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?
Ethiopia is home to dozens of different ethnic groups and tribes. Some have populations numbering in the millions, while others have only a few thousand. One of the smallest tribes is the Argobba, a Muslim people scattered in villages across eastern Ethiopia. The Argobba number only about 10,000, yet they’re determined to be counted in Ethiopia´s government and are fighting to preserve their heritage.
The closest Argobba village to Harar is Koromi, and is one of the easiest and most enjoyable day trips from Harar. This village of about 700 people is an hour’s drive through rugged mountains south of Harar. I went with Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com), a local historian and guide who wrote a government report on the Argobba back in 1997. Each ethnic group and tribe is guaranteed a seat in the Ethiopian legislature, but before Mohammed’s report the Argobba were lumped in with the Harari and had no separate representation. His report proved they were a distinct culture and ensured them a seat in the legislature.
It’s easy to understand the government’s mistake, however. The Argobba and the Hararis share a lot of culture and history, as I was to learn when I visited Koromi.
We set out in a Landcruiser early in the morning, taking the road towards Ethiopia’s Somali region before heading onto a dirt track leading uphill. As we trundle along we pass villages of the Oromo, the region´s largest ethnic group, and big fields of qat plants the size of trees. Qat and groundnuts are the main sources of income for Argobba farmers. They’re especially good at growing qat and make lots of money selling it to qat-loving Hararis. We passed several lines of women walking to market. Considering that a trip from Harari to Koromi takes an hour by car, these women must walk most of the day.
%Gallery-120765%We continue up the dirt road, constantly gaining altitude and getting sweeping views of the surrounding countryside as we pass herds of donkeys and camels bringing water in bright yellow plastic jugs from the area’s rare springs to distant villages.
A good stop on the way is Aw Sofi, an important shrine to a Muslim saint. Shrines to Muslim saints dot the countryside around Harar and there are dozens within the walled city. Legend says Sofi was one of the 44 original saints who founded Harar. While others developed the city and its unique way of life, Sofi stayed in the countryside teaching Islam and founded the first madrasa of Harar. The shrine is within a walled enclosure and is a tall, whitewashed dome gleaming in the sun.
Koromi is about a half hour further along the road atop a narrow ridge surrounded by terraced farmland. The low, flat-topped houses blend into the pale brown of the rock and only the brightly colored front doors stand out.
As we pull into town our vehicle is immediately surrounded by a crowd of children. The men are all out in the fields working and the village is left to the women, children, and one old man. As we walk down the main street, a dusty trail between clusters of houses, we’re followed by almost fifty kids and a couple of curious women. Most women keep an aloof distance, looking at us with only mild interest or ignoring us completely.
Nobody speaks English so it’s up to Mohammed to translate for me. The Argobba say they arrived in Ethiopia more than a thousand years ago, just about the same time Harar was being founded. They originally lived well to the north, where some Argobba villages remain, but when the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes tried to force them to convert to Christianity in the 17th century, most fled to the Muslim enclave of Harar and its surrounding countryside.
This is the Argobba version of events. Scholars differ as to where they came from. Some say they were simply rural Harari whose ways changed over time from the city dwellers. Others say the Argobba are more recent arrivals. In fact, nobody knows, and the Argobba’s own story is probably the most accurate.
We are invited into a home and I immediately feel like I’m back in Harar. Once my eyes adjust from the glare of the sun to the dim interior I see it looks like a traditional Harari home. Only the colorful baskets that adorn Harari walls are missing; stainless steel cookware hang from the walls instead.
This blend of cultures is typical of the Argobba. The women wear traditional Argobba jewelry but otherwise dress like the Oromo, the main ethnic group in this region. Also, while the Argobba have gained political representation, they’re still struggling to preserve their language. Most of those who live near Harar speak Oromo, yet in Koromi they speak Harari mixed with a bit of Amharic, the national language. Only a few villages in the north still speak the Argobba language. Hopefully the Argobba will fight to preserve their heritage and keep their language from going extinct.
As we continue to explore the village I feel a bit frustrated. The children are too excited to have a serious conversation, and most of the women get shy after a few questions. This is not how I like to travel. I prefer what I have back in town–hanging out with Hararis all day getting into deep conversations about their history and culture. Here in the village I feel like both visitor and locals are on display. I’m wandering around taking pictures while being an object of entertainment and fascination for all the local kids. Fun, but not too informative.
