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King Khat

A new film tells the story of the geeky scientist who developed the synthetic drug that took Israel by storm during the Second Intifada

Dana Kessler
April 19, 2024

Daroma Productions

In order to understand the designer-drug revolution from the Israeli perspective, you must familiarize yourself with two Israeli terms. The first is pitzutziya. A pitzutziya is an all-night store that combines a kiosk with a convenience store. The term is a wordplay on pitzuchiya, meaning a kiosk that sells pitzuchim (nuts and seeds that are sold by weight), while pitzutz is an explosion, and in slang means the same thing as saying that something is “the bomb.”

The second term is gat—the Hebrew word for khat. The khat is a flowering plant native to eastern Africa, where people have been chewing its leaves for centuries as stimulants. In Israel, everyone knows that Yemenite men chew it, like people chew tobacco. If you chew it long enough, it is supposed to get you mildly high, but since this is an age-old tradition in the Yemenite community, Israel’s laws respect that. Eritreans, who arrived in Israel as asylum seekers and live in the slums of the south of Tel Aviv, chew khat leaves as well.

Israeli youngsters obviously don’t want to be chewing bitter and disgusting leaves for hours to get some sort of effect, so for years people have been trying to extract the psychoactive stimulant that the plant contains for recreational use. But apparently, if the leaves aren’t young and fresh, they don’t work. Some people juice it, which might work if the leaves are fresh enough, but it’s not the same thing. So along came a guy with a brilliant idea: Why work so hard to take the cathinone out of the khat, if you can just produce it synthetically?

“Gabi, a young Israeli scientist, became fascinated by the psycho-active influences of the khat plant,” wrote film director Uri Marantz in the synopsis to his new film, King Khat (Melech Ha-Gat in Hebrew), based on the true story of the man Marantz gave the alias “Gabi”:

After a thorough study of the Israeli law of illegal substances he was surprised to find that cathinone—the active substance in khat—was not listed. Following this revelation, he decided to try and synthesize the molecule himself. What started years ago as a harmless home experiment developed into a full-blown international operation that changed the global approach toward drugs in a profound way. His synthetic cathinone became known as Hagigat, the famous legal drug that conquered the streets of Tel Aviv. Later, applying the same principles, he created more than 30 new psycho-active molecules, and distributed them all around the world.

By inventing a legal psychoactive drug from cathinone, the pseudonymous Gabi—now a 50-something respected scientist, living with his wife and kids somewhere in North America—turned from a geeky scientist with a penchant for psychopharmacology into a notorious if unorthodox drug baron. King Khat hit Israeli screens in February. The film mixes animation and live action and stars Oshri Cohen as Gabi. In the movie, Gabi tells his life story from his point of view, in voice-over, just as the real Gabi told Marantz over a series of lengthy interviews.

Marantz remembers well the night he decided to make this film. It was the night, 13 years ago, when he first discovered that a guy he had known for years—and wasn’t especially fond of—invented the extremely popular drug that swept the country at the beginning of the century. Since Gabi was an annoying know-it-all smart aleck, and not to any extent a party animal, this was quite a surprise, which is why Marantz frequently refers to him as “Jekyll and Hyde.”

In the early 2000s in Tel Aviv, there was no celebration without hagigat. It is no accident that the hagigat craze took place during the Second Intifada.

“I will tell you about how I first met Mr. Hyde,” Marantz began, as we sat down to discuss his film in a café in Tel Aviv. “A couple of friends and I used to have boys’ nights. We were a bunch of 40-year-olds having our midlife crisis, playing PlayStation, watching The Entourage on TV, drinking whiskey, smoking joints, complaining about the burden of life, and reminiscing on the good old days when we were film students. Anyway, round midnight our friend’s doorbell suddenly rings and Gabi walks in. Gabi the party pooper that never shuts up. I hadn’t seen him for about five years, and I say to myself: Bummer, there goes our fun night.

