NOT TO BE MISSED
"Les enfants du khat", a novel by Mouna-Hodan AHMED
Saint-Maur-des-Fossés: Sépia, 2002. (174p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Les enfants du khat [Khat's children] by Djiboutian Mouna-Hodan Ahmed is a novel of major topical interest, published a decade ago when hijabs and burkas were not uppermost in Western imagination, when a young Muslim woman adopting a new dress-code reflecting her move from secular to more religious ideals would not have raised a single eyebrow. Hence, the interest of this chronicle of Djibouti's daily life that depicts a young Muslim woman, brimming with energy and confidence, in the context of society's socio-economic predicament.
Asli is the oldest daughter of a large family and her life follows the usual path of the "little mums" in a society beset with many ills. The first and definitively the worst, as far as Asli is concerned, is men's addiction to chewing khat, a legal drug consumed by a very large percentage of the population, including her father who does little for his family, except procreating, beating them and draining family resources to satisfy his drug-addiction. A bricklayer by trade, he has become reliant on his wife's support, just like his partners in crime Abdo and Walieh, who think: "What's the point of looking for an elusive and unpredictable job when women manage to put food on the dinner table and keep the family afloat" (p.23).
Asli's mother and the women of the neighbourhood are therefore working long hours to feed both their family and their husband's addiction, leaving their oldest daughters in charge of running their homes, getting household chores done, taking care of their younger siblings and helping with their mother's business. This, of course, leaves little time for school work and education, thus Asli's leaving school prematurely. In contrast, her older brothers have been sent to study in Canada, leaving the rest of the family with a large debt. But that is of little concern to Asli's father and his cronies who cannot see beyond their daily bunch of khat. "How many blows have been inflicted on defenceless women", the narrator says, "because they dared to tell their husbands : Today I do not have enough money because business was very slow"? Abdo is "a pro of the hangol" (p.24) a rigid and murderous wooden stick who makes his wife's existence a living hell, while his acolytes are no better.
Khat trading is central to the local economy  and it is no surprise that Asli's mother is making a living as a small retailer of this legalized drug. Her daughter however sees the full irony of the situation: "The more virulent elements of social destruction that consume its very basis is, at the same time, a life-line for the family" (p.20). But this state of affairs has consequences: "Mother leaves home before noon and only comes back home just before midnight, numb after sitting endless hours in front of her box and her wet towels. And me, her dependable second, carrying back and forth the water needed to rinse regularly the aforementioned towels where his Majesty the Khat has to wait in the cool of the cloth folds for the longingly fondling of besotted leaf-chewers" (p.20).
As she reaches the end of her teenage years, the narrator wakes up to the futility of her existence and begins to wonder if she is destined to follow in the footsteps of her mother. Asli is still quite young but has already been confronted by years of violence, bashing by an addicted father, domestic drudgery and gender inequality. Her brief claim to emancipation, one that led her to the discovery of night-life and promiscuousness in the company of friends of her age, only added to her grief. It was there that she realised the vapidity of superficial and deceitful relationships with others and the spectacle offered by the rich and famous told her that wealth was no cure for all ills: her friend Dibiteya's hysterical mother and dull father, who made his fortune on the black-market, reselling bags of wheat stamped with the UN Refugee Agency's logo, were an obvious example. Like drugs, corruption and wealth accumulation were scourges that brought only misery to the country and its inhabitants.
It is in this context that Asli decides to take charge of her own destiny. Money is not everything, she says, before adding: "It is useless to run away from one's self, each of us has to face the truth and query why people are where they are, why they have been put on this earth and where they go" (p.89). Of course, she does not find definite answers to these metaphysical questions of the nature of life, but she is sure that "to be free does not mean burning one's gums with khat leaves, nor opening one's legs to all comers" (p.89). Hence, her answer to some friends teasing her when she decides to wear a hijab: "... I have realised that the road I was following was leading to a dead-end. I walked in circles, trudged along the road, turned back and ended up sitting on the verge of the road, completely lost. I then asked some helpful passer-by who took me by the hand and showed me the way... I do not claim to have better ideas than yours, and I have only one answer to give to you: my own salvation depends on following the path God has laid in front of me and the hijab is only one of the appurtenances of my submissiveness to the Lord of the universe" (p.43).
