Qat is for Lawyers!

Qat is a daily part of existence of many (most?) Somalis, and those in Somaliland were no different. A mildly narcotic leaf that you spend all afternoon chewing, it typically leads to heightened conversations and more intense reactions. Done in moderation, it’s no different that a bunch of people sitting around having a few beers, or maybe a lot of caffeinated and sugary tea (which also happens here). Done not so much in moderation, and it can lead to serious side-effects and dependency, as any drug – be it alcohol, cotton candy, or something harder, can have.

In any case, while preparing for an eight-day trip to Somaliland, I figured I would have a qat interaction at some point – avoiding it completely would likely just cut me out from a large segment of society, and a key cultural routine. Many a afternoons are spent chewing the leaf, while hanging out with friends either at home or a qat “den.”

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a den of qat

One early afternoon, I met up with a contact, who introduced me to two young lawyers from one of Somaliland’s largest law firms. We had a lunch of camel soup, camel meat, and camel milk – all camel all the time – which was another typical Somali aspect I had to partake in (it was actually all quite good).

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the camel buffet

I had no other meetings scheduled until 5:30pm that day (given the heat, little occurs from 1 to 5pm most afternoons, especially during the summer), so they asked if I wanted to join them back at their law firm. I said sure, I’ll check it out, as never in my life have I been in a law firm in Somaliland. So another crucial item to check off the bucket list.

On our way back to the law firm we made a pit stop. I wasn’t exactly sure why at first, but when I saw my contact returning with many a long stem of green leaves in clear plastic bags, I figured it out – it was qat time.

We arrived at their law firm, which was really a large house converted into an office, as many stand-alone offices are in this part of the world. Upon entering there was a small room with a desk and chair – a typical area for a receptionist. After that, however, was the living room. Instead of being a place of cubicles and desks as I would have expected of one of Somaliland’s largest law firms, it was a place of mats and little else. This was clearly a qat den.

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respectable entrance

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opens to this

There were probably about 15 individual spots set up along the walls of the room. Each had their own trash can, mats, and pillows – this was no amateur set up. Clearly this room was utilized for this purpose on a regular basis, just as you would expect of your top-notch lawyers.

There is an entire ritual, or procedure perhaps I should say, associated with chewing qat. First of all, the well dressed lawyers I had lunch with had changed their attire, eschewing their button-down shirts in favor of their undershirts, and removing their pants for a long cloth wrapped around their waist, more akin to a skirt.

Not having the appropriate attire, I instead chose my place next to my contact, and stretched my legs out, laying quite comfortably up against the cushion on the wall (I considered taking off my pants, but thought that’s too cruel to do to anyone, ever). Next to me was my trashcan, a litre of water, and an entire thermos of sweet, sweet, very sweet tea – all essentials of the qat chewing experience. The leaves themselves were washed and then placed standing up in the wastebasket itself, to dry. Afterwards they would be put back in the plastic bags next to each person, and the wastebasket would then become a normal wastebasket for refuge, like the long stems of the plant.

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the setup

The session began with about five or us, but more people kept filtering in an out (including a very charismatic but conservative imam at one point, who spoke perfect English and went around making fun of everyone for chewing qat while urging us replace that with prayer instead. He disappeared as quickly as he had arrived and with no apparent converts – though given his charisma, if he had stayed another five minutes or for three more qat chews, I probably would’ve been had). In any case the men (it was and typically is only men) all sat around, chewing their leaves, and discussing the day’s topics, which often involved politics and current events. The conversation went in and out of Somali, so I was only privy to certain sections, usually when an inquisitive newcomer was curious about the obvious foreigner in the room.

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imam would not have been too happy about this

This continued for about 2 hours, until around 4pm. At that time, people slowly began to set up small plastic trays next to their spots, and break out their laptops. Ostensibly to work, as even I was given the Internet code, but every time I looked at my neighbor, there was a combination of soccer highlights or Facebook pages on his screen.

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time to get some lawyer-ing done!

I asked them if they did this every afternoon – they said no, but in a manner that implied yes. We had arrived a little before 2, and I stayed until 5 – with more people still cycling in and the qat session going strong when I left.

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a quotidian affair?

Having gotten my cultural experience out of the way, I thanked them and departed for my next meeting. But I was left pondering the whole experience. I suppose its no different than a bunch of lawyers getting together for a few drinks for happy hour after work – that is, if the law firm had its own bar as soon as you walked in, and the happy hour began everyday after lunch. In some law firms perhaps!

