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Around 6:30 p.m. on a late October evening, a young man hops out of his car, walks down the sidewalk, and opens the door to the Mogadishu Restaurant at 1830 14th St. NW. A moment later, I follow behind. A gentle tug on the door handle creates a jarring sound. The door is locked.
I peer through the door and see chairs and tables scattered about. A framed poster of an African coastal landscape hangs on the right wall. I jiggle the handle like a restless toddler. A crowd huddled around the table at the far end of the dining room turns toward the door.
A middle-aged man standing near the back counter furiously waves his arms like windshield-wipers as he moves toward me. I, apparently, am not on their invite list this evening.
“May I see a menu?” I ask, as he opens the door.
He chuckles as he slips through, and the door shuts behind him. “No, this is no restaurant,” he says.
I point upward at the sign.
“This place is to shoot pool, talk,” he continues, curling his fingers into two circles connected by an imaginary cue stick. No pool table is visible through the door. “Restaurant is across the street,” he adds, pointing to the Wazzema Restaurant at the corner of 14th and T. He then walks quickly down the sidewalk, white plastic package in hand, opens the driver’s side door to a cab, and takes off.
Obviously, Mogadishu doesn’t cater to a big dinner crowd. And, truth be told, the restaurant doesn’t rely on heavy lunch traffic eithera few hours earlier, its iron gate was locked, and black cellophane covered the bottom three-quarters of the inside door.
Breakfast? Try Ben’s Chili Bowl. Despite the large blue and white sign atop its doorway advertising Somalian cuisine, Mogadishu doesn’t generate much heat in the kitchen. If it even has a working one, that is.
Mogadishu does serve up a delicacy, thoughone that’s not likely to be reviewed by food critics anytime soon. The restaurant specializes in fresh bundles of khat, a leafy evergreen shrub grown in parts of East Africa and the Arabian peninsula that is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “Compulsive use [of khat] may result in manic behavior with grandiose delusions or in a paranoid type of illness, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations,” notes an agency publication, Drugs of Abuse. Possession of and attempt to distribute khat in the United States are felonies.
At Mogadishu and several other spots around D.C., an integral part of East African culture butts up directly against U.S. law. That’s why Mogadishu maintains such a selective door policy. African mendressed in everything from work shirts to single-breasted suits to hiphop jeanscome here to talk, play cards, and carry on their khat-chewing tradition. While the plant sits alongside cocaine and amphetamines on the DEA’s controlled-substances list, local law enforcement agencies have taken scant interest in the illicit activity. “It’s not high on our priority list,” says Sgt. John Brennan of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Narcotics and Special Investigations Division. “It’s not like heroin or cocaine.”
It’s never hard to catch a cab on the 1100 block of V Street NW. Around 8 o’clock one Monday night, the street resembles a cab stand at Union Station or National Airport. The driversmostly immigrants from Ethiopia and Somaliamake the block a crucial pit stop for refueling during their shifts. The area rivals the southern strip of 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan as D.C.’s “Little Ethiopia.”
Inhabitants have a decidedly different name for this chunk of city real estate. “We call this Victory Lane,” explains Awlachew A. Ayele, known to all simply as Mr. Mellow Yellow.
Mellow is the mayor of V Street, a man frequently consulted by many of the block’s residents and visitors who hang out on the sidewalk. Mellow patrols the block like a neighborhood watch captain, prompting all kinds of salutations”Yo, Mellow!” is a common onefrom cars slowly passing through the block. When asked about his notoriety, Mellow simply explains, “I am a self-appointed community worker.”
On a tour of the block, Mellow notes that the Juba Restaurant, which sits in a green row house one door from 12th Street, specializes in Somalian cuisine. I ask whether it serves up the same chewy greens as Mogadishu. “It’s a restaurant,” he insists, taking a decidedly confrontational turn. “You need to go there and find out yourself,” he eventually says. “Whatever they do, who the hell cares….It’s not legal, illegal, whatever they do.”
A couple of nights later, I decide to follow through on Mellow’s ultimatum. Juba is so jumping this evening that the door to the restaurant is constantly kept open. But not for me. As I approach the front gate, the restaurant door closes, and two African men spy at me as they stand on the other side.
“Are you open?” I ask, as they push the door open for an exiting patron.
“No, I think they are closing now,” the departing customer says as he heads toward his cab.
“What are you looking for?” the men behind the door ask.
“Do you serve dinner?” I innocently inquire.
“No, there is no food here, only tea,” one answers. “We are not open for customers.”
On the sidewalk, I am approached by a man who has just double-parked his red Toyota Corolla in front of Juba. “What are you doing here?” he asks.