Such religious fervour usually sits awkwardly with critical thinking and open-mindedness, but the paradox of the story is to show that Asli's conformity to a set of rules, apparently contrary to women's emancipation, becomes indeed the cornerstone of a genuine attempt to challenge the apathy of people drifting along a path marred by violence, inequalities, mindlessness and chimaeras. Covering up and dressing modestly does not mean avoiding intercourse with male friends, but signalling with no ambiguity that she is no longer the submissive girl she once was. And her ex-boyfriend learns this lesson the hard way as he makes a pass at her: " What are you doing?", she said, "you know that I turned the page. In this case, why don't we turn it again together!", he answered; "that will allow us to continue our amorous reading ... And to suit the action to the word, he pulled at my head-scarf. I quickly took the cloth out of his hand, but he smirked and attempted to repeat his manoeuvre. I was faster than him though, and slapped him in the face. He remained stunned and motionless, his eyes wide open. Putting his right hand to his humiliated cheek, he began patting it consolingly, staring at me, frowning. This guy can get nasty one day I saw him bashing his poor sister Amina, punching her viciously in the back, and when I attempted to come to her rescue, he threw me over a chair at the other side of the room... But right now, I was looking daggers at him, biting my lip and indicating that I was ready for a fight. I did not lower my gaze a sign of women's weakness. His face loosened up ... and he told me in his best fransomal : 'Asliyeh oubahey, Asli dée jt'aimedée'" (p.59) . Asli was not to become a woman dominated by a violent man showing no respect, wasting his life to his addiction and ruining his family's wellbeing.
Determined to keep the sleazes and no-good layabouts at bay, she is also keen to take on the local gossip-mongers who spend their days spreading rumours. But it takes some courage to come to the rescue of the unfortunate souls whose reputation is torn to shreds by powerful muck-rakers who are never lost for words and are keen to vilify whoever dares to put the record straight: "From the time when you took to wearing the veil, you want to speak in favour of everybody!" Fadoumo tells Asli, amid gibes and other women's hilarity: "You would better helping your poor mother selling her khat and touting for potential customers with suggestive smiles" (p.85). But these hurtful remarks only reflect negatively on those who made them, Asli thinks, and she moves on, at peace with her conscience.
Far from hiding behind her veil, the young woman becomes far more assertive and self-confident after adopting traditional Muslim dress. And not only does it change her relationship with disaffected men and busybodies, it also signals her determination to denounce the great wrong done to girls and women in the name of outworn traditions. It is therefore with courage and determination that she attends to family business and goes in to bat for her younger sisters when they are in trouble, or need help, encouragement and guidance. She assists her sister Idylle when she gets pregnant out of wedlock, encourages young Khadîdja who is doing well at school, but needs to be told a thing or two about life, and interposes vigorously to avoid her younger sister being circumcised by an old women called home by her mother to perform the operation. "Mum, you know that this practice has no place in religion", she says. "It can even be dropped. It is a sin to transform God's work..." (p.146). That of course leads to a noisy altercation with the traditional practitioner who does not take kindly to her young neighbour's opposition. "These damned wahda , they should be unveiled, whipped and imprisoned, as in the past in Somalia! Ah, they were the good old days! They now oppose and want to modernise everything; they fail to respect tradition and time-honoured customs" (p.147).
Asli is definitely on a mission to wreak havoc on long-standing inequalities and institutional malfunctions. She knows who she is and what she has to do; and her persistence brings its rewards, at least at the level of her family. Her mother decides to abandon her job selling khat and opens a small food-stall in the harbour; and her father, short of giving away his daily chewing, abandons his tyrannical posturing.
With Les enfants du khat, Mouna-Hodan Ahmed is putting the case of women's role in society outside stereotypical dichotomies. Furthermore, her heroine argues convincingly that the future of Djiboutians of both genders rests with the residents of the city. It is their responsibility to provide a sound answer to the challenges they face. The destructive habit of chewing khat, domestic violence, imported wisdom and outdated customs, all have to be stamped out and a genuine attempt at living harmoniously encouraged at all levels of society; that is among families, neighbourhoods and the city as a whole. Islam, the author argues, is providing the road-map necessary to achieve such a goal. Definitely a book to read.
1. A BBC brief suggests that 20 tons of khat were flown daily to Somalia from neighbouring Kenya in 2006. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6142688.stm sighted 08 October 2010].
2. "I love you Asli" in "Fransomal" i.e., a vernacular made of French and Somali languages.
3. Veiled women knowing the rudiments of the sharia.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities