That Darned Khat

In search of New York's most elusive drug

"We're going to force these people to become radicalized, like the Taliban. [Without khat] they don't have any alternative but to turn to Islam."

When I ask about the Yemen and Somalia Restaurant, he says several years ago khat was openly used there, but different owners run the place that's there now, the Dibiterie Cheikh Restaurant.

I stop in anyway, hoping to find a holdover from the old days. I meet the manager, Gracya Fall, a pretty, smiling moonfaced woman with a swath of gold cloth in her hair matching her dress, and ask if West Africans also use khat. I puff out my cheek and started making a chewing motion as a visual aid. Fall looks perplexed for a moment and then starts listing foods, "Lamb, beef, chicken." Suddenly I realize she thinks I'm asking if they serve cat.

illustration: Ronald Kurniawan

I'm feeling about as useless as 10-day-old khat—not that I wouldn't settle for some—when a call to Minnesota, which has the largest Somali community in the U.S., bucks me up.

Lieutenant Gregory Reinhardt of the Minneapolis Police Department, supposing, correctly, that I'm not Somali, informs me: "Oh, you and I can never go out and get it. [I'd] buy crack cocaine and marijuana when I was an undercover agent. I'd never be able to buy khat."

Sorry, Greg. I'm not giving up yet.

I hear from a friend that he knows a guy who says he bought khat a couple years back from a bodega at Canal and Essex streets. The outskirts of Chinatown seem an unlikely place for khat, but I'm desperate.

The bodega on that corner is T & Tai Hung Food Market Inc. I figure, even if they are selling it there, it's a long shot they'd sell it to me—a beefy, white guy with short hair who has occasionally been mistaken for a cop.

But I've got nothing to lose. I stick my notebook in my pocket and ask the store clerk, a small bespectacled Asian man with a wispy mustache, if they sell khat. He smiles but doesn't seem to know what I'm talking about. I tell him, "Khat, the plant from East Africa. I was told you guys sell it here."

"Africa? Ah, no, no," he says, smiling.

He seems to be telling the truth. Just to make sure, I walk across the street and watch to see if any Somali- or Yemeni-looking people enter the store. I'm khat profiling.

As I watch a steady procession of Asian customers enter, buy lottery tickets, and leave, I hear a woman with an African-sound ing accent next to me ask for what I think is khat. She's talking to an Asian man who works in the ABA Super Gift store. Maybe I have the wrong place. Maybe the khat dealers are on this side of the street.

The man grunts and continues arranging bags of luggage for sale outside the store, ignoring her. The woman, who is carrying three large garbage bags, demands, "Do you have it or not?" The man grunts yes, and as he shuffles into the store, she says, "I need strong. A strong one."

This is it, I think, finally. I start thinking of how I should approach the guy. Maybe I should stake it out. Or should I enlist the help of someone who looks less like a narc, maybe Hamada or Ammar, to help me buy it? Or should I . . . just give up and leave khat to the small community of émigrés who go through even more trouble than I have to get it?

Because, instead of khat, the Asian man emerges from the store holding several carts, the fold-up kind people carry groceries home in.

"Fifteen dollars," he says to the lady.

My search continues.

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