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happy hour time!

But I was left a little judgmental, especially given how professional and put together the two lawyers had seemed during our lunch meeting. Nothing changed during the qat session, but I realized the extent to which this ritual pervades Somali culture, given that even these guys were partaking in this activity near daily, and their law firm had an entire room and set up dedicated to it. It may affect productivity in some way given that it seems the real work all gets done before lunch, but there could be other positive effects in terms of office bonding and current events information-sharing I suppose. For better or worse, it’s an indelible part of the culture, so next time you are in desperate need of a lawyer in Somaliland during the afternoon, you better be ready for some qat too!

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A Veritable Somali Beach Party

Somaliland carries a name that invokes, well, the ‘land of Somalia,’ and all the chaos associated with it over the past two-and-a-half decades. Yet the “country” couldn’t be further than the state collapse and accompanying violence of its southern cousin. Rather, Somaliland has emerged as a beacon of stability in a troubled region, despite the continued negative associations in the West with the ‘Somalia’ moniker. In fact, it is actually quite a pleasant place to visit, and one where I found myself recently.

Somaliland carries enormous tourist potential, not least because of sites such as Laas Geel, (one of the best-preserved series of cave paintings in the world), in addition to an expansive coastline. Thus the perfect spot for a more educational-sort of spring break tour, primarily for archaeology majors (so that may be a bit too specific of a niche to build an entire tourism industry around, but you gotta start somewhere, and I’ve always heard archaeology majors leave the best Trip Advisor reviews!).

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What was drawn in Laas Geel, stays in Laas Geel (unless its on the Internet)

In any case, as part of a work trip I visited the town of Berbera, Somaliland’s main port and a site of intrigue given the fascination its strategic location along the Red Sea coast has garnered from world powers. The small downtown center is a crumbling facade of white-washed colonial buildings amidst wide and empty boulevards, a testament to a glorious trading past. The British arrived on the scene in the late 19th century, making Berbera the capital of their British Somaliland protectorate. After independence, Cold War power politics engulfed the town, with both the Russians and Americans setting up shop at various points. Despite its former status as an entrepôt, much of downtown Berbera today is derelict, with entire blocks in near ruins, a legacy of conflict and neglect. It makes for an interesting place to wander.

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One of the better preserved buildings in downtown Berbera

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more typical downtown Berbera architecture

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somehow the front survived . . .

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an abandoned Russian hospital in Berbera – as the picture suggests, it was built slanted (more realistic explanation than the fact that I don’t know how to work a camera)

But I didn’t come to Berbera nor starting writing up this blog post to talk about buildings – that was just a plug for the architecture majors spring break tour (see, an expanding clientele base already!). Rather Berbera, as a port town, is obviously on the water. And by the water is the beach. That’s what the true action is.

On the Friday I happened to be in Berbera, I had a break during the afternoon and thought it might be nice to take the short walk from my hotel down to the water given the 45-degree celsius heat (just shy of 115 fahrenheit). I had seen a few people out there already, so expected some company. But I was not prepared to enter what was a veritable Friday afternoon Somali beach party.

I think everyone in the town, plus a few other towns, and then some, must’ve been there, (well at least those who were not too busy chewing qat – subject of future post). I was shocked and a little intimidated once I actually got to the water given the near two kilometers of coastline was packed with many a frolicking Somali youth and families, enjoying the weekend afternoon (Friday being the weekend here). But I was here to walk along the beach and go in the water, so I persisted, despite being quite obviously the only foreigner along the coastline that day (aside from all those happy looking hostages I had passed on the way in . . . just kidding!).

Somaliland embraces a conservative Muslim culture, but there were plenty of women enjoying the beach, even in concert with their male counterparts at times. However, they were covered from head to toe – but that didn’t stop many from still going in the water (after which some emerged with clothing that was indeed quite tight to the body, revealing a figure this sort of style was designed to conceal, and made it hard not to gawk given the context). Most of the men, while wearing shorts, also went into the water with their shirts on. Not wanting to stand out any further than I already did, I followed local custom, taking my now two-piece bathing suit into the ocean with me.

