Eating the Flowers of Paradise is that real treat – a travel book written about somewhere you’ve probably never been and by someone you can identify with: a thinking, adventurous stoner.
Kevin Rushby is probably addicted to qat, a psychoactive leaf chewed throughout Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia. But Rushby is at pains to point out that qat is not really a drug. Almost no one chews it by themselves, it’s rather a social affair with men propped up on cushions sharing their visions as the plant takes them to far-off places.
On his previous sojourn in San’a, capital of Yemen, he finally got it:
‘…I began to understand that the pleasure of a qat session is not really about the qat at all but about the companionship of the sessions in cave-like rooms floating high above the ancient city.’
Rushby has been some years out of the Middle East and decides to return following the old trade routes through Ethopia, Somalia and Dijbouti before taking a dhow over to Yemen. His journey has parallels with great travelers of the past like Richard Burton, Arthur Rimbaud and even Henry de Monfreid, but Rushby has no interest in dressing up as a local to be accepted or converting to Islam.
‘[for my journey] there would be no disguise at all, accept that by accepting qat I might myself be accepted. The leaf would be all I needed to open doors.’
And that’s just what he does. Hardly encountering another foreigner, Rushby heads off to North East Africa and drifts along his route, vaguely collecting information from knowledgeable locals about the origins of qat. Mostly he bumps into people in the street, gets invited to qat sessions and gets involved with impromptu adventures along the way. His Arabic is good and his temper is as bad as any traveler’s which makes him excellent company.
Coming down from Harar to Dire Dowa in Ethiopia, he walks through silent streets where everyone is staring at him.
‘They all watched me go past. I began to mutter:
‘Yes, hello, I’m a white man – remember me? We built the railway, didn’t mix much.’
It’s only afterwards he learns that all foreigners had just been flown out after random killings of tourists in the preceding days.
In short, Eating the Flowers of Paradise is the tale of some rather dangerous and interesting travels. Rushby is no softy and frequently takes great risks to satisfy his curiousity or caprice. Arriving in Yemen he hears of a valley called Yafa where the ‘people are no good’ and ‘uncivilised and turbulent in the extreme’. Naturally he resolves to ‘go there immediately.’
Yafa turns out to be as wild as hell and none of the locals can get over seeing a British guy there. Everyone carries guns and not a few of the locals take delight in haranguing ‘the Christian’ with assurances that he will go to hell – all too often, though, another tribal man will intervene with the argument that even Christians are people of the book and children of Abraham – leaving them behind to merrily argue, Rushby walks on.
He intends to walk through some of the wildest territory in the Yemen and even the locals in Yafa think he’s nuts, regaling him with the dangers involved. Finally he asks:
‘Yes, but apart from the wild anima;s, the bandits, the thirst and the hunger, is it a safe route?’
He began to laugh with me. ‘By God! One hundred per cent safe – excepting in this things.’
But Eating the Flowers of Paradise is as much a book about Rushby’s relationship with qat as with travel. Qat doesn’t travel well and so is hard to find outside of the Middle East and what does come out usually isn’t that good quality. It’s important to be selective in taste of qat as a friend of Rushby explains – when taking poor stalks the qat monster might come in a dream and set you some impossible task like taking a swim in a bottle cap full of water.
As for Rushby, by the time he’s in Yemen, the afternoon qat sessions are an integral part of his day.
‘I had given up thoughts of missing even a day without qat – an afternoon unassisted by the leaf was too terrible to contemplate.’
Eating the Flowers of Paradise is one of the best travelogues on the Middle East that you’ll read and it’s only to be hoped that Kevin Rushby will get himself hooked to opium or coca so that he’ll go and write about it for us.