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Chewing Tunbol: A replacement for qat?

Two leaves of Tunbol on display at Amjad Ahmed's shop in Sana'a's Al-Tahrir neighborhoodC[degrees]. C1/4The mild stimulant that some people use to kick qat cravings is a cultural import from IndiaC[degrees]. (Photo by Mohammad Al-Samawi) C1/4

Twenty years ago Amjad Ahmed opened a shop on Al-Matam Street in Sana'a's Al-Tahrir neighborhood. However unlike other restaurants in the area, Ahmad does not prepare traditional Yemeni dishes. Instead he sells a mixture of green leaves, neatly packaged and filled with a number of curious looking ingredients, known popularly as Tunbol.

Tunbol is the Sanskrit word for betel pepper, a vine that is widely found throughout Asia and valued as a mild stimulant. Similar to qat, it is chewed. Users prepare Tunbol by wrapping small pieces of sliced, dried betel seeds into a fully grown betel pepper leaf, along with pellets of slaked lime, an inorganic compound also known as calcium hydroxide, which releases stimulating alkaloids and causes users to salivate.

References to the betel pepper appear in ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and Chinese literature as early as the first century BC, while chewing betel has long become an important cultural tradition in many parts of southern Asia.

Mohammad Ghulam, a 60-year-old Tunbol trader, believes the practice of chewing Tunbol first made its way to Yemen through Indian merchants passing through Aden. With the British takeover of the city in 1839 and the increased number of Indians working in the colonial administration, the practice became more popular and spread throughout southern Yemen. Even today, Tunbol traders like Ahmad or Ghulam import most of their ingredients from India.

Ahmad, who is originally from Aden, explains that the practice of chewing Tunbol had long been limited to the south of Yemen. However, after the country's unification in 1990, traders from Aden introduced the practice to the north.

"Most people who buy Tunbol are southerners from Aden or other southern cities living here in Sana'a," he said. "But the number of northerners who have started chewing Tunbol has been increasing."

Currently, Tunbol vendors can be found in many areas throughout Sana'a, including on Zubairy Street, Tahrir Square, Al-Hasaba area, Aser area, and Bab Al-Yemen.

A colorful variety of Tunbol and dangerous side-effects

Tunbol comes in a variety of flavors. The most popular is "Tunbol Halw", meaning "sweet Tunbol" followed by "Tunbol Zarda'a." In addition to "classical" Tunbol ingredients, Zarda'a includes both artificial tobacco, local tobacco, and saffron. Its effects are known to be particularly strong. Tunbol Helw includes "harisa," a traditional Adeni candy, and tiny colorful sugar cubes, giving it a sweet flavor. Due to its sweetness, Ahmad says, Tunbol Halw is often sold to women and children.

Mohammad Ali has been chewing Tunbol for the past 27 years. Originally from Ibb governorate he prefers Zarda'a Tunbol to the Helaw alternative. "I feel like I'm the king of the world when I chew Tunbol. Not a day goes by without me getting my fix," he says.

About 0.25 percent of all betel nuts are made up of arecoline, the effects of which are similar to Nicotine, which produces a feeling of euphoria and acts as a stimulant. A distant relative of the cocaine plant, its effects are not as potent but still slightly addictive. Given its stimulating effects, Ahmad says that most of his customers are "unemployed and uneducated youth" who use it to relax and forget about their problems. For some, he says, it has even become an alternative to qat, a narcotic stimulant consumed daily by roughly 85 per cent of Yemeni adults. "Tunbol is spreading as an alternative to qat, because it's much cheaper," he says.

Ahmad sells Tunbol at YR70 ($0.3) a piece, adding that many addicts spend upwards of YR350 ($1.6) a day on Tunbol--an amount that he says is less than one would spend on a daily amount of qat. A decent bundle of qat can be purchased at YR1,000 ($4.65). The cheapest qat available--which has almost no effect--costs YR500 ($2.33) during the winter and YR250 ($1.16) during the summer.

Fahd Dughaish, a man in his 20s who is originally from Ibb governorate, refers to himself as a Tunbol "addict." "I use Tunbol everyday," he says. "If I don't, I start to feel tired and exhausted and become depressed. Tunbol is the only thing that gets me through the day," he says.

Tunbol is not without its social stigmas, and men like Dughaish are sometimes referred to as "Tunbol people," by others. Ramzy Qasim, 34, from Taiz, says that many in his family don't support his habit. Whenever they want to upset him, they tell him "go get some Tunbol," as a means of putting him down.

Like all drugs, Tunbol has negative side-effects, the least serious one being the increased generation of saliva, causing many Tunbol chewers to spit. Ahmad complains that he has set up a series of barrels in his shop for users to spit into, but that few choose to use them. Instead they spit on the street outside the shop he says, "dirtying up the sidewalks."

Dr. Fathi Mansur a dental and gum health specialist in Sana'a, says that saliva produced while chewing Tunbol is usually brick-red, and may temporarily alter the color of a user's mouth, lips, and gums, in addition to staining the teeth, causing them to become orange-brown. However the true danger, Mansur says, is the potential for Tunbol to cause users teeth to rot, to cause blisters in the gums, and, in worst case scenarios, the potential for users to contract oral and esophageal cancer.

(photo by Mohammad Al-Samawi)

(photo by Mohammad Al-Samawi)

(photo by Mohammad Al-Samawi)

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Publication:Yemen Times (Sana'a, Yemen)
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Dec 2, 2014
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