Khat is a green-leaved plant grown predominantly in the Horn of Africa, and consumed in the diaspora by emigrants from the region – Ethiopians, Kenyans, Yemenis and most notably Somalis – who report a mild, amphetamine-like high. Khat is legal in the UK, as are mafrishes, but spirited campaigns to outlaw it on health and social grounds have been galvanised in the past year by claims that terror cells are operating wherever khat is chewed, and that al-Shabaab is focusing its recruitment efforts on disenfranchised Somali youth with khat-addled minds.
CNN said that reporters have been attacked while trying to enter mafrishes; the Huffington Post said that it had been advised not even to attempt access. A reporter with Vice magazine said he tried khat, washed it down with beer, and “got all hyper and threw a chair”. My sources were less certain of the dangers. “The most radical thing I’ve ever seen at a mafrish is a group of old men watching porn on the telly,” said one anthropologist.
And apprehension dissipates rapidly in Peckham, despite a finger jabbed into my chest on the street outside, accompanied by the question: “What are you? ” Hastily abandoning a flimsy cover story, I admit that I am a reporter with this magazine. My interlocutor appears baffled. “But what football team are you? ” he says. I tell him, he rolls his eyes, grabs me by the forearm and hauls me inside. During the next month visiting mafrishes in south London, I will be scorned often for being a Tottenham Hotspur supporter.
Issues of my nationality (British), ethnicity (white) and profession (journalist) pass without comment. No one attempts to recruit me to al-Shabaab. According to most recent figures, there are close to 110,000 Somalis in the UK, around 35 per cent of whom admit to consuming khat on a regular basis. Although some women indulge in the home or with female friends, khat chewing is most commonly regarded as a male pastime, particularly in the mafrishes, which are frequently referred to as “Somali pubs”.
The analogy is obvious, even though Somalis, as Muslims, tend not to drink. In Africa, khat’s stimulant properties make it the product of choice for long-distance lorry drivers, night-watchmen and students cramming for exams. But in the diaspora it has come to be regarded as a cheap luxury, known to be an aid for relaxation and conversation. Men congregate to network, discuss politics and family or work issues. They watch the news or football matches, chew the fat – and chew khat.