From Qat to Khat: A Biography

Posted: February 28, 2012 by Leftelep in Uncategorized

Understanding the use of khat, or qat, as a diasporic object is greatly complicated by its challenges as either being illegal or of a perceived health concern. However, a greater theme emerges this week that sets the tone for understanding objects, not only as important to individuals, but as communal. It is only within the framing of khat/qat as a communal practice that its use as diaspora object be assessed. By now it is clearly acknowledged that diasporic objects emerge as movement makes their use more visible while consciously being asserted as markers of identity, and less routinized within new contexts. The biography of qat begins with its socially acceptable use within Yemen society – to the point of facilitating the ‘public realm/sphere’ and its democratic functions within this society (Wedeen, 2008). However, as it takes the form of khat, and is resituated within the Somali diaspora it takes on certain negative properties that link it to images of war and recklessness. This is taken up by immigrant receptions countries through the later depiction of khat as a negative stimulant, and while the UK, Canada, and US differ in their treatment of the perceived drug, the focus of qat chewing as a broadly public societal event is replaced by a debate around historical identity vs. unacceptable behaviour in a new land all the same.


Wedeen (2008) depiction of qat sets the tone for understanding its communal functions pre-drug debate. Wedeen’s (2008) own purpose is less-so to focus on the biography of this object and is more concerned with challenging Eurocentric depictions of democracy, that favor elections as a primary measure of its reach. However, it becomes apparent in this article that qat chewing facilitates the necessary space where ideas can be expressed, current affairs be shared orally, and most importantly, where the hierarchy of society is distorted to allow for the presence of what Wedeen (2008) refers to as ‘multiple publics’ to enter political debates and set the tone for what emerges as public topics. Therefore, as Wedeen (2008) states, qat chewing itself is the public realm and a form of democracy. It is the very ‘openness’ that is accepted around the practice of qat chewing that allows for this to take place. The issue of qat chewing being mostly a male practice, and a means of excluding women from discussion must be considered, however, as it certainly was by Wedeen (2008) as well.

Yet, this reading is more concerned with the practice around the object, and makes little account of the role that the object itself plays in stimulating both a desire to speak beyond space and time, and the complimentary feeling of induced euphoria that likely assists in the dissolving of other, and less agreeable, ideas. Therefore, as we move into deeper descriptions of the object itself in the last set of readings (Bali, 1997; Hart, 1997; Blount, 1996), we can better understand the role that this stimulant plays in allowing for this form of democracy to take place, and the ways in which it enhances oral traditions.

Enter Khat…

As we move into a discussion of khat, as introduced by Klein (2007), we begin to see the validity of khat as tradition in the hands of the Somali Diaspora fall apart, and as this happens its association with violence and poor health begin to emerge. A key point that Klein makes is that “khat may be part of the culture, but is not part of the history” (p.53) of Somalia. However, that the Somali Diaspora in the UK had accepted khat as being part of the history back home is of importance here. As we are beginning to become aware in this course, it is important to understand what the object represents to diasporic communities themselves, more than it is what importance it plays to those observing its relevance from the outside. While Klein (2007) does state that khat is taken up a symbol of identity for the Somali diaspora in the UK, his arguments could be better situated if they came from the community itself, instead placing focus around it. As a diasporic object, and as qat moves to khat it takes on new meanings as a familiar tradition amongst the backdrop of a new place, a point acknowledged by Bali (1997), and the narratives of illegality exist beyond the sphere of the diasporic experiences while certainly attributing to the divide of what constitutes acceptable practice.

Question 1: What are the characteristics of an object if it is hedonistic and what higher properties do we bestow to them when they can be classified as communal?

Question 2: What is and is not a drug outside of conventional terms? Is health really the issue, and what role does history play in normalizing and demonizing some practices over others?

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