Accepted paper:

Poetics and politics of khat in a London Somali community


Guntars Ermansons (King's College London)

Paper short abstract:

The aim of this paper is to show - through photography, voice recordings and poems - how Somalis in London seek to establish relationships that enable reciprocation, and how they ascribe moral value to changes associated with the prohibition of khat in the UK.

Paper long abstract:

On 24 June 2014, khat (Catha edulis) became listed as a class C drug in the United Kingdom. Khat is native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In the UK, khat use increased significantly with the arrival of Somali refugees in early 1990s. Scholarship on refugees often revolves around testimonials and the protection of 'bare life'. This paper addresses the limitations of this framework and emphasises the importance of paying attention to forms of reciprocation in refugee communities. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in a London Somali community, I demonstrate through photography, poems and audio recordings of poetry recitals how negotiations of khat use and prohibition came to shape interpersonal relationships. Khat itself is an artefact that 'travels' from East Africa to London. Gatherings in khat cafes, chewing khat, listening to music, sharing jokes and stories instilled Somali chewers with a sense of life that they once had. But, khat prohibition was also seen by many as a momentum which can revitalise Somali social and political fabric and thus lead to a better life in London and, ultimately, in Somalia. This became particularly visible in polemical poems that I recorded during my fieldwork. These were not just records of personal sentiments. The Somali oral poetic tradition has a long history of political importance to persuade people, to disgrace or to honour, to win hearts or incite hatred. In this context, poems combined an aesthetic and political message about pride and regrets of Somali life in the past, concerns about present and aspirations for the future.

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Piecing life together in impermanent landscapes