Where the qat is out of the bag
Disappointingly, perhaps, most of them advertise nothing more exotic than flats to rent, over-priced dental treatment or cheap flights to Dubai.
But in one window, there’s a small sign, hand-written with a felt-tipped pen, which offers flights of a different kind. Translated, it says: “Here is sold qat. And thank you.”
Inside the shop, stowed in a fridge along with the cans of Coca-Cola and Fanta, is a black bin bag. The bag contains rubtas (or bundles) of qat stalks, neatly rolled up in banana leaves and flown in from Ethiopia to sell at £5 a time.
It’s a discreet, almost furtive trade, though in Britain – unlike in many other countries – the drug is legal. Customers – mainly Yemenis, Somalis and Ethiopians – leave the shop with their purchases double-wrapped in carrier bags so that people in the street won’t see what they are carrying.
In Yemen, though, nobody hides their qat. To be seen walking home with half a tree slung over your shoulder commands respect. The qat markets of the capital, Sana’a, are bustling places where people shove, curse and haggle to get the best leaves at the lowest possible price.
Qat leaves are not so much chewed as crushed, then tucked inside the cheek for their juices to be absorbed through the membrane. Yemenis call it “storing”, rather than “chewing”. Over an hour or two the leaves – if expertly managed – build up into a large green wad. The cheeks of habitual chewers stretch, sometimes the chewers develop pouches the size of a tennis ball.
The effect of qat has been likened to a couple of spliffs and six double espressos, but really there is no equivalent. Kevin Rushby, in his colorful qat-chewing odyssey, Eating the Flowers of Paradise, describes it thus:
“I passed the hours listening to the gentle lubalub of the hookah and whispered conversations about dead poets and fine deeds. In Sana’a, qat governs. Each day at three, climbing the steps to a smoky room with a bundle under the arm; then closing the door to the outside world, choosing the leaves, gently crushing them with the teeth and waiting for the drug to take effect. No rush, just a silky transition, scarcely noticed, and then the room casts loose its moorings.”
As you approach cruising altitude, the brain slips into overdrive and you discover that you’re one of the most intelligent and articulate people in the world. Thoughts have never been so clear, nor have ideas flowed so freely.
No matter how difficult the problem, by the end of the session you will have either dreamed up a solution or decided that it’s not worth bothering about.
Needless to say, qat is much valued by Yemeni students preparing for exams. It also makes words come easily; one Egyptian author of my acquaintance wrote an entire stage play in three days with qat, and poets have also gained inspiration from it.
I have often wondered if Tennyson, the 19th century English poet, used to go shopping in Edgware Road. His poem, The Lotos Eaters, is hard to interpret as anything other than an ode to qat:
“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.”
But chewing is best as a social activity, and in Yemen the discussion at qat sessions usually centres on politics. Woe betide anyone who turns up at a Yemeni’s house in the afternoon without a bundle of qat under his arm.
The foreign minister of Yemen was once quietly chewing and musing on affairs of state when his door-bell rang.
“Yasser Arafat to see you, sir,” a servant announced.
“Then tell him to come back in a few hours,” the minister replied.
With qat, time loses its urgency. Past, present and future blend imperceptibly, capturing, as one writer put it, “moments of eternity”.
Eventually, nature sends a reminder of passing time as the sun sinks in the Arabian sky and its last, sidelong rays pulse into the room. That’s when you realize why Yemeni windows have multicolored glass.
As night falls, the lights twinkle surreally, the stars come close enough to touch and the chewers drift away into their own private worlds. But just when you think it’s over, qat’s afterburners start to roar, bringing a surge of energy and dynamism. You’re so alert you could drive round Brands Hatch at twice the speed of sound.
Now, surely, is the moment to do all those things you’ve been putting off for weeks – it’ll only take a minute, two at the most. It’s late at night, perhaps early morning – who cares? The mind is racing and the last thing you want to do is sleep. Fly on until daybreak if you wish, but at this point many Yemenis parachute to earth with what, in their country, is an illegal substance: whisky.
Sadly, qat does have its downside. It can (I’m told) cause impotence as well as enhancing sexual performance. According to a Yemeni friend, achieving the latter rather than the former is a matter of learning to recognise good quality leaves.
What little medical research there is on the long-term health effects suggests that qat may cause mouth cancers, high blood pressure and heart attacks, and may also rot the teeth.
Loss of teeth does not put off many chewers. In Yemen, those who have lost their teeth can buy gadgets to mash up the leaves before for popping them into the cheek.
Constipation is another possible side-effect. During a short-lived ban on qat imposed by the Marxist regime in southern Yemen some years ago, sales of laxatives fell by 90%.
A more serious worry is the pesticide sprays used by some qat growers to maximise their crop, because in Yemen there is rarely enough rain to wash away the chemicals before the leaves go to market.
For farmers, qat is at least five times more profitable than other crops and produces income throughout the year. To meet the ever-growing demand, one-third of Yemen’s agriculture is now devoted to a plant with no nutritional value, and irrigating it consumes scarce water supplies. Qat has replaced other crops that might have been exported or used to reduce the need for imported food.
Some Yemenis spend well over half their income on qat. This, undoubtedly, deprives many families of basic necessities, but it’s also an effective way of redistributing what little there is of the nation’s wealth from the cities to the countryside.
One of the few things that radical Islamists and secular modernisers in Yemen agree upon is that qat is evil. But repeated efforts, over the last 700 years or so, to stamp it out have failed.
Qat is not specifically forbidden in the Koran, and some Yemeni religious leaders are enthusiastic chewers. Devout Yemenis reputedly used it in the past to stay awake during all-night prayer vigils.
In the US, qat is treated as a schedule-one drug and offenders are severely punished. Most of those prosecuted are not American citizens and, therefore, face deportation as well as incarceration if convicted.
Qat – known botanically as catha edulis – contains around 40 different alkaloids, of which perhaps six can be regarded as stimulants. Prosecutions in the US are normally for possession of cathinone, an amphetamine-like chemical that can be found in the growing plants.
This allows police officers seizing a typical imported consignment of 100lb of qat to claim that they have seized 100lb of a schedule-one drug – which looks spectacular on their career records.
In fact, the amount of cathinone in qat is tiny – about 36 parts per 100,000 when freshly cut. But once it has been cut, the cathinone breaks down rapidly and after 10 days is only one hundredth of its original level.
“You can, legitimately, argue that it’s not there,” says Sid Moore, a Georgia-based lawyer who has made a speciality of defending qat cases. He adds that the total amount of cathinone in 100lb of 10-day-old qat is equivalent to 0.04 grams of amphetamine.
He also argues that US law does not give consumers “fair notice” that qat is illegal. It is unreasonable, he says, to expect the average person to know that qat contains cathinone, and anyone who looked up the word qat on the lists of banned drugs would not find it.
In this respect, US law treats qat differently from other drugs of vegetable origin. Marijuana, for example, is listed in addition to its active ingredient, THC, and coca leaves are listed in addition to cocaine.
Using these arguments, Mr Moore has now won 19 qat acquittals in a row, leaving the law looking more than a little ragged.
Love it or loathe it, in Yemen, qat is as much a national institution as tea in Britain or wine in France. This poses a dilemma for the more strait-laced foreign diplomats and business visitors. Yemeni life revolves around qat, and it’s impossible to know the country or its people without first getting to know qat.
The British embassy in Yemen once received a stern note from its masters in London warning of the prevalence of qat, and of the damage to Britain’s reputation that might result if any of the embassy staff were tempted to indulge in it.
The message arrived while the ambassador was out – chewing with local dignitaries.