“Gabi joins us and immediately goes into some biological explanation about the evolution of bacteria. Then someone passes a joint. I pass it on to Gabi and he gives me the most annoying answer: ‘I don’t like THC.’ Today everyone knows what it is, but it was more than 10 years ago, and to call it THC was really condescending and annoying. So, I try to tease him: ‘So what do you like?’ And he throws this sentence at me: ‘All kinds of amphetamines, mostly ones I developed myself.’ What?! Another one of the guys is interested and starts inquiring about these amphetamines. ‘Some of them are very famous,’ claims Gabi. So naturally the friend jokes: ‘You mean like hagigat?’ And Gabi says: ‘Yes, hagigat is the first substance I invented. Do you want to try something?’ ‘You mean you have something here?’ He says: ‘Yeah, I have a whole bag in the car.’

“We all go down in the elevator, and he opens the car and it’s like in a Tarantino movie: Inside is a 20-kilo bag with the word Cement written on it. He opens it and it’s full of small sparkling white crystals. He takes a plastic cup, fills it and we go back upstairs. He mixes some of the crystals with water, we drink it and after about 40 minutes I experienced something I had never experienced before.”

Marantz had never done hagigat in its heyday, since he was a little too old for that. When hagigat was all the rage, Marantz was 30-something, his first son was just born, he was in another phase in his life “I thought it’s just a kids’ drug,” he told me, “so how interesting can it be?” But like everybody else, he was aware of this phenomenon. “At the end of that night I told him I want to make a film about him and he said yes.”

The film took 11 years to make—much longer than anyone had anticipated. The project went through many incarnations; the main problem being the difficulty of producing a documentary on a figure who demands to remain anonymous. At one point the film was going to be an animated documentary, inspired by Waltz with Bashir, but ultimately it became part biopic (actors filmed on green screen with psychedelic backgrounds) and part animated documentary, with large chunks of fiction thrown in.

I wondered if Gabi wasn’t afraid a film would expose him. “No,” Marantz said. “If it were up to him, he would stand on the table right now and shout to the world: It’s me! He’s extremely proud of what he did. The only reason he doesn’t want to reveal his identity is his wife.”

Gabi’s wife found out about her husband’s narcotic activities only gradually. After she uncovered the entire messy truth, she stuck by him—but made him promise not to reveal his true identity in public, so that her family never finds out, and not to bring his drug associates home. Gabi himself never felt the need to hide his identity, but out of love and respect for his wife, he agreed to live a double life, secretly bragging about his dubious achievements only to his friends.

Gabi was a gifted child with a bright academic future. He studied at the Technion—Israel’s prestigious institute of technology—for a Ph.D., specialized in mathematics, studied biology and chemistry, and worked in hi-tech. Even after falling in love with the possibility of developing new mind-altering substances, his day job remained respectable science.

His gateway to drugs was a girl he met on a work-related visit to NYC, who introduced him to the wonders of ecstasy. What happened next is up for debate. According to the film, Gabi returned to Israel and developed a cocaine habit, which helped him stay awake and alert in his demanding job in the Israeli startup world. Once his money ran out, he started searching for a cheaper high. And what could be cheaper than making your drugs yourself? Someone mentioned Yemenites and their khat, and Gabi had a eureka moment.

However, an article in Haaretz from 2004 quoted well-known Israeli music executive Nitzan Zeira as saying: “I am the first person to come up with the idea of hagigat.” According to him, he approached Gabi about it, and after realizing that real khat leaves wouldn’t work, Gabi decided to synthesize the active ingredient, and essentially make a khat-less khat-drug. Which version is true? “Who knows?” said Marantz. “Maybe both. The thing is that Gabi is an unreliable narrator not only in the film but also in life. So any narrative you choose will probably be no more wrong than any other one.”

