“No one in the world would desire to introduce the khat habit into civilized communities, where there are too many similar habits already”
American Consul in Aden Charles Moser
(Varisco, 2004: 115)
Yemen is endowed with energy, but unlike its regional neighbors blessed/cursed by ‘Black Gold,’ two major cash crops stimulate Yemen and its people. The first is coffee, a vital export commodity for an underdeveloped nation of nearly 18 million people ranked 153 out of 177 in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. The second is qat, which has the same ecological demands as coffee (Wenner, 1967), but dominates agriculture in Yemen to the point where the country is becoming ‘less and less able to feed itself’ (Held, 2007: 434). A mild stimulant, ‘closer to coffee than to opium’ (Varisco: 102) qat, is seen by some as an iniquitous drug that places tourniquet-like pressure on vital resources and causes chronic morbidity while for others qat is ‘a flower of paradise’ (Anderson, 1987).
A common joke in Yemen goes like this-when the government had had enough of qat and its deleterious effect on Yemeni society, it decided to ban its use. Because of the vital role qat serves in Yemen, a creative plan was essential for success. The government decided that such an innovative idea could only come about during a qat chewing session.
So ubiquitous is qat in any discussion of Yemeni culture yet so little is qat understood beyond Sana’a or Aden and within the growing Diaspora in the United States. Qat (Catha edulis) is both the taproot of Yemeni society and a contributing factor to the social and economic decadence that has made Yemen the poorest nation in the Arab world. Once serving a medicinal role in the Islamic world and China, the tender leaves and stem of the small tree/scrub are widely chewed as a mild narcotic, chiefly because its principal active components cathinone and cathine induce physiological effects similar to the stimulation of the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ (Cox & Hagen, 2003). In an increasingly transnational world, more and more Yemeni call the Puget Sound home and like other immigrant groups, holds on to their traditions and customs. Yemenis (and Somalis, Ethiopians and Kenyans) surreptitiously consume qat and are unfazed by attempts by the federal government to reign in on the market.
To ‘Sammy,’1 Qat is fundamentally about culture. Although he personally has only tried it on a few occasions, he can see both the positive and negative effects of qat on individuals and society. Van Schendel and Abraham assert that qat lies at the intersection of a ‘complex interplay of social, medicinal, cultural, historical, transitional and prohibitory economies’ producing something irreducible to the Western binary classification of illegal and legal (2005: 16). Like coca leaves in the Andes, betal in the Indian subcontinent and zakami in Nigeria, qat must be seen through the guise of cultural relativism. Most Yemeni chew in order to ‘enhance their speed and efficiency and to stave off fatigue and drowsiness’ (Anderson, 1987: 79) although Cox and Kagen assert that not only are working hours reduced when people are chewing qat but also that ‘working hours and possibly productivity can decrease when qat is not used, because of anergia and reduced motivation’ (2003).
Qat chewers often describe a feeling of euphoria, passivity & increased energy and concentration, fecundity and experience an increase in libido. Interestingly, both enhanced libido and sterility have been documented, but according to Jeffrey, who is not Yemeni but has tried qat on several occasions, mainly at the urging of his Yemeni friends, the suggestion that qat leads to impotence is laughable given the high birth rates in Yemen. People have also noted an improvement in their ability to communicate with others. Asked about these psychological effects, ‘Dylan’ joking explains that its ‘like Red Bull’ except it’s ‘the opposite of energy.’ He adds that some chewers also experience unpleasant effects during the chewing process, describing anxiety and tension. Unpleasant effects often follow the placid ones, including insomnia and a general feeling of apathy. ‘Sammy’ recalls how after chewing qat, he could not go to sleep and was ‘rolling in bed like a dog.’ Most often, the negative effects are associated with buying cheap sawti qat as opposed to high quality shami qat. ‘Sammy’ describes how in Sana’a, his friends would complain that the razem, a fictive Yemeni nightmare character was following him when he wasn’t chewing qat. Although many chewers praise qat for its effects, it should not mean that health concerns are minor. As Cox and Hagen argue, ‘low incidence may reflect the fact that…health facilities are lacking’ (2003) meaning health concerns are more pronounced than they appear.
