EATING THE FLOWERS OF PARADISE
One Man's Journey Through
Ethiopia and Yemen
By Kevin Rushby
St. Martin's. 322 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Colleen J. McElroy
Those readers who yearn for material like the quixotic journals of Richard Burton or the self-absorbed tales of William Burroughs will not be disappointed here. Kevin Rushby's Eating the Flowers of Paradise is reminiscent of the era when a fraternity of foolhardy adventurers set out on the "darkest" continents to find their limits and expand those of the Western world. As Rushby treks along the backroads of Yemen and Ethiopia, he is unabashed by the absence of maps, the unscheduled departures of trains, and odd encounters with suspicious traveling companions. He will prevail no matter how atavistic his quest may be. After all, he has abandoned hearth and home, a wife in England, to seek the ultimate Pleasuredome -- the land of qat.
"I'm searching for qat," he says early in the book, a plaintive cry he reiterates on nearly every page: qat, chat, khashr, qatal, akara, bulti, jima, owa and a dozen other names just in case you are in need of street jargon for a quick sale. Though the name may change from one country to the next, the leaf remains the same, an addictive drug that, according to Rushby, heightens the senses and leaves the user in an insouciant state of sleeplessness. Rushby is in search of the ultimate qat, the choicest leaves that will fulfill his daydream of sublime existence in his version of a quintessential society.
The quest begins in Ethiopia, moving from Addis Ababa to Dire Dowa, Djibouti, and Harar, where Rushby attempts to retrace the steps of Burton and, with less conviction, those of Arthur Rimbaud, before crossing the Red Sea to Yemen, with stops in Mokha, Ta'izz, a harrowing trip across Wadi Zabid and Jebel Bura and ending in San'a. His historical asides flesh out a landscape where every vehicle is put together with wire and hope, trains run on schedules of their own convenience, and border guards are as capricious as the weather. He writes fascinating descriptions of a land filled with smoke of dung fires and acacias, mountaintops swimming in tendrils of dewy mist, and daylight fading through purple and gold sunsets.
Too often, however, Rushby's wonderfully poetic regard for description keeps the narrative going even when it is going nowhere but to the next offer of qat. Too soon we discover that both the people (exotic and quaint) and the landscape (no matter how grand) are but estuaries along the great river of qat. When he exclaims that he has found paradise in the mountainside home of a Yemeni ("clean air and water, a bag of qat"), the owners protests, "Paradise? Paradise! No, no. This is not paradise, this is a prison."
An addict, as Baudelaire observed, must have vast amounts of leisure time. Rushby has both time and money, yet he is seemingly unaware of the privilege of his status, the freedom to change his plans as options are presented to him by a host of contacts. Each of these provides him with yet another route to qat. Even when Rushby notes that qat has been condemned by both outsiders and inhabitants alike in countries where "qat was allowed to exhaust the people's talents and sap their vitality," he is determined to see the quaintness of poverty and serenity of living in a place that will not support even the barest of subsistence farming, where, instead, the cash crop is yet another opiate of the poor.
"Primitive peoples were of importance," he writes, "because they had something we [Europeans] had lost and, as such, might tell us where to go . . . Somewhere out there were pristine primitives, full of archaic wisdom. It is the Shangri-La notion: that paradise is out there, very difficult to reach, but definitely out there, somewhere." Rushby admits that in "the daily lives of Yemenis, the qat session might put them in touch with what their religion promises, but it is certainly no substitute -- unless you are a godless westerner who needs his paradise on earth." This, then, seems to be the impetus for his quest.
In the end, Rushby is as dissipated as any colonial explorer, and as unredeemed as the sad figure of Rimbaud. If you are looking for an in-depth view of cultures rarely shared with outsiders, you should go elsewhere. If you're in the mood to revisit the literary country of T.E. Lawrence, Burroughs, or Rimbaud, Kevin Rushby will get you there.
Colleen J. McElroy's most recent books are "A Long Way From St. Louis" and "Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar."