becomes law. Drug tourism makes an awful lot of money for an awful lot of people in The Netherlands, so the law is sure to meet some strong opposition.

But don’t worry, stoners, there are still places where you can get all bleary eyed and chow down on donuts. In Spain it’s legal to grow a small number of pot plants for personal use, and Portugal, which has the most liberal drug laws in Europe.

So if you’re headed to Holland next year, instead of lighting up, check out these other fun things to do in The Netherlands.

Are the Dutch building a fake mountain?

The Dutch are considering building a fake mountainThe Netherlands are known for a lot of things (cheese, windmills, tulips!), but mountains aren’t exactly one of them. In fact, the country is famously flat, with more than a quarter of its land falling below sea level. But there is a movement afoot to change all that, and the Dutch are seriously considering building an artificial mountain designed to attract skiers, climbers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.

The idea for this fake mountain started when a journalist by the name of Thijs Zonneveld wrote a satirical piece suggesting the country overcome its lack of altitude by building an artificial peak. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but the idea struck a chord with architectural firm Hoffers and Kruger, who put together the blueprints for a 7000-foot tall mountain. From there the idea only snowballed, gaining endorsements from the Dutch Ski Association, Dutch Climbing and Mountaineering Association, and Royal Dutch Cycling Union.

Now the project seems to have taken on a life of its own. A number of major corporations have reportedly inquired about sponsoring the construction and several Dutch municipalities have petitioned to be the home of the mountain. A research group has even been formed to explore the possibilities of actually taking the design off the drawing board and making it a reality.

The basic design is for a massive metal skeleton to be built and then covered in natural materials using technologies and processes that already exist. That design would include areas specifically constructed for skiing, climbing, mountain biking, trekking, and more. Even more amazing, the interior of the mountain would actually be hollow, housing a city that would include resorts, shops, transportation, and homes.

But don’t start planning your next alpine escape to Holland just yet. If the country does decide to go ahead with construction, it could take as much as 30 years to complete and cost somewhere between $60 billion and $420 billion. Considering the current economy, the price tag could keep this project from ever getting off the ground.