Whoever came up with the original idea, Gabi did his magic in the lab and the synthesized substance was packed into 200 mg capsules, which can be swallowed or opened and snorted. The feeling it gives is speedy, euphoric, and slightly psychedelic; some compare it to MDMA (ecstasy), others to cocaine. This natural stimulant, which became a hit in part due to its ability to increase libido, was dubbed hagigat; a portmanteau of hagiga—celebration in Hebrew—and gat (the khat plant which inspired this creation).

In the early 2000s in Tel Aviv, there was no celebration without hagigat. It was cheap, it was readily available, and it was legal—not in the sense that it was approved for human consumption (it wasn’t), but in the sense that it was not illegal. Yet.

Hagigat went on the open market in 2003 after about three years of circulating underground. It rapidly became mainstream and people all over the country consumed it. Since a pill cost only around 50 shekels (about $10 in 2003), it caught on in multiple socioeconomic groups. Israel’s nightlife was full of hagigat. Clubbers took it, it became a staple at house parties and weddings (where people usually opened the pills and poured their contents into drinks), and drug addicts found it convenient because of its cheap price and availability.

It is no accident that the hagigat craze took place during the Second Intifada. “Drugs and dance as Israelis blot out intifada” was the title of a 2004 article by Conal Urquhart in The Guardian. “It is Thursday night and the young of Tel Aviv are queuing for their supplies for the big night out of the Jewish week,” he reported. “At the city-centre kiosks, some customers ask for cigarettes or some gum, but about one in three furtively inquires: ‘hagigat?’ The shopkeeper looks straight ahead. His hand moves below the counter and he pulls out a small white capsule, which he exchanges discreetly for 50 shekels.”

How did the hagigat pills reach the 24/7 kiosks (aka pitsutsiyot), you ask? Well, Gabi knew how to concoct hagigat and also how to order it from a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in India, but he didn’t know how to market and distribute it. So he entered into a partnership with, well, criminals. One of Gabi’s shady associates had the brilliant marketing idea to use mixed blue and white capsules, to resemble the Israeli flag. Of course, hagigat also came in various other colors, but this Zionist branding was a stroke of genius. The scene in King Khat depicting the marketing ploy, like many others, caused film critic Shmulik Duvdevani to dub the film “an ironic take on Israel as a startup nation,” and rightfully so. The hagigat enterprise succeeded due to the same kind of Israeli trickster mentality that inflated its startup bubble.

Doing business with shady types, as anyone who has ever seen a crime movie knows, doesn’t end well. Marantz told me a well-known crime family in Israel had issued a contract on Gabi, but he left the country, with his family, and things calmed down.

There’s a scene in the movie where Gabi’s criminal partners get angry with him and throw a Molotov cocktail into his car. But it seems Gabi didn’t harbor any hard feelings. “As far as I know, Gabi and the guy who set his car on fire are still in touch,” Marantz told me. “Gabi can get really upset but then he forgets, he doesn’t hold grudges.” I wondered whether it’s safe to say Gabi is kind of naive. “Yes,” Marantz agreed. “He’s naive but he’s a lot of things. He’s quite a character, he is wired differently. He is very, very smart and he knows it. He is quite arrogant, but first and foremost, he is truly a genius and a serious scientist, who did lots of important scientific work which has nothing to do with drugs. As a scientist he developed medical substances and also developed innovative uses of plant metabolism in the field of agriculture.”

Some people remember their hagigat days quite fondly. “Me and my friends used to go out a lot, drinking in a few bars on Allenby Street,” Moshik (not his real name) reminisced. “We were all in our late 20s and bored. We liked to drink and party without breaking the bank, and suddenly fun little products started popping up in pitzutziyot to boost morale. Everyone was drinking gat juice and the rumor was that in every pitzutziya in the nightlife area of Tel Aviv they are selling small pills, which you can swallow or snort.

“The heavy partiers who went out two or three times a week would take two or three pills a night, but we would also open the pills and divide the powder between us. The quantities varied—depending on the person and on the night. It became the coke of students. Personally, I’d do one or two a week, and sometimes several in one evening with friends. Even though it sounds abusive we didn’t overdo it. My hagigat days spanned a few years, but in waves. Everyone around me did it. It wasn’t a big deal, just silly party ash that tastes like salt that burns your nose and throat.”