What I do learn, though, is that Ethiopia is more than just the main ethnic groups that get represented in the media. The Amhara, Oromo, Tigrinya, Harari, and Somali that I and other visitors spend most of the time with are only a fraction of the rich diversity of Ethiopia. After four months I’ve only scratched the surface of what this county has to offer.
Every afternoon in Harar, you see men walking along carrying plastic bags filled with leaves. Hararis aren’t big fans of salads; they’re chewing these leaves for a completely different reason. It gets them high.
Qat (pronounced “chat” in Harari, Amharic, and Somali) is a narcotic leaf from a fast-growing bush found all over the Horn of Africa and Yemen. It’s legal and hugely popular in this region.
In Harari culture it’s mostly the men who chew, although some women do as well. Many people have a regular birtcha (qat-chewing session) where they meet most afternoons to socialize and work.
I’m not going to be coy like some travel writers and talk about drugs in foreign countries while pretending I haven’t used them. When I’m in Harar I chew qat regularly. I attend a birtcha at the home of a man who works in one of the government bureaus. Birtchas usually attract people who have similar jobs, political views, or who are friends from childhood. My birtcha includes dictionary writers, government workers, and a public prosecutor. A birtcha gives people a chance to while away the afternoon in conversation.
Visitors to Harar will be invited to several birtchas. Going to them allows you to see the inside of Harari homes and meet people from all walks of life. I’ve been to birthcas in more than a dozen homes.
%Gallery-120576%When I mentioned I was writing this article, my birtcha got into a debate over whether qat is a drug or not. Some said that because it’s legal it’s not a drug, similar to some Americans I’ve known who insist alcohol and caffeine aren’t drugs. I don’t agree. Qat is a drug like alcohol, caffeine, or marijuana. Qat is a mild drug, though. Chewing a large bundle has less of an effect on my mind than three pints of beer.
In Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby describes having wild psychotic trips from some of the qat he chewed. Perhaps he chewed more or was more susceptible, but I’ve had nothing like the results he had. The effects on me, like most people, are slow in coming. You usually don’t feel anything for almost an hour, although by this time you’ve been having a nice conversation with friends in a traditional Harari home and feel relaxed anyway. Then you notice a deeper relaxation, mingled with a feeling of goodwill that can become euphoric if you chew enough. Food tastes better, cigarettes taste sweet (or so I’m told) and at least for me colors appear more vibrant.
The best effect of qat is that you end up in long, enthusiastic conversations that can last for hours. Unlike with booze or pot, you’ll actually remember these conversations later! After a time many people quieten down and start to work. Qat helps concentration and often people in a birtcha drop out of the conversation one by one and start writing or working on their laptops. Others return to their offices. Some students use it to help them study for exams. Manual laborers say it’s good for physical work too.
Like all substances, qat has side effects. Chewing too much can lead to sleeplessness and constipation. Long-term use can also lead to mental instability. In qat-chewing regions you’ll always see a few older guys with ragged clothes and wild eyes wandering the streets collecting discarded qat leaves that people have dropped onto the ground. Another downside is that farmers are growing qat instead of food. Most crops can only be harvested once or twice a year. A field of qat plants can be harvested every day by taking shoots from a few plants one day and different ones the next. Farmers like having the constant source of income but its lowering the region’s food production, a really bad idea in a country that sees periodic droughts.
All in all, I think the social effects of qat in Ethiopia are no worse than alcohol in Western countries. The number of qat addicts in Ethiopia’s streets is no greater than the number of winos on Western streets. Qat is a social lubricant that has bad effects for those who use it too much, but for the casual user it’s harmless.
I’m a bit worried about this article. It’s impossible to talk about Harari culture without talking about qat but I don’t want Harar to become a destination for drug tourism. Right now there’s a relaxed, friendly relationship between foreigners and Hararis. A bunch of wasted tourists would spoil that really quickly. I don’t think drug tourists would like Harar, though. Qat’s effects are mild and slow to start. Most drug tourists want to get blasted, and qat doesn’t do that. They also want other drugs, and all of them are illegal in Ethiopia. Despite being considered the Holy Land by Rastafaris, getting caught with marijuana in Ethiopia can get you two years in jail.
So please, if you come to Ethiopia, feel free to chew chat, but don’t try anything else. You don’t want to mess with the Ethiopian justice system. The public prosecutor at my birtcha opens Coke bottles with her teeth.
If you’re staying for any length of time in a place, the best way to experience the local culture is through a home stay. Luckily Harar has a number of traditional homes offering spare rooms.
