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Full Review
Eating the Flowers of Paradise
by Kevin Rushby
St. Martin's Press 
Reviewed by Jon, 10/21/2005

In Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby tells the story of an epic trip—not just a tale of a literal intoxication, but of an emotional and intellectual obsession. A decade following a job teaching English in the Yemeni city of San’a, where Rushby first enjoyed qat, he decides to return to Yemen by way of Ethiopia, where the drug is said to have originated.

Though often compared by Westerners with either coffee or cocaine, depending on the speaker’s rhetorical stance, Rushby writes of how thoroughly qat suffuses Yemen’s culture: it accounts for at least one-third of the country’s gross national product, has inspired the majority of the country’s poetry for half a millennium, dominates social life, and more. Eating the Flowers of Paradise contains many accounts of the history and culture of the region; it invokes the poets, sheiks, and imams native to East Africa and Arabia, along with Burton and Rimbaud, who traveled to some of the same cities as Rushby does on this expedition. Rushby meets villagers in places so remote that they have never heard of Britain, and documents the troubles brought by war, communism, and fundamentalist Islam.

Though primarily interested in the historical and cultural significance of qat, Rushby also writes eloquently of the drug experience itself; this is not surprising, as he takes the drug most afternoons. He writes of his companions—con men, villagers, and old friends—and of the long and wandering conversations that take place in cave-like rooms throughout the mountains and deserts. Rushby lushly renders the set and setting of these experiences, as well as his emotional and physiological responses, everything from clear-headedness to bliss to terrifying paranoia, and more than a few strange dreams.

Readers monomaniacally focused on the contours of the drug experience may feel disappointed, or may rush through Eating the Flowers of Paradise, but they miss the point: qat weaves through the book as it does the lives of Ethiopians and Yemenis. The texture of these places, and of these lives, are more important to Rushby than the drug—and are also inseparable from it. Readers willing to travel along with Rushby are in for quite a trip.

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