Khat in Transit

Posted: February 28, 2012 by lzaldana in Uncategorized

In Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (2008), Wedeen urges the reader to reflect on dominant understandings of democratic classifications. She specifies the limitations that a procedural definition of democracy, based on formidable electoral institutions, can place on the democratic behaviour of a regime. Using the example of public khat-chews in Yemen, she provides an example of how  khat has a particular ability to create degrees of political identifications. This is due to the fact that khat has historically tended to structure a social atmosphere that is conducive to “free and Fair” critical public participation. Thus the institution of the khat-chews within the Yemeni context is substantively more democratic than the United States. Because daily life of chewers and non-chewers alike is built on the dialogue and conventions khat provokes, and because the collective conversation extends to a spectrum of political power holders, it creates networks of publics powerful enough to create a sense of national belonging.

The problem I found with this article is that although she overtly attempts to be critical of Eurocentric assumptions that underlie regime classifications (such as Habermas’ bourgeoisie sources of the public sphere), she describes Yemen’s unfolding civil life as playing historical “catch-up” in fashion similar to modernization theorists. Secondly Wedeen makes an effort to point out how comprehensive the chewing spaces are for voicing divergent views, yet she concedes women are not part of these provocative and enlightened debates. If a person’s position in a chew gathering is indicative of their relative social status, then a women’s complete absence would have to severely limit her argument on how inclusive and representative these discursive circles truly are. More importantly, the woman’s absence from these circles is significant in itself, and could use further elaborations to explain the social life the object takes on.

Khat and the Creation of Tradition in the Somali Diaspora (2007), by Klein expands more on the issue of gender within the context of migration. First of all, Klein explains how khat has come to be part of an imagined historical past in Somalia, even though it has only recently become universally acknowledged by the diaspora. This is due to the diaspora’s efforts to re-identify with the homeland after their experiences of civil war, exile and the ban on the substance itself. Secondly, he argues that due to these negative variables, khat cannot nurture the positive social relations outlined in the Yemeni example since the performative activity is altered in the context of arrival. He uses two important examples to describe these different contexts which are taken for granted; the more radical UK mosques that discourage the dissemination of pre-Islamic origin information of khat, as well as the gender-role reversal found within the licit workforce in which men can no longer be the sole household providers. Hence, tradition is reified under inaccurate pretenses.  Furthermore , communities are divided in themselves about the importance of khat, an object that is not native to their homeland but an important aspect of their trade history within Africa. Finally, the increased demand for khat that has in turn solidified illicit international trade, thus “justifying” the negative reputation it has gained  throughout the years.

In Chewing Khat: Reflections on the Somali Male Food and Social Life, Bali discusses the physical and pharmacological qualities of Khat as well as its economic-trade history. The article highlights Somali khat-use from various authors at different time periods. Read together, one gets the sense that the object’s status has varied over time; it can be s a relatively neutrally plant stimulant, or viewed positively for inducing social relationships, introspection, and suppressing hunger. On the other hand, it has been regarded negatively by the same descriptive qualities.  Therefore it is important to note the differences in comparisons.  Burton in 1966 describes public Khat chewing as an activity for “literati” inducing light-heartedness and creativity. Kalix, however, in 1986 focuses on its tendency to induce deep sleep . This subjectivity is uniquely historical as it tells a story of the status of the people known to be associated with the drug (e.g. labourers)- opinions which frequently fluctuate and are influenced by its crossings with cultural/national borders.  Finally, the article discusses the importance legislation has on the cultural acceptance of the drug, and on whether it is considered a drug at all or simply a cultural substance.

In Bundles of Choice (2006), Carrier explains that Kenyan Khat belongs in a wide range of social circles due to the way the plant is manufactured into different classifications, the way groups come to identify with these categories, and due to what value they give to khat. The article deepens our understanding of the flexible identity of an object by making connections with the ways in which cultural conventions and the biodiversity of the substance itself are reinvented through entrepreneurship and international market exchange. These methods of reinvention are also tools of strategy in order to offer variety despite the constraints of its prohibition in certain parts of the world and the dominance by certain groups over its trade and production.

These articles do a good job in making visible the various players involved in consolidating the legitimacy of the social life of an object. Khat serves as a great example of this phenomenon because it is a seemingly neutral and natural object yet we can see under what circumstances objects can be vilified by legislation and how an illegality of an object can be detrimental to the social relations that develop within the diaspora due to its ambiguous meanings. Its legal environment can push the object to thrive in the public or retreat into the private. According to one member of the Attorney General’s office, “the social use of the drug is not an excuse” however I think that it is precisely the social setting that these governing bodies consider the most. International geopolitical interest is a major player. For example, in Yemen, the national consumption of Khat has until now been a relatively permissible convention. On the other extreme however, khat assumes resistance status in the Nyambene Hills in the face of pressures to produce other less profitable colonial exports, while in the West, media obfuscates khat and associates it with war-torn Somalia.  Additionally, what was interesting about these articles is that it reminds the reader of how objects in and of themselves are dynamic and have an aging process which can influence, if not become a part of human behaviour.  Not only is the substance known for inducing conversation and bringing people together, but it also invokes other objects and customs, which over time change.

while going over the reading,  I could not help but think of the recent phenomenon of redbull consumption in the culture of young Canadian. although this might be a silly example, I was wondering in what way do some of the author’s points on khat apply to the alkaloids found in energy drinks and the various marketed ‘sub-divisions” that Carrier describes?

in what other ways other than gender and religion, can opinion on cultural identity diverge in this debate?




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