Of Qat and being Mormon:

21 06 2008

Man with qat cheekOne of the first things you notice if you walk the streets of Sana’a in the afternoon is all the men with one cheek bulging. They are chewing qat, a drug described as a mild stimulant. In Arabic the verb they use is not ‘to chew’ but rather ‘to store’ because they chew the leaf and build up a large wad of leaves in their cheek that they suck on for hours. Even though I’d read a bit about qat before coming to Yemen and seen pictures of the full cheeks, I was not really prepared to see such a large number of men with such a huge cheek full of qat on a daily basis. It’s very common to see men with one cheek sticking out like they had something between the size of a golf ball to a squished soft ball in their cheek.

Qat is illegal is most the Arab and Western world, the exceptions being Yemen and the UK. The WHO classifies it as a drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychic dependence. Chewing qat is supposed to suppress the appetite, increase alertness and mental acuity and make one more talkative. Nasir and one of his friends have said to us that after we chewed qat we would see America, so it must have a definite psychotic effect.

Here in Yemen it seems like everyone chews qat every afternoon. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, around 80% of Yemeni men spend hours everyday chewing qat. About 40% of women also chew it but more discreetly and in smaller quantities. Of course, with the niqab covering their face on the street, you can’t see how big a cheek full they may or may not have, but I’ve never seen a niqab with a suspicious bulge, so this is probably true.

The feelings of Yemenis about qat are strong and deeply divided. I’ve talked to people who say it increases their mental acuity and helps them study. Others believe that it is bad for them. One of the young men I have met here said that his father disapproved of chewing qat so he has to do it in secret away from his father. I’ve also read that qat is eating up Yemen’s financial, water and land resources. According to the Bradt Yemen guidebook, some Yemeni’s spend up to 50% of their income on qat. Nearly 60% of arable land is devoted to qat rather than edible or exportable crops. Also, significant water resources are being used up to grow qat, which is a thirsty plant in this arid land. There is an interesting article in a Canadian newspaper about “The real costs of Yemen’s khat buzz.”

I was offered qat the first night I was here. Nasir was taking Lauren and I to get some more passport pictures and then we were going to go to a café. I knew that drinking coffee and tea was common in the Middle East so as we walked to get the pictures I was already practicing in my head how to say I don’t drink coffee or tea because if is forbidden in my religion. However, I unexpectedly began this discussion about qat instead.

Milushka with qatWhile we were waiting for the passport pictures to print, Nasir’s friend who worked at the photo studio offered Nasir some qat because he was chewing it himself. Nasir immediately took some and offered it to us. Lauren took a leaf and tasted it. Of course, as a Mormon, I would never even try such a drug, so I said no. This led to a discussion in mixed Arabic and English about why I was not willing to even try it and about what is allowed or forbidden in the Word of Wisdom. Nasir could not understand this idea at all. He kept saying that alcohol is also forbidden in Islam but people try it any way.

Since this experience, Nasir takes delight in offering me qat whenever I see him in the afternoon. He knows the answer won’t change but he thinks its funny to try anyway. I have been offered it many times, along with tea primarily (coffee is not as popular here), and gone through this same routine about it being forbidden in my religion. I’ve gotten very good at explaining the basics of this principle in Arabic. Many people accept it, some question why, but because most people here are religious, when I say that our prophet told us that it is forbidden they accept that.

Honestly, I am not even tempted to try qat. Those I know who have tasted say that it tastes very nasty. Lauren quickly spit out the first leaf she tried. Another time with Nasir, Deepak, another American staying here, only chewed a leaf or two before the taste overcame him and he spit it out. Milushka, another friend, tried it a few times before deciding there was no reason to subject herself to the horrible taste. Despite the taste, which has to be acquired, qat has become an inseparable part of Yemeni culture. Any changes to this national habit will come slowly and with great opposition.




One response

24 06 2008

How do you pronounce the drug name? qat or khat

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