Khat: Chewing on a bitter controversy (Respond to this article at


  • Ian Vincent McGonigle

    1. Graduate student at the University of Chicago with research interests in Middle Eastern studies and the social study of science. During the 2013–2014 academic year he will be a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's program on Science, Technology and Society. His email is
    Search for more papers by this author


When the slender green succulent leaves of the khat tree are chewed, a mild natural amphetamine called cathinone is gradually released, and absorbed into the bloodstream through the mouth and cheek tissues. The effects, which last for several hours, include the softening of one's temper, increased gregariousness, and a piqued sexual appetite, while at the same time inhibiting hunger, anxiety, and feelings of fatigue. In the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa, where khat is autochthonous, men have been chewing it recreationally for hundreds of years. Khat chewing has recently burgeoned to a global and pointed controversy, however, featuring in academic ethnopharmacology journals, the official publications of neoliberal development organizations, and worldwide in popular news media outlets. Khat has thus received multitudinous accusations of it being: an obstacle to economic growth; a pernicious narcotic; a positive mediator of political discourse in the public sphere; a public health concern; and a barrier to national development. Of these ambiguous tensions, Klein et al. (2012: 1) say that ‘Khat provides a unique example of a herbal stimulant that is defined as an ordinary vegetable in some countries and a controlled drug in others’, fingering khat as an exemplar of a globally contested object of concern – constituting different political stakes when viewed from distinct situated perspectives – and ready prey for anthropological critique. This essay interrogates some of the divergent formulations that khat has taken across the distinct political arenas that orchestrate the ‘controversy’. Following a Latourian actor-network approach, I argue against a universal ontology of khat, suggesting instead that khat might be more meaningfully traced and apprehended through the political work it achieves in its various contexts and situated deployments. This critical reading of khat as a ‘thing in movement’ should therefore speak to the anthropology of controversy more broadly.