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A habit hampering progress.

Called by many Yemenis "the elixir of life" and by others "flower of Paradise", qat plays a pivotal role in the lives of a vast majority of people in the land of the famous Biblical queen of Sheba. This bitter tasting leaf belonging to a species of the celastraceae tree, has become, especially in the last few decades, Yemen's dilemma. Life in mountainous Yemen revolves around the cultivation, sale and chewing of a plant, described by a number of writers as the "evil of the Yemen". Habeeb Salloum reports.

To an outsider, it seems the essence of Yemeni life is based on afternoon qat chewing sessions. Considered a drug by much of the outside world, its consumption is defended vehemently by most Yemenis who have acquired a liking for its bitter taste and talk continually about its benefits. Though rejected by a few, Yemenis are overwhelmingly its devotees.

Qat (catha edulis), also known as quatt, kat or khat, is said to have originated in East Africa. It is still to be found in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. According to legend, some 700 years ago, during the Rasulid Dynasty (1228-1454), a Muslim merchant returning from Ethiopia informed the first Rasuli king he had discovered a .tree there whose leaves, when ruminated, repressed the appetite, did not let one sleep, and curtailed sexual powers. Rasuli is said to have laughed and said, "I only desire in this world these three things. Tell me, who munches on these leaves?" When told that they were chewed by Muslims because they could not drink liquor, Rasuli was intrigued and asked the merchant to bring him a sample of the plant's root.

The story has it that this root was planted in Jabal Safir on the outskirts of Taiz. From this southern Yemeni capital, its cultivation spread throughout the whole country. At first, the leaves were only chewed by merchants out of boredom and by mystics seeking the divine. Only in the last half century did its mastication become widespread. Today, Yemen is the only country in the world where qat is widely consumed. According to some estimates, over 90% of Yemeni men and between 10 and 20% of women indulge in the pastime.

Where are we going to have our afternoon session of qat? This question is heard every day in offices, homes and factories during the morning hours. Government officials, managers, labourers and some housewives debate the matter until a home is agreed upon.

After the day's work has been completed - between 2pm and 3pm -- friends, neighbours, work colleagues and relatives meet, usually in groups of from ten to 50, to dine on the largest meal of the day. They then climb to the mafraj, the highest and most pleasant room in the house, for the qat session. Except for special invitations like weddings or business deals, when the host provides the leaves, the guests bring their own supply. Only strangers come empty handed. During the hours of chewing everyone gives them a few leaves.

The host takes a central position and the qat session begins. From the bundle of leaves before each person, only the tender young leaves and sprigs, purchased fresh daily, are munched. These are worked into a wad which accumulates in the left cheek until it juts out into an unseemly cud-like bulge - an acquired art. Like myself when I first attended a session, beginners often swallow the masticated leaves instead of just the juices.

A short time after forming the wad, the chewer experiences a feeling of alertness, energy and euphoria. Conversation waxes lively and thinking becomes strongly concentrated, making insignificant ideas seem great ones. The news of the day is discussed and business deals made. In between, bards are inspired to compose poetry while jokes flow naturally. During the entire session, no food is offered by the host. Only water and soft drinks are sipped to aid the flow of the qat juices. After about two hours, conversation dies down and the chewers relax. By evening everyone is pre-occupied by their own thoughts.

Eventually, a slight depression sets in and the ruminator becomes melancholy. When night approaches, the pulp is spat out and, at the end of the session, tea with milk is served. After returning home some will eat a light meal, but usually no food is consumed until the next day.

I was told by an experienced chewer that if one wants to return to normal immediately after the qat session, there is a remedy. Drinking about four ounces of liquor or three bottles of beer will normally cancel the narcotic effects of qat. However, since in the Yemen alcoholic drinks can only be found in tourist hotels or on the black market this is not usually possible.

Qat sessions are a way of socialising repeated frequently, if not daily in many Yemeni homes. In the past, religious leaders tried to identify qat as one of the drugs forbidden by the Koran, but to no avail. Like alcohol consumption in the West, it is a pastime which has some benefits, but many drawbacks. The qat leaves have a number of nutritional qualities, but overall they are something of a health hazard, a drain on the family budget and a great hindrance to economic development. All work stops while the qat sessions are in progress and in 1973, a survey by the office of the Yemeni prime minister estimated that over four billion man hours a year were lost due to the qat chewing habit.

Chemical research has established that qat contains two versions of the stimulant cathine, responsible for the release of adrenalin. It animates the nervous system and excites the chewer, causes the pulse to increase and the blood pressure to rise. Depending on the species of qat, the after-effects including nervousness, loss of appetite, insomnia and a decrease in sexual powers are all experienced to some degree. A study by the World Health Organisation has established that the tannic acid contained in qat can cause constipation, increasing cases of haemorrhoids and hernias among users.

Nonetheless, it is in the economic field that qat does the most damage. A very expensive habit, it usually absorbs between 30% and 50% of the average family's income. With Yemen's average per capita income estimated at around $700 per year and with nearly half of the cultivable land planted with qat, one can see the country's dilemma.

On the other hand, qat has some benefits. According to a study by Y M al Madfai in Gat in the Yemen and its Role in Yemeni Life, 49% of those surveyed believed that chewing qat gives energy and vitality, while 20% said it relieved boredom. Others said it was a way to socialise with friends which inspired one to do good work, while calming the nerves, giving happiness and relieving the tedium of daily grind.

Adnan Narsis in The Land of Sheba and Early Arab Cultures, notes that traditional folk medicine practitioners believe qat is beneficial in the treatment of both malaria and coughs. Scientifically it has been established that qat contains anti-acid elements and has a stabilising effect on sugar diabetes. In addition, munching on the leaves keeps motor vehicle drivers wide awake, making it rare for them to have serious road accidents through drowsiness.

Above all, the price for which farmers sell their qat - about five times that of agricultural products - tends to spread the wealth of the urban centres to rural areas. One has only to see the thousands of peasants selling their qat along the sides of the highways from new Toyota trucks to know that urban wealth is flowing into the countryside. The cultivation of qat is ever on the increase, mostly at the expense of coffee for which Yemen has long been famous.

Through the years, all attempts to ban qat have failed miserably and the government seems to have made its peace with this mild narcotic. Officially it is opposed to qat consumption, but has no qualms about collecting considerable revenue from taxes imposed on its cultivation and marketing.

On the plus side, the qat habit appears, in the main, to be non-addictive. The University of California's 1980 Kennedy Study, The Use of Gat in the Northern Yemen and the Addiction Problem, found that light and medium chewers have no addiction after-effects, but heavy users can experience cold shivers and nightmares should they attempt to abandon the habit. Other studies have concluded that a user can munch on the leaves for years and not become addicted.

Yemenis who emigrate soon forget their afternoon qat sessions, leading many to conclude the so-called "evil of the Yemen" is merely a harmless plant. Yet, like the consumption of alcohol in Europe and North America, when one considers the real cost of indulging in the pastime, not in purely economic terms but in terms of "lost" hours, unachieved ambitions and unfulfilled lives, the country could well do without qat.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic; qat's popularity in Yemen
Author:Salloum, Habeeb
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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