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Following the ladies down to the beach

It was refreshing water and a clean beach – I could really envision the tourism potential. The “country” (technically it is a non-recognized entity that claims its own sovereignty from Somalia), perhaps just needs to rebrand in a way so that the word ‘Somalia’ doesn’t appear in its title. For example, if Amazon.com changed its name to Somali-ship.com, I’m not sure it would capture the same ty[e of clientele (perhaps those more inclined to view the movie Captain Phillips as one of the great tragi-comedies of our time). In any case, rebranding as The Country Formerly Known as Somaliland, or TCFKAS, might be a more effective business strategy.

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future TCFKAS-ians (or TCFKAS-ites?) enjoying their non-pirated water

In any case, after getting completely wet, I thought I might as well walk along the beach in the 45-degree heat, to get completely dry, before this short break from my real purpose for being in Berbera re-emerged. As I walked, I drew a number of stares, but mostly people ignored me, having too much fun in the sand to pay attention to the odd foreigner lurking about (and I certainly was lurking).

I wanted to take soooo many photos, but was conspicuously trying to be inconspicuous, so did not bring my camera along the walk. Many mental images were snapped, however, those are likely to be as fleeting as that moment when I realized Santa Claus and Donkey Kong were the same person.

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as close as I could get really – this photo barely does the crowd justice, given that most people I see are invisible

In any case, during my walk a few entertaining interactions did occur. To begin, for the first half an hour, every woman I saw had her hair covered. But after walking a while I spotted a group of young girls and boys hanging out together, some in the water and some not. But what was more astonishing is that there were some uncovered heads! I tried not to ogle, but it was difficult as I had been in Somaliland almost a week by now, and had forgotten what female hair looked like. One girl even walked by holding the hand of her male counterpart, while disparagingly saying something to me in Somali (I assume based on her tone – either that, or she is a really awful ice cream saleswoman). Even I thought she was a bit risqué, and was about to report her to my superiors, until they decided they didn’t care.

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the (clearly) superiors of my Berbera trip

Another mother was sitting on the beach covered head to toe, except for her mid-section as she was breast-feeding her child.  I’ve rarely felt more uncomfortable than when I was walking past her.

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Beach hanging

A few people, mostly male youth, did talk to me. One had a super soaker and was running around squirting his friends when he suddenly turned and pointed it right at my center brain. Given Somalia’s international reputation, the thought of pirates and al-Shabaab flashed through my eyes, but then he turned away without squirting.

Another group of two probably 15-year boys were a bit bolder and insisted on grabbing my hand as I walked by, refusing to let go after what turned into an extraordinarily lengthy and uncomfortable handshake. They spoke a bit of English, and asked where I was from. The entire time I was in Somaliland I relied on my Pakistani roots, as it immediately engendered a feeling of warmth and likemindedness that being from American likely would not. So I told them I was Pakistani, and they light up, asking if I was a Muslim. I affirmed, and the main guy’s friend declared “Good! If you were a Christian I would’ve killed you, I swear to God!” A little startled by that response, to which I assume was jest but laced with a degree of half-hearted seriousness, I immediately withdrew my hand and walked away, shaking my finger and telling them that was not true Islam (to be fair though, I really wouldn’t know . . .).

Aside from that I was mostly left to my own devices, taking in every moment of this Somali beach party that I could. Some pickup beach soccer (futbol) was ongoing, while others were doing flips into the water. There were many large SUVs parked and driving along the beach, an indicator that this was still likely an elitist-type activity, rather than the Friday of your average Joe (or Mohamed). But I did see many people departing the beach by foot, while a public minitaxi took others, so not everyone was rolling in it (and those with SUVs may have been the diaspora as well).

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some drive to the beach

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some walk home

I became more emboldened the more I stood there, and no longer intimated by the large crowds, but walking right through them. Alas, I had gone from one end to the other, and needed to return to my hotel to get ready for the early evening interviews scheduled. Thus I wandered back, and left the party more homogenous than when I arrived.

When we retuned to the hotel at sunset, I wandered back down to the beach with my Somaliland companion. The beach, where just a few hours before had been hundreds of people, was completely deserted now. Beach-bumming is apparently not an evening activity. Rather, the only life was a caravan of about 30 camels, strolling back home at sunset after a hard day’s work somewhere, as nice a daily commute as a camel could want (I assume).

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apparently TCFKASians turn into camels at dark

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what a difference a few hours makes – still crowded though!

In any case, the veritable Friday afternoon beach party was over, but in the short time I experienced it, it did alter some of my perceptions of the country, and showed me how much fun Berbera can be. Next time though, I’ll be sure to bring my own super soakers (and camels) to get in on the action!