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 (Gulf News, 2007). 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 (Varisco, 2004: 112). In modern times, scholars like A.A Al-Ghdaian 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’ (1983: 239), Anderson et al. argue that at least within Yemeni society, ‘the liberal interpretation that permits [qat] chewing…has gained the upper hand” (2007:3).
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, than you can continue to chew it, as many committed Muslims do’ (Carrier, 2007: 238). ‘Dylan’s’ personal experience has been that qat actually has the opposite effect. ‘When there is adhan, people don’t pray. They don’t want to stop the kharmaa (as they would have to spit out the chew for prayer) so they neglect prayer and just stay.’ ‘Sammy’ asserts that while qat is itself not haraam as there are no direct negative effects, the madhara (negative effects) makes it haram. If used responsibly, qat is no different than coffee and a frequent qat chewer is no different than a Westerner who decries ‘I need my caffeine today.’ ‘Sammy’ deprecation of qat rests on the squarely on fact that ‘people are poor, unemployed and need every penny.’ While there is no unanimity, use is ‘opposed by both orthodox clergy and secular modernizers–the first insist that, despite the absence of explicit mention in the Qur’an, qat is haram; the second blame the national pastime for low productivity and for keeping the population in an apolitical stupor’ (Naylor, 2007).
It is argued by many that qat has contributed to Yemen’s poor economic performance, which is seen as a major cause of emigration. Varisco argues that while qat has created a largely unproductive labor force, no one starves because of qat (2004). While this may be true, many have documented the depravity cause by qat. Weir has documented qat being produced at the expense of grain (2007) and because of falling coffee prices in the world market, there has been a wholesale conversion of coffee field into qat fields such that Yemen now has over 360 million qat plants (Yemen Times, 2007). This phenomenon though, is not just unique to Yemen and has also hurt Ethiopia (Times, 2006). ‘Sammy’ also notes alarming use of pesticides by nescient farmers unaware of their potential water contaminating effects. The Yemeni government, including the Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Dr.Mansour Al-Hawshabi considers Qat a ‘disaster having social and economic impacts on the Yemeni families’ adding that qat ‘has been strongly competing with the agricultural crops required to provide people with good food safety and narrowing the food gap in Yemen’ (Yemen Times, 2007). Moreover, qat cultivation accounts for more than 30% of water irrigation in a country that suffers from the ‘worst groundwater use in the world’ (Richards and Waterbury, 2007, 168). In a country where upwards of 75% of the population is linked to agriculture, the unsustainable use of water will have serious social ramifications (Financial Times, 2007).
Yemen’s economy is anemic, in large part due to the chronic morbidity found in a nation where anywhere from 60% (Held, 2006: 494) to 75% (Cox and Hagen, 2003) of men chew qat-
the figure can be as high as 90% in qat growing areas (Kennedy, 1987: 78). For obvious social reasons, qat use is less prevalent among women and only 30% of Yemeni women chew. Most importantly, qat use leads to fewer work hours and thus decreased economic production. This is ultimately connected to absenteeism which results in a fall in overall national economic productivity. While some defenders of qat argue that it increases performance because of it’s fatigue-postponing effects, such positions are specious and can, given the circumstances of Yemen, be seen more of a rationalization. It is not simply that qat creates absenteeism but rather, as ‘Sammy’ explained to me, qat use is also a result of chronic unemployment. ‘If you don’t chew qat, there is nothing to do. Better to chew qat than other things like chasing girls, drinking alcohol or taking more serious drugs.’
Very few people are mawalaee or addicted to qat. In the capital Sana’a, 78% admitted that they chew Qat for there is nothing else to do (Yemen Times, 2005). Kennedy asserts that ‘in the near absence of public entertainment and also the other institutional means for people to gather and interact, the chewing session has developed into the most important social form serving the ends of both sociability and the transmission of information’ (1987: 24) but as ‘Sammy’ explains, this ‘transmission of information’ often amounts to garrulous ‘backbiting’.