I asked Moshik if there was an addictive element to hagigat. “I don’t know anyone who got addicted to hagigat,” he alleged, “It wasn’t addictive, it was mostly accessible. Each time one kind would get outlawed, in came a new generation of new colors and new intensities. Hagi-pnina (pearl colored hagigat pills) were great—really strong but in a color that girls love. And then came the generation of hard colors, red and yellow. These were snorted only by those who no longer cared about their nasal cavities. Of course, I’m talking about cute hipsters here. At Tel Aviv’s central bus station, they would inject the stuff. We would never ever think of doing that.”

After hagigat became fashionable, and the media reported on people collapsing supposedly from consuming the drug, cathinone was added to the “Dangerous Drugs Ordinance”—the main Israeli legislation of controlled substances. But this didn’t cause Gabi to call it quits. When confronted with the dangers of consuming hagigat, Gabi never expressed any remorse and always maintained that if people used it irresponsibly that was not his fault. Instead of finding a new hobby, Gabi continued to synthesize new molecules in order to produce new designer drugs that hadn’t been outlawed yet.

In the following years there were endless variations on hagigat, as well as other legal drugs, for sale. Some of them were created by Gabi, but many were not. The moment Gabi’s invention opened up the possibility of legal highs being sold in kiosks, every amateur scientist searched for the “Dangerous Drugs Ordinance” online to see which substances were not on the list, and tried their hand at creating new legal drugs. Some were chemically related to cathinone, many were something else completely. Some were OK, many others were dangerous. Gabi made sure not to distribute anything he hadn’t tried himself. But while he had integrity, as well as passion and principles, many others didn’t mind selling dangerous junk for profit.

A 2004 article in Haaretz reported that “although, at the beginning of July the Ministry of Health ordered to take the pill off the shelves, after a young woman in Beersheba probably swallowed hagigat at a wedding and collapsed, it continues to be sold freely. Pitzutziyot owners report an increase in profits and high demand. On King George Street in Tel Aviv they say that 600 pills are sold every week; in one pitzutziya on Allenby Street they admit that they are selling hagigat more than mineral water.”

Both Marantz and Gabi himself—in the interviews he did give, anonymously, in recent years—claim his motivation was never money. Gabi asserted not to even know how much money he is owed by the shady characters who distributed his potions. He always cloaked his actions in ideological rhetoric under the principle of “cognitive liberty”—a term coined by neuroethicist Wrye Sententia and legal theorist and lawyer Richard Glen Boire—which is the freedom of an individual to control their own mental processes, cognition, and consciousness, including, if we’re being glib, one’s right to get high.

Gabi saw himself as the follower of the late Alexander Shulgin—the American scientist who introduced MDMA (which came to be known as ecstasy) to the world in the 1970s—aka, the godfather of psychedelics. One can draw at least three distinct parallels between Gabi and his hero: No. 1, like Shulgin, Gabi made a point of testing each and every chemical on himself. No. 2, like Shulgin, the drugs Gabi created weren’t illegal simply because they didn’t exist before he created them. No. 3, like Shulgin, Gabi was fascinated by discovering new mind-altering chemicals and not really worried about the consequences of his discoveries.

After the peak years of 2003-04, the Israeli government started to outlaw hagigat and in came the derivatives, structural analogues or stereoisomers. But the cathinone trend largely fizzled out by 2011. Other, totally different, designer drugs hit the pitzutziyot in subsequent years, but the concept of buying drugs in a kiosk is no longer en vogue.

After hagigat in Israel was over, Gabi was connected to another trendy designer drug, this time in the U.K.: mephedrone. I asked Marantz if the Israeli mathematician named Ezekiel Golan or “Dr. Z,” whom Wikipedia links to mephedrone, is by any chance the infamous Gabi. Naturally, Marantz flatly denied it.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.