Chewing Yemen's Paradise Leaves

Getting high on Yemen’s national drug.

A woman selling Qat

Illegal in many Arab nations, qat (or khat) has become virtually a national drug in some states such as Yemen and Djibouti. In Yemen, the cultivation of this plant has overtaken that of coffee, of which it was once one of the world’s major producers. Around 80% of the adult population chews the leaves - which induce a state of euphoria - and the market stalls of the capital Sana’a carry marketing slogans such as ‘Chew and relax, and success will come to you.’

Leaves from these qat trees in Thila, just outside of Sana'a,-are harvested and transported to Sana'a-to be sold
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Qat has been grown for use as a stimulant for centuries in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. There, chewing qat predates the use of coffee and is used in a similar social context. Its fresh leaves and tops are chewed or, less frequently, dried and consumed as tea, in order to achieve a state of euphoria and stimulation; it also has anorectic side-effects.

Qat use has traditionally been confined to the regions where qat is grown, because only the fresh leaves have the desired stimulating effects. In recent years improved roads, off-road motor vehicles and air transport have increased the global distribution of this perishable commodity. Traditionally, qat has been used as a socializing drug, and this is still very much the case in Yemen where qat-chewing is predominantly, although not exclusively, a male habit. In other countries, qat is consumed largely by single individuals and at parties. It is mainly a recreational drug in the countries which grow qat, though it may also be used by farmers and labourers for reducing physical fatigue or hunger and by drivers and students for improving attention.

A Yemeni haresting qat to sell it to buyers who will then sell it in the capi
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In Yemen, some women have their own saloons for the occasion, and participate in chewing qat with their husbands on weekends. In many places where it is grown, qat has become mainstream enough for many children to start chewing the plant before puberty.

Qat is so popular in Yemen that its cultivation consumes much of the country’s agricultural resources. It is estimated that 40% of the country’s water supply goes towards irrigating it, with production increasing by about 10% to 15% every year. Water consumption is so high that groundwater levels in the Sana’a basin are diminishing. One reason for cultivating qat in Yemen so widely is the high income it provides for farmers. Some studies done in 2001 estimated that the income from cultivating qat was about 2.5 million Yemeni Rials per hectare, while it was only 0.57 million Rials per hectare if fruits were cultivated. This is a strong reason farmers prefer to cultivate qat over coffee and fruits.

It takes nearly seven to eight years for the qat plant to reach its full height. Other than access to sun and water, qat requires little maintenance. Ground water is often pumped from deep wells by diesel engines to irrigate the crops, or brought in by water trucks. The plants are watered heavily starting around a month before it is harvested to make the leaves and stems soft and moist. A good qat plant can be harvested four times a year, providing a year long source of income for the farmer.

Harvesting qat from a field in Thila, near Sana'a
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Effects

Qat chewers often describe a feeling of euphoria, passivity and increased energy and concentration, fecundity and experience an increase in libido. Interestingly, both enhanced libido and sterility have been documented. High doses may induce hyperactivity and, sometimes, manic behaviour.

A meta-analysis has stated that qat creates a pleasuring effect to the same degree as ecstasy. Individuals become very talkative under the influence of the drug and may appear to be unrealistic and emotionally unstable. It is an effective anorectic and its use also results in constipation. Dilated pupils (mydriasis), which are prominent during qat consumption, reflect the sympathomimetic effects of the drug, which are also reflected in increased heart rate and blood pressure. A state of drowsy hallucinations may also result from qat usage. Withdrawal symptoms that may follow occasional use include mild depression and irritability. Withdrawal symptoms that may follow prolonged qat use include lethargy, mild depression, nightmares, and slight tremor. Long-term use can precipitate the following effects: negative impact on liver function, permanent tooth darkening (of a greenish tinge), susceptibility to ulcers, and diminished sex drive. Those who abuse the drug generally cannot stay without it for more than 4–5 days, feeling tired and having difficulty concentrating. Occasionally, a psychosis can result, resembling a hypomanic state in presentation.

Khat Stall at Megatripolis Nightclub
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Demographics

It is estimated that several million people are frequent users of qat. Many of the users originate from countries between Sudan and Madagascar and in the south-western part of the Arabian Peninsula, especially Yemen. In Yemen, 80% of the males and 45% of the females were found to be qat users who had chewed daily for long periods of their life. The traditional form of qat chewing in Yemen involves only male users; qat chewing by females is less formal and less frequent. In Somalia, 61% of the population reported that they do use qat, 18% report habitual use, and 21% are occasional users.

Researchers estimate that about 70-80% of Yemenis between 16 and 50 years old chew qat, at least on occasion, and it has been estimated that Yemenis spend about 14.6 million person-hours per day chewing qat.

Many Yemen men carry newly purchased bags of qat on traditional daggers called jambiyyas
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Religion And The Leaf

Religiously, there is some ambivalence regarding qat. Qat is banned in Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf States because it is considered an intoxicant. In October, a Saudi national was sentences to a four-year imprisonment and subsequent deportation for possessing a single qat leaf. One of the first theological cases in opposition to qat was made in the 16th century by Imam Yahya ibn Sharif al-Din who likened the effects of qat to those of marijuana and opium which are prohibited intoxicants in Islam. In modern times, scholars argue against qat as a result of its bad consequences which are greater than its benefits under the rule of intoxicants, under the rule of bad and impure things and under the rule of the prohibition of harm.

In Yemen, the ulema have determined qat to be lawful on the religious grounds that it is not explicitly banned in Islamic texts and furthermore, serves to keep people awake who seek to stay up praying and reciting the Quran. A Muslim chewer in Kenya argued that if you chew [qat] and it makes you lazy and late for prayer, then it is bad for you…if you chew and are not affected negatively by it, then you can continue to chew it, as many committed Muslims do.

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Qat in the USA

In an investigation of qat in the United States, the Yemen Times reported that a growing number of ‘white Americans have been noticed chewing the qat leaf while at work or on assembly lines under the slogan of chewing tobacco’ as they believe it lifts their spirit, sharpens their thinking and increases energy’. Although most Americans have heard of qat, its usage among Yemeni immigrants dates far back to 1950 and has only increased as both immigration and the commodity chain has become more efficient. Upwards of $3 million are spent annually on qat, and that is just by the Yemeni community. Most qat destined for consumption in the Puget Sound first flies into England where it is both legal and considered a ‘vegetable.’ About 7 tons of qat pass through Heathrow airport each week, and smaller amounts are imported through other airports. Heathrow airport serves as a hub for the re-export of qat to the rest of the world. Because it is highly perishable, shipments are sent to the United States within hours of arriving in Heathrow and most shipments are made on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays so that stimulants in qat are still active for when consumers make their weekend purchases. Furthermore, nearly eighty percent of qat shipped to American soil usually passes uncensored and untouched, while in rare situations it gets seized.

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