I know this is going to sound a bit odd but, the first time I chewed qat I was quite overwhelmed by a feeling of nostalgia for my first infant school – the food in particular. At this school they practised the quaint custom of giving you the cane AND a lecture about starving babies in Biafra if you didn’t eat your school lunch. The lecture was bearable but as bewildering to a 7 year-old then as it would be today. The cane however, either across the back of the legs or on the palms of your hands, hurt like hell. The problem was vegetables. Hated them. Especially green ones. So I’m afraid I have to confess to having spent many a childhood afternoon slowly chewing a mouthful of vile-tasting green mush. The strength of the memory was so sudden it was like being slapped on the face with a bag of frozen peas. Now, whether this was an effect of the qat I have no idea but if it was, then it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable one.
I knew a bit about qat before I hit Yemen and to me, it sounded innocuous enough in terms of its psychotropic effects. My attitude was, if I was offered it I’d try it but if I wasn’t then I wouldn’t go looking for it. As it happened I wouldn’t have needed to look for it – some of the streets in Sana’a are paved with it. I haven’t a clue how Yemenis decide which qat market is any better than another or even how they know they’ve got the best grade qat for their money. It’s a bit like wine in a way – it all seems to depend on age, bouquet, flavour and which region it comes from. You can also buy it in small, individual neatly tied bundles or go for the family pack and buy the whole branch of a tree. Most people though, seem to buy it by the medium-sized, translucent pink, carrier bag full. The first few times I came across a qat market I actually felt slightly voyeuristic and a bit uneasy with it. It just took me a day or two to get used to the idea that these guys were just ordinary market traders selling a perfectly legal product and not necessarily hard-core drug dealing warlords. After that I relaxed and found the qat traders to be as affable, friendly and as humorous as all the other market traders. The only time I bought any qat myself was from a guy standing on the side of the road half-way up a mountain somewhere miles from nowhere. It’s a bit like a drive-thru qat market on some stretches of road where there’s a seller standing on the precipitous outside edge of the tarmac every 100y yards or so. Far down in the valley bottom you can see the neat fields of the qat plantations, each field overshadowed by a low watchtower. Along the steep lower slopes below the road, miles of terracing hold yet more plantations of qat ranging in height from small shrubs to medium-sized trees. I was told that this is the place to buy qat because the leaves are fresh off the plant. The active ingredient in qat is a chemical called cathinone which is similar in properties and effects to amphetamine. After 48 hours though, the cathinone breaks down to become cathine which, so the text book says, is much less potent than cathinone. So basically, if you own your own bush, you’re laughing! At the crack of dawn every day, truck loads of the stuff are shipped into the towns and cities to feed an internal demand worth US$4 million a year. The critics of qat say that the 80% of land given over to qat production could be used to grow more profitable export crops, that it may cause cancer of the mouth and stomach and that thousands of working hours are wasted every year because nearly 90% of the population are wasted every afternoon. Supporters argue that chewing qat kills stomach worms and parasites and helps prevent asthma and diabetes. They will also argue that the whole qat business from cultivation to sale provides regular daily employment for thousands of workers, although interestingly, they seem to forget that a high proportion of the regular daily pay earned in the qat business is used by the workers to buy their regular daily bag of qat. Some Yemenis also argue from a traditionalist perspective – chewing qat has been a part of their culture for more than 600 years and the ritual is an integral part of social relations in Yemen. Now I’m not even going to try to figure out what would be best for Yemen economically but it seems to me they might be able to afford some decent medical facilities if they were to invest in a spot of growth somewhere in the export market which wouldn’t necessarily be to the detriment of the qat market anyway. Neither can I even think of anything that could replace qat chewing as an important part of social interaction between friends, strangers, tribes and families. It’s a complex issue and not even one that can be resolved by Islamic law as there is no specific guidance in the Qur’an regarding the use of qat. The vast majority of inter-tribal feuding that goes on in Yemen seems to concern land-ownership disputes. In particular, land in productive qat growing areas. I think it would be hard to deny the possibility of a link between the use of firearms and qat cultivation.
On the health front well, I didn’t know about the cancer stuff before I tried qat but frankly I’m not in the slightest bit surprised. I don’t think though, that the three qat sessions I sat through were enough to either raise my overall risk of cancer or significantly reduce my chances of becoming diabetic. Three sessions were enough though to make me pretty damn sure I’d hate to have to do anything involving quick thinking or quick anything after I’d chewed it. Personally I wouldn’t want to drive, handle a gun or work for air traffic control after chewing qat. I’m actually not very good at it either. You’re supposed to keep up a regular flow of leaves into your mouth at the same time as not swallowing any. I found it really hard to eat at that pace – it made me think of rabbits. I also couldn’t quite get the hang of keeping it all on one side of my mouth and I kept swallowing it by accident as well. It also tastes bog awful and I couldn’t figure out why anyone 600 years ago would’ve bothered to chew the leaves for long enough to realise they had interesting effects. Legend has it that a shepherd noticed a goat behaving ‘tranquilly’ after chewing the leaves and it took off from there. I’m not sure if I felt entirely tranquil even though I was sitting on cushions in the mafraj (top floor sitting room) of a traditional stone house with stupendous views over the mountains. I’m not really sure what I felt. Mostly it was pleasant but sometimes I felt a bit agitated and fidgety. It seems that different types of qat produce different effects in different people so you can feel laid-back, animated, aggressive or even more than usually frisky at any given moment after a chew. In common with all chewers however, I wasn’t in the slightest bit hungry and I had trouble going to sleep.
If you do decide to partake then the correct etiquette is that you take your own qat to the chew-in but the host provides the water. If you’re in any way organically orientated then politely decline all offers of a chew. On my last day in Yemen I saw a guy up a qat tree randomly throwing handfuls of what looked like ash over the neighbouring trees. It was actually a pretty noxious cocktail of inorganic fertiliser and pesticide in frequent and unregulated use by qat growers which probably contributes to the risk of cancer and the astringent effect it has on the inside of the mouth. Washing your qat before consumption does not seem to be an accepted practise. It is however, perfectly acceptable for you to throw your empty pink plastic carrier bag away anywhere you like. If nearly 90% of the population are buying qat daily then it seems reasonable to assume that the qat business in Yemen must be responsible for the bulk of the non-biodegradable litter wafting around the country. It might not be ethical tourism to try qat but at least you can try a spot of ecotourism in mitigation by taking your own carrier bag to the qat market.