In a poor country where the GNP per-capita is $350, men often purchase qat at the expense of basic goods, indicating dependence although the dependence is psychological dependence rather than physical. ‘Sammy’ confirms Colbert Held’s estimate that qat can ‘absorb one-third of a low-income worker’s earnings’ (2006: 494). Moreover, real costs are even higher as qat requires ‘copious’ amounts of treats that are consumed before and after the chew, such as Pepsi (or the more proper pronunciation, ‘Bebsi’). ‘Dylan’ vehemently argues that ‘qat destroys your life. The man spends all his money on qat and his family [is] hungry.’ Even worse is when both men and women do it, and most alarming is when children are allowed to partake. One need not be a budget analyst to see the strain that qat places on the ability of the family to function.
Studies have made casual links between depression and qat (Cox and Hagen, 2003) and ‘Sammy’ described these symptoms. Because of the inherent morbidity and laziness that accompanies qat use, symptoms of depression are apparent. This depression is not physiologically caused by qat but instead related to the negative impacts on health and socio-economic conditions that chewing qat creates. .
The bursting of the Marib dam, an event recounted in the Islamic scripture, effectively ruined the Saba empire (Fouracre, 2006) and in Yemeni folklore is what precipitated the mass exodus out of Yemen (most Arabs trace their ancestry back to modern Yemen)(Swanson, 1986). Current emigration out of Yemen can be seen as part of the same continuum, albeit not as a consequence of abandoning God but by the circumstances and opportunities that arose in the postcolonial and postmodern era. Motivated by a desire to secure economic well-being and social standing, men have become, as Shalom Staub puts it, ‘Yemen’s chief export (1989: 77).’
The wave of immigration to the United States dates back as early as the mid 19th century, where Yemeni men mixed with fledgling Lebanese and Palestinian communities who also emigrated with the same motivations. Some Yemeni men even fought for the United States during World War I. The 1962 Yemeni Revolution and the lifting of quotas in American immigration policy in 1965 opened the flood gates and created a steady steam of immigrants into the United States. As my Yemeni contact ‘Sammy’ explained, once Yemeni got their foot in the door and subsequently got citizenship, there was no turning back.
Like in most places abroad, ‘Amrika’ is romanticized in Yemen, especially through the commercialization of Hollywood movies that paint it as a treasure trove. While there are great opportunities available in the United States, immigration has become far more difficult for those from the Middle East in the post-9/11 environment. To circumvent such restrictions, immigrants from Yemen use a certain degree ingenuity to emigrate. ‘Sammy’ calls them ‘cunning.’ Perhaps 30% come here under false pretenses and false names and once here, use the opportunity to bring more people over.
‘Sammy’ described how some men come here, receive citizenship, go back and get married, come back with their wives, legally ‘divorce’ their wives, go back to Yemen, get new ‘wives’ (perhaps relatives) who then come here and are soon able to do the same thing themselves. Understandably, a woman with an American citizenship is offered a dowry five times the prevailing rate by Yemeni men eager to improve their lot and come to the United States. This practice, which is common among most groups (inter alia Afghan and Ethiopian immigrants), can be seen as part of the human smuggling paradigm. ‘Sammy’ also told me about a friend, whose father had four wives and altogether, twenty-eight sons, seventeen of whom who became U.S citizen-the obvious opportunity to misuse citizenship has forced the American embassy in Sana’a to become one of the first to employ DNA.
Qat in the Puget Sound
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 that it lifts their spirit, sharpens their thinking and increases energy ‘ (Yemen Times, 2005) although it does not seem that chewing qat will catch on a scale comparable to other drugs because of how qat is administered (Anderson, et al. 2007). Although most Americans have heard of Qat, its usage among Yemeni immigrants dates as far back at the 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 reexport 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.
Although many immigrant groups chew qat, its use is restricted by federal prohibition. Qat contains cathinone, a natural amphetamine which soon decays into cathine, loosing 7-10 its potency (Cox and Hagen, 2003). The derivative cathine was banned in 1988 as a Schedule IV substance and cathinone was banned in 1993 as a Schedule I substance, classified on the same level as heroine and cocaine. Under the Controlled Substances Act, Schedule I substances are deemed to have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision (Cornell Law).