“I am trying to buy some khat,” I tell him.
“Me, too,” he says. “There is no more in there?”
I suspect there’s plenty, I tell him, but I know that I don’t exactly fit Juba’s target demographic. I let him know I’m a reporter, and that I’d happily finance his purchase if he bought some for me as well. “Maybe they are suspicious of you, you know,” he says. “I will go in and buy some and then meet you at the corner of 14th and U.”
When other cultures observe siesta or high tea, menand in almost all cases, only menin cities like Addis Ababa and Mogadishu get together in private residences to socialize and chew khat. Muslims consider khat a spiritual herb and initiate chewing with a structured ceremony. The sessions usually last three to four hours. Conversation often bubbles along for a great while, as the plant is known to bring on loquacity. Some foreign visitors have made comparisons of khat chewing to American-style business lunches or coffee klatches.
“It’s just like coffee. When you have examinations, it helps you to stay awake….It helps you concentrate,” says Tesfaye Ashagre Abebe, an Ethiopian immigrant who attended services two Sundays ago at the Debre Selam Kisist Mariam Orthodox Tewahelo Church on Buchanan Street NW. “In the eastern region of Ethiopia, everybody chews khat.”
But Abebe and most of his fellow countrymen insist they left their chewing days behind when they swapped countries. “Ninety-nine percent of this congregation does not chew khat,” notes a fellow Tewahelo Church congregant. In the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith, he explains, khat chewing is taboo, along with other addictive habits such as smoking and drinking.
“America is very, very strict about khat,” Abebe says. “I don’t know anyone who chews it….Here, I don’t know where to even get it.”
“I don’t know anybody who chews it,” echoes Dr. Tsegay Weorgis, an Ethiopian diplomat stationed in Washington.
D.C. police say that they are aware of khat trafficking in the city, but they have other plants to uproot. Their first priority is to curb corner drug markets, whose offerings have a more nefarious impact on the common good.
Like on V Street, for example. The African immigrants in the neighborhood say that there’s more than a one-word difference between them and the young African-American men who also call the V Street sidewalk home. “We don’t do that stuff in here,” Elias insists, presumably referring to the locale’s marijuana and cocaine trade. “We don’t do anything illegal in here….I’ll be very happy if [the police] get rid of them.”
Early last week, Elias got his wish. Two 3rd District patrol cars sat all evening at the corner of 12th and W Streets NW. Over the past weekend, an anonymous tipster in the neighborhood alerted police to a dead body buried in some overgrown brush on 12th, just south of U Street.
As a result of the discovery, police patrolling in the area noticeably increased, while the street’s sidewalk populationEthiopian and otherwisedropped. Except right in front of Juba. Business remained fairly brisk throughout the dinner hour and early evening rush.
On Friday night, the sidewalk outside of Dashen received more than its share of attention from the cops. According to witnesses, a police officer chased Roman Shaw, an African-American teenager hanging out on the block, through Dashen’s small grocery and kitchen right into its packed billiard room.
Soon more than a dozen officers descended on the shabby pool hall, which has one pool table and one billiardi table, an Italian derivative of pool. Officers told the twenty or so patrons in the room to put their hands on the wall and their knees on the ground. Even after they released Shaw, police continued to search Dashen’s regulars. “You motherfuckin’ Ethiopians,” Dashen patrons claim the policemen shouted. “You fuckin’ foreigners.”
“Do you have a search warrant?” repeated Mellow. “This is not a legal search,” he chanted.
One officer, say witnesses, lifted Mellow by the neck. “Do you have any other lawyers in the house?” he asked and then placed his gun next to Mellow’s skull. “You know what, mister? I’ll blow your Ethiopian brains out. You’ll see your brains blown by a nine millimeter.”
In the end, police found two pocket knives and a small amount of marijuana. “We do suspect there is some drug activity on that block,” Sgt. Sherwin Bigelow, the patrol service area sergeant, admits. If they had looked closer at the pool hall’s floor, they would have found a few discarded khat stems and leaves as well.
But that’s not the focal point of police concern. “People are selling [khat] to one certain group of people,” notes Sgt. Brennan. “They know where to go get it. It’s not the type of drug you can sell on the corner unless you have big coolers out there…to keep it fresh.”
The clock starts ticking for smugglers the moment they harvest the khat plant. Fresh khat leaves contain two psychoactive ingredients: cathinone and cathine. The more potent of the two is cathinone, an alkaloid that is structurally and chemically similar to an amphetamine. Depending on cultural tradition, users chew either the leaves or shoots of the plant and get a jolt from the juice, much like chewing tobacco.Yet unlike tobacco, khat has a very short shelf-life: Within 48 hours, the cathinone in khat rapidly converts into cathine, a much milder substance which packs far less of a psychochemical punch.
