Eating the Flowers of Paradise: One Man's Journey Through Ethiopia and Yemen

Kevin Rushby, Author, Rushby, Author Palgrave MacMillan $24.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-312-21794-5
The flower of paradise is khat (also known as qat), a plant whose leaves, when chewed, release a powerful stimulant. Eager to return to Yemen, where he taught in the 1980s before the country embraced puritanical Islam, the intrepid Rushby set out to retrace 19th-century explorer Richard Burton's travels along the Khat Road, an ancient (and still dangerous) trade route between Ethiopia and the Arab peninsula. It's a rollicking, exotic trek. Like the rugged lands that produce the leaf, khat is a drug abundant with contradictions: banned in most of the Middle East, it's Yemen's primary cash crop; illegal in the U.S. (though commonly found in botanical gardens), it's sold by English greengrocers; favored as dance fuel by London club-hoppers, it's a complex social lubricant in Yemen, playing ""a pivotal role in poetry, music, architecture, family relations, wedding and funerary rites... office hours, television schedules, even whether couples have sex and how long it lasts."" A khat fancier himself, Rushby repeatedly draws parallels between the Victorian demonization of sex (a cultural puritanism flouted by Burton and by the poet Rimbaud, another visitor to the area) and America's drug war. At times, it's tempting to dismiss his pro-khat proselytizing as the addled rationalizations of an addict. That would be a mistake. Rushby's pilgrimage is adventure travel at its best: passionate yet even-handed, a nonjudgmental, knowing glimpse of a venerable culture. Rushby is an open-minded guide, documenting contemporary hardship and evoking the stunning landscape while unveiling an idiosyncratic picture of the region's rich history. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/01/1999
Release date: 03/01/1999
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