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The sacred story of Khat, Ethiopia’s natural ‘spiritual’ drug

Jessica Beshir’s psychedelic new documentary, Faya Dayi, explores the history of Khat – a mystical green leaf discovered by Sufi imams on their search for “eternal life”

If you haven’t smoked or chewed khat before, you will have a better idea of the plant’s transcendent high by the end of Jessica Beshir’s black-and-white, psychedelic documentary Faya Dayi. Khat, according to Ethiopian legend, was a green leaf discovered by Sufi imams on their search for “eternal life”, and its consumption generated a state of mind so specific and spiritual it had its own name: “Merkhana”. In recent years, though, khat has become a lucrative, mainstream export, and achieving Merkhana can simply be a method of surviving long, exhausting days rather than an act of soul-searching.

Not that khat’s cultural background is explicitly stated in Faya Dayi. While Beshir’s debut feature is ostensibly a documentary, it’s closer to a Terrence Malick drama than an Alex Gibney exposé. There are no talking heads, no explanatory captions, and no onscreen presenter to dumb it down for western audiences. “For some people, a documentary is just straight-up information,” Beshir tells me over Zoom from her home in Brooklyn. “But I was documenting the real lives of people, and taking into consideration their spirituality and what’s happening inside them.”

Beshir, a Mexican-Ethiopian director, was her own cinematographer for the years-spanning shoot in Harar, a city in the east of Ethiopia. Adopting a lyrical, hypnotic rhythm, the two-hour visual poem weaves in multiple perspectives surrounding the complexities of khat. Elder generations warn of khat’s addictive qualities, while others claim that chewing and smoking this natural plant is one of life’s rich pleasures. Although khat’s spiritual status is emphasised by some locals, it’s otherwise what farmers refer to as a financial replacement for harvesting coffee. Meanwhile, Ethiopian teenagers – perhaps deterred by a potential adulthood growing khat – dream of crossing the Red Sea for a new life in Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

“Khat doesn’t make you drunk or high like all the drug references you might have,” Beshir explains. “It releases you from that constraint and gravity that we have to time and space. It’s a sacred plant that indigenous people all over the world have mostly used for spiritual purposes, to attain ecstatic spaces in union with their creator. Now it’s a cash crop, some people might chew it without having that spiritual impetus. But I wanted to invoke that ancestral memory and intimate relationship with the plant, and to contextualise that it’s not a shrub that came out of nowhere.”

Born in Mexico City, Beshir later spent her adolescence living in Harar, expecting to work in medicine, not indie filmmaking. “I grew up in wartime and we needed doctors,” she recalls. “Instinctually, you want to be of help to your community.” But aged 16, after surviving the Derg and Mengistu regimes, Beshir and her family returned to Mexico for a safer existence. “Because I felt very uprooted, my mind was completely saturated by all these memories and images. It’s haunting – and also comforting – that they stay within your soul for so long.“

Although Beshir went to film school at UCLA, she describes herself as a self-taught cinematographer, which explains why Faya Dayi possesses such a unique tone and look: the monochrome mise-en-scène captures the majestic shadows of the Ethiopian landscapes, the contrast of bright skies with endless fields of khat, and even the silhouettes of ominous birds flapping their wings in the background like a readymade noir-thriller.

However, Beshir describes Harar as a city that’s “psychedelic” and “like colour exploding”, from the eye-catching fashion styles to walls that are painted with purples, pinks, and yellows. “But I wanted to document the interiority of people. These voices are being shared from somewhere very deep inside someone’s soul. So I wanted to strip it from colour, and keep it in that space. When the film begins, one of the Sufi imans says: humans are given the ability to see the outside, but can we tell what’s on the inside?”

Extra nuances emerge from people speaking in Harari and Afaan Oromoo, even if it isn’t apparent to UK-based viewers who don’t have one-to-one access to Beshir over Zoom. In a mini-history lesson, the director explains to me that Ethiopia has more than 80 language groups, each with their own rhythms and cadences. “At school, we were taught in Amharic, but I grew up listening to Oromo, Harari, Somali, and Amharic. It was an honour to work with Oromo farmers, because their language was banned during the imperial times.”

“Khat releases you from that constraint that we have to time and space. It’s a sacred plant that indigenous people all over the world have mostly used for spiritual purposes, to attain ecstatic spaces in union with their creator” – Jessica Beshir

The Oromo people, Beshir continues, were also victims of land-grabbing and oppression (“political, social, and economic”) during subsequent regimes. “So imagine living in a space where your language is also banned.” Then in 2014, the government announced a “Master Plan” (a scheme to dispossess the Oromo population of even more land), which led to years of peaceful protests from Qeerroo (an Oromo youth movement) – in response, armed forces killed more than 5,000 Oromo campaigners. “For three years, those protesters were met with bullets and atrocities. But that movement forced the Prime Minister (of the EPRDF) to resign.

“Even in the work song of the farmers, they’re speaking about getting away and survival in that political climate. There’s a poet at the end, in the khat market, that starts reciting this big poem about liberation. These undercurrents are present in the film.”

Beshir started shooting Faya Dayi in 2011 and is currently in the note-taking stages of her follow-up. Without revealing its topic or genre, she teases, “I’m fascinated by form and language, and ways of delivering it, and just cinema itself, and what it’s doing, and what I can do.” When I ask for her influences to get a hint of where she might go next, she answers, “I’m incredibly inspired by the entire oeuvre of Kahlil Joseph, the cinematography of Bradford Young, and many filmmakers in Africa.

“I am not just inspired, but I am excited about African cinema, and what those incredible filmmakers are doing. (Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s sci-fi hip-hop musical set in Rwanda) Neptune Frost breaks open the imagination and possibilities of the future. It’s an incredible time for African cinema.”

Faya Dayi opens in UK cinemas on June 24