Monday, January 22, 2007

Chewin' The Qat

A casual visitor to Yemen may be forgiven for thinking there is a horrible cheek tumour epidemic going around amongst the male population (possibly also the female one, but due to the almost universal wearing of the veil it's hard to tell) of the country. Many men, and even some young boys, can be seen with sizeable lumps in one of their cheeks. If one were to look more closely - and I wouldn't recommend it - one would realise that the protrusions are produced by a mashed bolus of vegetable matter. This, is qat. The leaf of the qat plant contains a mild stimulant and is the drug of choice here in Yemen (and, from what I hear, in Ethiopia and Somalia too) where everybody walks around clutching a small plastic bag of qat sprigs wherever they go. For many men the afternoon is given over to chewing qat, during which time they make even less sense than usual. But that's OK because you probably don't want to be talking to somebody who's chewing qat. Not because of the psychological effects of the drug, but what with the flecks of bilious green spittle around their mouths (and in their beards) and gobs of ectoplasm churning behind their teeth, qat chewers are not a pretty sight. They continue to give me flashbacks of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. In the mornings as you walk the quiet streets of the city you can also spot the tell tale little mounds of used qat on the pavement, looking like neat piles of composted grass clippings.

Qat is huge in Yemen. You can find it being sold everywhere on the streets, you don't even need to get out of your car to buy it as street urchins man most busy traffic junctions with bundles of the stuff. As much as half of all agricultural land is given over to growing it, a statistic that can easily be believed when one ventures out into the outskirts of Sana'a where qat plantations abound. It's not hard to understand either when a kilo of qat can sell for $10 whereas the same quantity of oranges, for example, will get you only a tenth of that. It has become something of a social problem as well since some users are spending over 25% of their income on qat alone, not something that people in this relatively poor country can afford.

It is impossible to spend any amount of time here without being offered some, and in the spirit of exploration and discovery I felt obliged to give it a try to see what all the fuss is about. My dalliance with the plant didn't last long as I found the taste far too bitter for my sensitive taste buds and so I spat the leaves out before getting the desired effect. Such seems to be the way with me, be it peyote in Mexico, coca in Peru, paan in the Subcontinent or opium in Iran (I could also mention cigarettes), the unpleasantness just doesn't seem to be worth it. I think I'll just stick to beer.

P.S. For those of you who are keen Scrabble players qat is also a very useful way of getting rid of that pesky Q when there are no U's available.

1 comment:

Ex-Shammickite said...

Thanks for the Scrabble tip, I'll store that for future reference! Another question: Did you intend to stay away from home for so long when you started your travels? And do you have an estimated return date yet?