Book review Eating the Flowers of Paradise: a Journey through the Drug Fields of Ethiopia and Yemen

Kevin Rushby

Constable, 1998. Pp. xii + 322. Illus. Index. Notes. Hb. £18.99

This is a light-hearted travelogue of a journey on foot and by rail, car, and boat ostensibly searching for the best qat in Ethiopia and Yemen. I approached this book with trepidation in case it was another disparaging expose of alien habits, but was relieved to find that, on the contrary, Rushby discusses qat as an experienced connoisseur, and is respectful of local people and customs. He does, however, tend to be too enthusiastic and evangelical about qat, and one hopes that the book’s title, his vivid descriptions of qat’s pleasurable effects and the list he provides of the bestqat markets will not attract hordes of thrill-seeking western drug users to Ethiopia or Yemen.

Rushby travels from Addis Ababa to Harar, and from there chews his way to Djibouti, across the Red Sea to Mokha, then up into the southernYemeni highlands, including the mountains ofYafa’, before descending to the Tihamah, and then ascending to Sana’a. There he ends his journey, philosophically chewing his last qat in the back of an old car in Wadi Dhahr, having failed to achieve his aim of a magnificent concluding session inside the Imam’s palace. Rushby provides short, apt historical summaries in each new place, and describes his adventures along the way in an easy, humorous and self-deprecating style. He does not portray himself as a suffering hero striving for some glorious goal, but rather as an easy-going hedonist seeking enjoyment and (perhaps) trying to recapture the magic of his first youthful sojourn in Yemen. The author has a particularly deft touch with characterisation and dialogue, and the good travel writer’s knack of falling in with interesting people and bringing them to life. The best encounter in the book is in Djibouti with a larger-than-life African smuggler improbably called Cedric (or was it Arthur?) who swept the mystified Rushby along on various minor adventures by the sheer force of his overwhelming personality; I longed for him to pop up again inYemen!

This book is altogether an enjoyable read, and one which will evoke many memories for those who have tramped the mountains of Yemen.