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Munching your way through the afternoon

Qat chewing in Yemen is a great way to make friends and practice speaking Arabic, but the custom also exacts a huge social and economic price.

Last Modified: 21 Apr 2003 14:43 GMT

Qat chewing in Yemen is a great way to make friends and practice speaking Arabic, but the custom also exacts a huge social and economic price.


Balancing his bottle of ‘Hadda” water in the left-hand and holding a cigarette in the right, the motor cycle taxi driver seemed to offer an experience that promised adventure. It was only as I hopped on the back of his bike that I noticed the driver popping tiny green leaves into his mouth. He had a plastic bag attached to his huge dagger, called a jambiyya, and between drags on his cigarette and swigs of water, would glance down frequently to select the next leaf.

Muqawwits, or gat sellers, with pre-prepared
leaves ready for chewing

He wasn’t eating the leaves, merely chewing them slowly – as cows chew the cud. His right cheek looked as if it had a golf ball in it, but it did not affect his ability to talk enthusiastically or manoeuvre at great speed around cars, goats, footballs and children.

To anyone that has been to Yemen, or even parts of London, Sheffield or Dearborn, these tiny green leaves may be familiar. Qat, known botanically as Catha Edulis Forsk, is a plant which contains trace quantities of amphetamine-like chemicals and various other alkaloid stimulants. The leaves are crushed in the mouth and stored in the cheek, allowing for the resulting juices to be absorbed.

This brief description may not appeal to too many readers, enthusiastic chewers would be more likely to approve of Tennyson’s description from the Song of the Lotos Eaters:

Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind
.”

Countless thousands every week, in the capital alone, sit in their diwans listening to the gentle hubble-bubble of their sheeshas or madaas (traditional smoking pipes), conversing about heroic deeds and solving the world’s problems, smoking and sipping on water or cold drinks, waiting for their qat to take effect. There is “no rush, just a silky transition, scarcely noticed, and then the room casts loose its moorings”, writes Kevin Rushby, author of Eating the Flowers of Paradise. A less romantic description of the effects have been likened to a couple of spliffs and six double espressos!

Hadda water, Kamaran cigarettes and a bundle of gat all make
for a long afternoon of talking

Qat chewing goes on everywhere these days, spreading rapidly despite the authorities’ best efforts. Even women and schoolchildren have taken up the practice in recent years. The traditional social setting however, is for men to meet in a mafraj (the highest room in the house, that has the best views) for choice, or the diwan, each bringing his own bundle of leaves proudly under his arm.

In Sanaa, nobody hides their qat. It is a social faux pas to turn up for a chew in the afternoon without it wrapped in a pink plastic sheet or lovingly shrouded in a towel. After being welcomed and carefully seated according to social position, guests stay on for most of the afternoon, passing their time in animated discussions devoted to matters of general interest. The qat makes people more talkative initially, pretty much like a glass of wine at social gatherings in the west. Qat connoisseurs are called “mawlai" and gat overdosers have their own Arabic verb "bahsham" which means not just to store qat in your cheek, but to really stuff your cheeks to bursting point.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British national who has become more Yemeni than English, writes in his book Travels in Dictionary Land, “just as in the West there are wine snobs, in Yemen there are qat snobs. I once found myself opposite one. Fastidiously, he broke the heads off his yard-long branches and wrapped them in a dampened towel. It was almost an act of consecration. When he had finished, he drew on his water-pipe and appraised my bag of qatal (the cheapest kind of qat) with a look that threatened to wither it. ‘Everything’, he said in an audible whisper, 'has pubic hair. Qatal is the pubic hair of qat. Besides, dogs cock their legs over it'.” Foreign guests need not worry, they are usually offered the smallest, most succulent leaves which are the very best!

Sessions last for around five hours and embrace the whole range of emotions. At around five, you experience the “Sulaymaniyya hour” where silence and introspective feelings dominate. By six, however, a new surge of dynamism and energy kick in. One Egyptian playwright claims to have written an entire play in three days completely under the influence, just like Coleridge when he began writing his Legend of Xanadu.

Effects are not all so fun -  at a personal or social level. Despite the fact that qat tends to help individuals discover that they are actually the most intelligent and articulate person in the whole world (which is why students love chewing before exams), it can cause impotence instead of  enhancing performance, may cause mouth cancers, high blood pressure, heart attacks and tooth decay. 

Yemenis are innovative; loss of teeth has led to the invention of a qat leaf masher which takes all the chewing out of the operation.

Constipation is another possible side effect. During a short-lived ban on qat imposed by the Marxist regime in southern Yemen, sales of laxatives fell by 90%. Pesticides are another source for concern, because there is seldom enough rain to wash them off the leaves before they are harvested for market.

Islamically, qat is a moot point. Most Yemenis know deep down that spending a large part of their tiny salaries on something that will not benefit their wives, children, the poor or needy cannot be justified, particularly when they traditionally have large families. Broaching the subject, however, can upset them. For instance, it is common to see children playing with no shoes while fathers chew their income away. Some Sufis, however, call qat “quut as-saaliheen”  or “food of the righteous” because it enables them to stay awake all night while performing their rituals.

The saddest aspect of this social phenomenon however is also the most serious. The area planted with qat is estimated at nine per cent of the country’s total cultivated area, increasing from 8000 hectares in 1970 to 102,934 hectares in 2000. Yemen has the most fertile land in the whole of the Arabian peninsula and an amazing climate, yet food imports and subsidies are the norm.

According to a study released by the Yemeni government in 2001, the qat related economy makes up about 6.3 % of GDP excluding oil, and 30% of all agricultural GDP. Worse still, qat farming in the Sanaa basin uses twice as much water as domestic consumption in Sanaa itself – this is a city that will have bled dry its aquifers by 2020.

Although this author enjoyed his first few experiences with qat - after all it was the best place to make friends - like a small but growing minority he believes that some moderation needs to be brought to this custom. Any Yemeni will tell you that his grandfather, if he chewed at all, would indulge once a fortnight or even monthly. Now the custom is almost daily, and almost obligatory on Thursdays and Fridays.

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