A local guide showed me a few and I chose one hidden away in a small alley not far from the Catholic mission. This is the neighborhood that got Harar a UNESCO religious tolerance award because there’s an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a Catholic mission, and several mosques all within sight of each other. Walking home I use three minarets and a giant cross as landmarks.
Harari homes look inward. All you see is a gate that leads to a compound of two or more houses, hidden behind their own gates. Enter the second gate and you’re still not inside, you’re in a courtyard with the bathroom to one side and to the other a large, ornately carved wooden door leading to the main building. Harari homes have a unique architecture. With thick stone walls and small windows, they stay cool even in the scorching heat of the day. Leaving your shoes at the front door, you enter the nedeba, or living room. The walls are covered in colorful plates and baskets and often cabinets with multicolored glassware. Hararis love to decorate their rooms with the products of their centuries-old crafts. People sit on a series of platforms, reclining against pillows. The platforms are painted red in memory of those who died at the battle of Tchellenqo in 1887, when the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II defeated Harar’s Emir Abdullahi and the city lost its independence.
Where you sit depends on who you are. The amir nedeba is where the head of the family sits. It’s on the highest platform, usually in one corner where he can see the entrance to the compound. In olden days there was a spot for keeping some spears right next to the amir nedeba, just in case the person entering the compound wasn’t welcome. After a month in Harar I’ve only seen one guy who regularly carries a spear, though.
%Gallery-119012%I’m a regular at a few Harari homes and nobody throws spears at me. Since I’m an honored guest from far away, I sit at the gidir nedeba, the place of honor. I’ve seen members of the family sitting in that spot immediately move when I come in. No amount of protest will get them to sit back down. The next level down is the tit nedeba (“small place”) for lower-ranking people. This isn’t strictly followed, however. One birtcha (qat-chewing session) I attend has so many people that even some of the most prominent individuals sit on the lower level because there isn’t enough room on the upper. Another, separate platform is called the gebti eher nedeba (“the place behind the door”) and is for the young or people of a lower social class.
Harari homes are full of symbolism. My friend Amir says, “Every color, every shape means something. Most Hararis cannot know it all.”
Even little details are worked out in advance, he says. There’s a special room with a narrow entrance for women to stay during childbirth. It’s wider at the top so that big platters of food can be passed through.
The width of the bedroom door corresponds to the width of a coffin. “That’s to remind you of your fate and to live a good life,” he says.
My house, owned by Faisel and Anisa Abdullah, has a separate upstairs all for me. I get a bedroom, a living room, and a lounge with no furniture but a bunch of pillows ranged around the walls. This is for entertaining. Friends will sit here drinking coffee or chewing qat and talking the hours away. My rooms cost me 3500 birr ($212) a month. Water is included and this is important to confirm when renting a place because water is expensive in Harar, especially in the dry season we’re in now. I wasn’t expecting to have only a squat toilet and bucket showers but it turns out the bathroom has a European-style toilet and a proper shower, luxuries I don’t need but certainly appreciate.
Imme, a German painter staying in a different neighborhood, has three rooms even larger than mine for 3000 birr ($182) a month, but got the more traditional African bathroom. Both of us have far more space than we need, and for a price lower than the city’s hotels!
A home stay allows you to settle in a neighborhood for a while. The closed-off nature of Harari architecture means I haven’t met most of my neighbors, but I’m getting to know the people I pass in the nearby alleys every day. I’m also getting into the rhythm of the place. Just before dawn the muezzin of the Jamia mosque wakes me up with the morning call to prayer. The first couple of mornings I had a hard time falling back asleep, but now the flowery sounds of Arabic barely register in my dreams. I’d make a bad Muslim. The muezzin’s call to prayer is followed by low chanting coming from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, announcing their morning service.
I’m usually up shortly after dawn in any case. Outside my window I can hear the kids from the local school horsing around before the bell rings. If I peek out my window I can just see the front door of the school over the rooftops. The kids in their yellow shirts and sky-blue pants or skirts wait in the shade or run around after each other laughing.
Soon I’m out wandering around Harar. I usually don’t come back until night, when I sit for an hour or two writing in my living room before turning in. The open window lets in all the sounds of the Harari night. Hyenas laugh and howl at the edge of town like the mad lost souls of Purgatory, sometimes getting closer, sometimes drawing away or shifting position. The town dogs bark defiantly but do no good. I often see hyenas pacing through the alleys in the center of town looking for scraps to eat. They keep quiet then, preferring to make noise outside the city walls. The battle ebbs and flows all night, at times lapsing into an eerie silence. Then the hyenas will call to each other again and the dogs will bark self-importantly, completely ignored by the hyenas.
