Mouna-Hodan Ahmed: Les Enfants du khat [The Children of Khat])
This is not only a rare occurrence – a Djiboutian novel – but an even rarer occurrence as it is a Djiboutian novel by woman.
As the title tells us it is about khat. The Wikipedia article linked tells us that khat is a stimulant which causes greater sociability, excitement, loss of appetite, and mild euphoria. Among communities from the areas where the plant is native, khat-chewing has historical relevance (as a social custom, especially among men) dating back thousands of years and its production, sale, and consumption are all fully legal—or not mentioned in a legal context at all—in the nations where its use is culturally significant, including Djibouti. Later in the book our narrator will give us a potted history of how khat came to Djibouti and the incredible harm it has done to the country.
Our narrator/heroine is Asli, a twenty-year old Djiboutian woman but there is no doubt that khat is a key character. We first meet Asli when she is involved in a religious discussion with other young women over the key issue as to whether socks should be worn when the hijab is worn. The issue is more complicated than you might think.
She returns home and, as usual, there are no lights on at home as the family cannot afford electricity. There are nine in the family (at home). The two eldest boys have been sent to Canada and this has cost the family a significant amount of money they can ill afford. Only one child is doing well at school and he is with an aunt. Often the only food they can afford is bread which has a price cap on it to the annoyance of the bakers. The mother sells khat and she is often out till late at night, with Asli having to look after her unruly siblings, as that is invariably the role of the oldest daughter. Her mother expects nothing good from her but Asli sees her mother as a seller of khat that has brought so many problems to the family even if it does feed them.
Khat use is a mainly confined to men in Djibouti and Asli’s father is a serious user. He and his neighbours Abdo and Walieh, use khat, drink coffee and play kin, a dice game. They get up late and frequently abuse their respective wives, often, beating them (and their children). Halwo, the wife of Walieh gets protection from her brothers but the other two wives are less fortunate. They not only are beaten, they are expected to work long hours, both to bring in the money and run the household. They are also expected to produce sons on a regular basis. Wilo, the wife of Abdo had left her husband many times but always returns, as a divorced woman is likely to be ostracised.
Asli’s father has worked – he was a stonemason – but has not not looked for work for a while. Not surprisngly, Asli, seeing all this, is not keen on getting married but knows that she will have no choice – a marriage will be arranged for her. As the narrator comments, a marriage is arranged but it arranges nothing.
Asli is trying to improve herself, having failed at school, by learning the Koran. Her mother is not impressed. However, not only does she feel that she is making herself a better person, she enjoys the camaraderie she finds there, away from her demanding/complaining/irresponsible family. Being a better person mean she keeps away from more frivolous activities (which many of her peers indulge in). For example she is taken by a friend to a nightclub.She hates it, refusing to dance. A local man tries to tell her how much he loves her but she rejects him, not least because he is a khat user.
The poverty and khat use may be major problems but there are others. Every summer there are sandstorms which cover everything with dust. The rich have fans and cool houses. The poor suffer. The municipal rubbish collection is very poor and the the streets are full of rubbish. And, of course, there are a lot of beggars who will not take no for an answer.
She does find solace and that is in her religion. She is very comfortable with the company of the other young women and the teacher and studying Islam, learning the Koran and helping others as Islam prescribes, gives her life meaning and structure. She resumes her academic studies. She helps her previous friend Zeinab abd trues to comport her and her family as Zeinab is dying. She tries to prevent her younger sisters from undergoing female genital mutilation. She helps her younger sister who gets pregnant and has a miscarriage. Indeed, she shows herself to be such a good person that even her father finally praises her.
Men and khat come out very badly. It is safe to say that every male in this book is flawed, often seriously flawed, and she does not conceal the fact that men are on the whole violent, lazy, debauched addicts. But, unlike in a book about a young woman growing up that we might find in other cultures, where the woman breaks free from male constraints and finds her own way, often a rebellious way, Asli find hers way in her religion and the comfort and comradeship of other, like-minded women, and in doing good deeds and of thinking good thoughts, in order to make the world a better place.
First published in French 2002 by Sépia
No English translation