That Darned Khat

In search of New York's most elusive drug

Sulaiman, stocky with short dark hair, carries himself like a man much older than his 25 years. He says his khat consumption is limited to trips home to Yaffa for several reasons. For starters, his father is a strict Muslim who's dead set against it. Also, the khat in the U.S. is excessively expensive (at least $40 and as high as $80 a "bundle," the amount usually chewed in one session, compared to $5 back home for a pile three times as big). And since it arrives five or six days after picking, it doesn't pack the punch of the stuff back home.

But the real reason neither Sulaiman nor any of his Yemeni friends here use khat is they simply can't find it.

Looking around to make sure his father's out of earshot, Sulaiman tells me of the time a few years back when he and some friends decided to get some khat. It used to be sold and used openly in the Yemeni restaurants and stores in Cobble Hill, so they didn't think it'd be a problem. After a day spent independently searching, they all came back empty-handed.

illustration: Ronald Kurniawan

"Since the crackdown on it, " Sulaiman says, "I think everybody's in hiding."

The crackdown he speaks of is twofold: Six years ago, there was a routine bust of three restaurants in the neighborhood, in which nine Yemeni men were arrested and 200 pounds of khat seized. That raid put the community on notice; police weren't tolerating the previously open khat trade anymore. The other part of the crackdown, Sulaiman says, has been the extra law enforcement scrutiny of his community since September 11. Get a Muslim for any infraction and try to flip them for information about terrorism. To that end, there have been visits to Sulaiman's restaurant from snooping cops and several customers suspected of being undercovers or informants inquiring about khat.

But Sulaiman doesn't see the khat- terrorism connection. Al Qaeda are the most fervently religious Muslims and believe khat violates the Koran. As he puts it, "Whoever sells it [khat] would have to be not one of those religious guys."

After weeks of coming up empty, I need to physically see some khat. I'd almost given up on an energy boost, but at this point I could use a morale boost. So I go to the one place where I know they have a lot of it—John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Last year, Customs seized 52,239 pounds of khat, about half a ton each week, at JFK alone. In 2004, over 90,000 pounds of the stuff was seized there. New York is the nation's khat hub.

The U.S. Customs building is located in a huge, nondescript hangar on the ass end of JFK. As I drive out there, I daydream of possible scenes I might be privy to: fired-up Customs agents with drug-sniffing dogs taking down outlaw khat couriers. Or maybe a seizure of a shipment of khat hidden in some ingeniously devious way.

Upon arrival, I'm steered into a conference room to meet agents from Customs, which does the seizing, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which does the investigations.

Customs agent Laura Rios starts out by telling me traffickers usually list the khat shipments as being magazines, coffee, or tea, items that would be of a similar weight. Most seizures come from Yemen or Kenya or England, where khat is still legal. Khat used to be shipped in banana leaves to keep it moist, but nowadays most times it's wrapped in newspaper that is wetted before mailing. Because the khat is so odoriferous and the boxes are usually soggy, detecting it is pretty easy, Rios says.

As I press on I notice that, before answering, the agents seem to be first glancing at a Customs supervisor who's sitting in on the session. His job, apparently, is to make my interview as uninteresting as possible.

When I ask Rios where the khat is taken after it's seized, he butts in, "Let's just say to another facility." In the city, out of the city, where? "Let's just say another facility." OK . . . how is it destroyed? "Let's just say it gets destroyed."

After 20 or so minutes of this, we move into the hangar—a gigantic mail room. Despite the fact they tell me 1.3 million pieces of mail move through JFK a day, there are no workers in sight.

Can I see some seizures in action? No, the supervisor says. Instead, I'm led to a desolate corner of the hangar. There, sitting on a hand truck, are five or six boxes of varying sizes. Behind them is a nearly empty fenced-in area with the sign "Khat Cage" on it. My photographer is told not to take pictures of the mail room, and an agent asks me if I could keep my description of the generic-looking boxes of khat generic. They don't want the bad guys "knowing that we know," she tells me. I look at the boxes again to see if I'm missing something.

The unveiling of the khat is, in a word, disappointing. A date on the English newspaper it came wrapped in marks the shipment as 10 days old. The stems and leaves are covered in a thick, white mold. Just a clump of rotting, smelly vegetation.

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