Chewing the Fat, With a Side of Qat : Customs: Narcotic is omnipresent as Somalis gather to swap gossip and information.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They gather every afternoon, six or seven men, to gossip, to talk about the situation in their devastated country and to chew themselves into a narcotic euphoria.

More than the talk and fellowship, they come to Mohammed's house for the qat, a pale green plant. When chewed, it provides users brief moments of a feeling of well being.

But the effect wears off quickly, within an hour or so. Then more qat is needed, then more. By the end of three or four hours, the chewer is reduced to a state of indolence and ennui.

Qat is a way of life and no small contributor to the anarchy that has turned Somalia into a wasteland of brutality and starvation. But the drug, cultivated in neighboring Kenya and imported to Somalia, seems more benign in Mohammed's living room, where the men sit in folding chairs, dressed in colorful shirts and the sarong-like skirts that serve as a national dress.

Each user clutches a bunch of the coarse, pale green qat stems in one hand, eight to 10 strands about six inches long. Stopping only for an occasional sip of a bitter tea served in tiny, sugar-laden cups, the men raise their hands to their mouths and chew the qat.

Canvas bags, roughly two-feet long and eight inches in diameter, lie scattered about. As each bunch of qat (sometimes spelled khat or kat) is chewed down, the men replenish the supply from the bags.

This afternoon, the talk begins with jibes about an absent group member, who apparently had bought some food from gunmen who had looted it from a relief agency; the missing man learned too late that he had paid the bandits more than the food now cost on the street because of increasing supplies.

"He's a fool," said David, a young Somali who is making a small fortune driving foreign journalists through Mogadishu's dangerous streets. "With all the food coming in, the prices have to fall. He'd do better doing what I do."

Unlike the overwhelming majority of Somalis, who have been reduced to poverty and starvation by a two-year civil war, the men at this qat party are relatively affluent, even rich.

Mohammed, the host, is getting wealthy from his recent venture: He took over an abandoned building, turned it into a makeshift hotel and rented rooms to the hundreds of foreign journalists in the capital to cover the U.S. Marines' humanitarian mission. He charges $1,200 a week for a dingy, fly-infested room with infrequent water and a single sheet per bed. That sum--plus the $24 he gets for a case of bottled water and the $48 he charges for 24 cans of orange soda--allows him to treat his friends to a daily qat session.

As the afternoon passes and the 100-degree heat subsides, the talk turns to the overall situation here in Somalia.

"I'm glad the Americans are here. They're the only ones who can repair this place," said Hassan, a onetime car dealer who would not talk about how he makes a living now. Others in the room later said Hassan imports qat, a lucrative product, a bag of which costs about $80.

Qat is a boon to dealers. It costs only pennies to produce, and dealers' only real costs are incurred in shipping their product from Kenya. With the Somali roads wrecked by the war and with their being heavily mined and without any semblance of maintenance, the overland routes are limited.

Still, abundant amounts of qat are flown in on charter planes, costing $8,000 a flight. It is an open operation. On any day, a visitor to the private Wilson airport in Nairobi will find hundreds of bags of qat stacked against the terminal building waiting for shipment.

The profits are so high and the demand so great that qat sellers here banded together recently and built their own airstrip 30 miles from Mogadishu to avoid the looting and pillaging that prevailed at the capital's main airport. Because they fear that Americans may confiscate their supply, they continue to use that strip, although the U.S. Marines have secured the main airport.

"Yes," said Ali, another chewer, "soldiers have been taking qat away. That is not right. Qat is a way of life. We're Muslims, but we don't try to stop their beer."

There is no evidence that U.S. troops are taking away any Somali's qat, although one American civilian official said it might happen in the future because the drug now is finding a market in the United States.

By now, two hours have passed and the conversation in the darkening room waxes and wanes between animated arguments and incomprehensible muttering.

"Hey, Mohammed: It's easy for you to like the Americans, they're making you rich. But for some of us, they've destroyed our business," says a speaker, said to have been a major merchant in Mogadishu's notorious arms market.

Although the U.S. Marines here do not generally disarm Somalis, the guns that once were so prevalent on the streets here have largely disappeared, and the demand for the AK-47 assault rifles, the Uzi sub-machine guns and the Russian automatic pistols has dried up, too.

Despite the losses any of the qat-chewing entrepreneurs may have suffered because of the U.S. intervention in Somalia, nothing but good nature, great kindness and courtesy are shown to an American visitor. Everyone shakes his hand constantly. And they smile, revealing the hallmark of the qat addict--teeth badly stained with a brownish grime.

The afternoon draws to a close and the men stand up to leave.

Before the war and the anarchy, Mohammed said, they would stay and chew well into the night. Now, however, it is unsafe to be out after dark, so they sadly depart.

But each grabs a handful of qat for the road.

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