What makes an adventure traveler return to a place he’s been before? When so many other destinations beckon, why spend two months in a town you’ve already seen?
Because there’s so much more to see. Harar, in eastern Ethiopia between the lush central highlands and the Somali desert, can take a lifetime to understand. For a thousand years it’s been a crossroads of cultures, where caravans from the Red Sea met Central African merchants, where scholars and poets have traded ideas, where a dozen languages are heard in the streets.
Harar’s influence spread wide in those early days. Harari coins have been found in India and China, and a couple of my Harari friends have subtly Chinese features.
The Harari have always mixed with other tribes. Some say if you live within the medieval walls of the Jugol, the old city, and follow Harari ways, that you are one of them. Hararis have their own language spoken only by the Jugol’s 20,000 residents, yet this language has created literature, poetry, and song for centuries. As Harar faces the new millennium, a dedicated group of artists and intellectuals are working to preserve and add to this heritage.
But this is no Oxford, no Western-style center of learning. Harar is different. The day starts at dawn with the muezzin’s call to prayer. Hararis are moderate Sunnis with a broad streak of Sufi mysticism. There are more than 90 mosques hidden in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Jugol, and more than 300 shrines to saints. Harar is considered the fourth holiest city of Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.
The morning is a busy time. Oromo farmers from the surrounding countryside fill the markets with their produce. Camels and donkeys jostle each other in the narrow streets. Kids go off to school. Offices and shops fill up. As the sun reaches its zenith and presses down on the city, people retreat to the cool interiors of their whitewashed houses with bundles of qat under their arm. Groups of friends chew this narcotic leaf during the hot hours of the day. As the buzz sets in, people relax and engage in long, animated conversations that after a time lapse into quiet reflection. One man will go off into a corner to write the lyrics to a song, while another will set to work on a Harari dictionary. Others will remain together, sharing stories about Harar. The afternoon and evening are spent in studious concentration, the main benefit of the so-called Leaves of Paradise.
%Gallery-91809%Night falls and people still work. Ethiopia is a developing country and want is never far away, so everyone puts in long hours. As the final evening call to prayer echoes away, the Hararis set down to eat or chat in cafes over a cup of the region’s coffee (considered by many the best in the world) or retire to a shrine to perform all-night ceremonies of ecstatic chanting.
Then Harar’s other residents appear. Packs of hyenas gather at the edge of town, waiting for the humans to go to sleep so they can prowl the streets, eating the garbage or scraps left out for them. The Hararis consider the hyenas neighbors and they share an uneasy but close relationship. The Jugol walls even have low doorways to allow them to pass. Hyenas are magical beings, able to take the djinn, spirits, out of the city. Some say they’re djinn themselves, or blacksmiths turned into animal form. Sometimes as you walk home along a moonlit alley one will pass by, its bristly fur brushing against your leg.
I’m spending the next two months living here. This is a journey measured not in miles traveled but by people befriended and knowledge gained. I’ll sit with Harar’s great scholars and artists to learn about the heritage of this unique city, and I’ll meet the regular people–the Oromo farmers and Harari shopkeepers, the Tigrinya university students and Somali refugees. I’ll watch traditional blacksmiths working the way their ancestors did, and women weaving the colorful baskets that adorn every Harari home.
As a former archaeologist, there are some mysteries I want to explore. I’ll visit the ruins of Harla, said to be the predecessor to Harar, and investigate the prehistoric cave paintings at Kundudo, the region’s sacred mountain. I’ll descend into the Somali desert to visit Chinhahsan, where the 16th century conqueror Ahmad The Left-Handed is rumored to have had the capital of his vast but brief empire. Among the ruined castle and crumbling city walls I’ll look for the truth behind the legend.
I’ll also venture further afield, taking in the sights of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s bustling capital. If I can assemble the right team, I’ll lead an expedition to Maqdala, a mountaintop fortress deep in the Ethiopian wilderness where the mad Emperor Tewodros defied the British Empire. I might even return to Somaliland.
There’s another reason I want to see Harar again–to catch a feeling that comes only once every few trips. Sometimes you’ll come to a spot where everything falls into place. The person you need to see appears just at the right time, the bit of information you’re searching for comes from an unexpected source, the mood is serene and the hospitality never ends. I’ve had that a few times before, like at Kumbh Mela, a giant Hindu pilgrimage that attracted 20 million people, but this feeling of everyone getting along despite their differences, everyone striving forward despite their lack of material resources, that’s a rare thing to experience.