In most cases, khat bundles come wrapped in banana leaves to seal in moisture and retain as much cathinone as possible. Once transported, the plant is often kept refrigerated to keep it fresh. A khat bundle in D.C. currently retails for $35.
Smugglers most commonly fly khat shipments into the East Coast through airports in the New York and, to a lesser extent, D.C. metropolitan areas. In fiscal year 1996, Customs made 555 seizures of khat39,161 poundsat ports of entry to the United States. In 1998, Customs made 30 seizures of khat1686 poundsat Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia.
As immigration from khat-chewing regions of East Africa and the Middle East booms, some U.S. officials fear a new drug epidemic might wash ashore as well. The plant started attracting attention during the Somalian civil war in the early ’90s. Western reporters focused on what they interpreted as a causal relationship between khat chewing and violence: “During the most intense battles among Mogadishu’s rival factions, the capital’s warlords kept their young zealots amply supplied with khat to fuel their fighting spirit,” reported Keith B. Richburg in the Aug. 13, 1992, Washington Post. “Now, with a truce holding in the city, relief workers say many of the current violent incidents involve nighttime disputes among young men armed with high-powered weapons and high on khat.”
Perhaps those kinds of stories are behind the high level of federal hype surrounding khat. “This highly perishable Schedule I narcotic in [sic] another ‘cultural’ drug which can only add to the ever-increasing violence and crime being witnessed throughout the United States,” warns Khat: A Field Guide, a pocket-sized pamphlet distributed to special field agents by Customs.
On Dec. 2 of last year, Fairfax County police arrested Yahya Ahmed Abbas for possession with intent to distribute khat. Abbas received a package at his Annandale home containing 90 pounds of khat. The estimated street value of the package was $6,000. Abbas pleaded guilty to the charges. D.C. authorities say that they have made several seizures of khat but have made no arrests so far. “We’ve never seen violence associated with this drug,” notes Brennan.
The only women found in Dashen’s pool room are wallflowersliterally. Four smiling two-dimensional women who cheerily advertise the “13 months of sunshine” in Ethiopia hang on the dingy poolroom wall. Not that Dashen is exclusively malethere are always two to three Ethiopian women who toil in the kitchen, carving meat from a carcass, cooking, stocking Perriers in the refrigerator.
Dashen is the Ethiopian equivalent of the Italian social club. It’s the space where men from Ethiopia come to chat, eat, and play pool. And, on occasion, chew khat.
Like its attendant social activities, khat-chewing is a casual affair easily mistaken for gum-chewing, but with one caveat: the green speckles that stick to your teeth. “I am chewing khat,” one of the pool players casually mentions to me on my first venture into the pool room. “My father chewed khat, my grandfather chewed khat,” he continues. “It’s a tradition. I’m not addicted to it. It gives me energy, keeps me up.”
Some Africans chew the plant’s shoots, others the leaves. A chewer pops khat in his mouth like licorice and gradually munches it down into the space between his teeth and gums. He constantly gnaws at the plant, sucking down the cathinone-loaded juice.
Most of the Ethiopians at Dashen prefer leaves. They keep the fresh, green leaves sealed tight in a plastic baggie. The practice seems purposely innocent, though a bit bizarre. It looks as if they’re downing some mint or basil, freshly picked from the backyard garden.
There are two distinct techniques to leaf chewing, mirroring the most common ways of eating popcorn: There is the shoveling technique, where the chewer grabs a big wad of khat and piles it into his mouth. Then there is the more refined, one-leaf-at-a-time technique, in which the chewer carefully plucks the leaves from the stems.
One of the pool players hands me two short stems with a nice grouping of leaves. I tear off the leaves, and after a bit of hesitation, begin chewing.
I suddenly feel like a toddler, eagerly nabbing some grass for a tasty snack. In fact, the khat tastes like a weed should: sour and yucky. My mouth soon becomes very pasty.
I shovel the rest of the leaves and stems in, hoping quantity might improve the palate. Bad move. I try as hard as I can to pretend as if I’m getting the hang of khat chewing, talking and trying not to think about the ground weeds burrowing into my decaying wisdom teeth and molars.
I am a little sluggish today, so I anticipate the energy boost that khat is supposed to give. I refuel with another leaf and consciously swallow all the juice I can.
After almost an hour of chomping, I begin to feel more alertor at least think I do. My eyes open wider; I blink less and stare more. No epiphany, no euphoria, just the alertness and slight buzz that comes after one too many cups of coffee. And I can’t wait to brush my teeth. CP