Although DEA officials contend that they are not after the small supplier but rather the large wholesalers, the truth is that just like all drug trades, the small suppliers are simply conduits of the larger suppliers. In a highly publicized operation known as Operation Somali Express, the DEA seized 25 tons of qat from an international drug trafficking organization that operated throughout the U.S. This one organization was responsible for bringing in 25 tons such that ‘they were importing every 24 hours, and the reason they were importing that was to get it on the street as quickly as possible.’ However spurious their claims (Naylor, 2007), the government nevertheless believes that qat sellers ‘may be using their profits to fund terrorism’ and justifies its prosecution on that. Terry Kellogg, the lawyer for one defendant argued that qat ‘is more like caffeine than anything else’ and that ‘if these defendants wind up in prison, then so should Howard Schultz’ (Los Angeles Times. 2006). Even after public outcry, two defendants received 121 months’ imprisonment and one was ordered to forfeit $10,000,000.
In a case closer to home, a six-month investigation, local and federal authorities seized more than 1,000 pounds of qat shipped into the Seattle area. As with Operation Somali Express, those arrested were of Somali descent. Anderson et al. find it notable to mention that in an increasingly globalized world, the qat market has ‘remained in indigenous hand’ (2007: 165). Detective Barry McColeman of the Tacoma Police Department recalls that in his 20+ years working narcotics, there have been no qat related incidents in Tacoma. Nevertheless, people are weary and rightfully so (2007).
‘You want Qat? Call ‘Samuel’.’ ‘Dylan’, a Yemeni student tells me. ‘Dylan’ admits to trying qat on several occasions back in Yemen but he has seen firsthand the injurious effects of qat. His family moved to the United States in 1991. After a year in Fresno (where qat is apparently huge) his family moved back to Yemen and during the rest of his childhood, he occasionally visited the United States until finally moving here two years ago. He admits that ideally, he still wants to go back to Yemen.
When asked about the relative ease with when qat is available in the Puget Sound, ‘Dylan’ admits that while no more than 20-30% of Yemeni men he knows do it, it is readily available. ‘About $30-40 for a bag, like a sandwich sized bag.’ A Palestinian teenagers describes the unpleasant effects of qat to a chewers teeth.
While qat plays an immutable role in the social construction of Yemeni culture, its benefits and harmful effects are found in the Diaspora. While many Yemeni emigrate due to the lack of opportunity in Yemen, immigrants ‘spend scarce funds on a luxury that only reduces their change of finding employment (Anderson et al., 2007: 177) in their new homes. Qat will invariably remain niche and because of the opportunities available to immigrants in the United States, it is unlikely that it will be abused on the same scale as it is in Yemen but as part of the growing global ‘illicit’ economy, it warrants out attention.
Al-Ghdaian, A.A. “Khat in the Shariah (Islamic Law).” International Conference on Khat. Laucanne, Switzerland: International Council on Alcohol and Addictions, 1983. 231-239.
Anderson, David, Susan Beckerleg, Degol Hailu, and Axel Klein. The Khat Controversy: Stimulating the Debate on Drugs. New York: Berg Publishers, 2007.
Carrier, Neil C.M. Kenyan Khat: The Social Life of a Stimulant. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2007.
Cox, Genice, and Hagen Rampes. “Adverse Effects of Khat: A Review.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. Vol. 9, 2003: 456-463.
Financial Times. “Middle East facing water crisis, World Bank warns.” March 13, 2007.
Fouracre, Paul. The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 1: c. 500-c. 700. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
GulfNews.com. “Jail Term Upheld for Man Who Carried Tiny Qat Leaf.” October 30, 2007.
Held, Colbert C. Middle East Patterns: Places, Peoples, and Politics. Boulder: Westview Press, 2005.
Kennedy, John G. The Flower of Paradise: The Institutionalized Use of the Drug Qat in North Yemen. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1987.
Los Angelese Times. “DEA’s Khat Sting Stirs Up Somali `Cultural Clash’.” August 22, 2006: 10A.
Mackintosh-Smith, Tim. Yemen: The Unknown Arabia. New York: The Overlook Press, 2000.
McColeman, Detective Barry, interview by author. (November 26, 2007).
Naylor, R.T. “The Somalian Labyrinth: To the Shores of Muqdisho: Usama in the Land of Qat, Clan and Cattle.” CounterPunch. January 9, 2007.
Richards, Alan, and John Waterbury. A Political Economy of the Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press, 2007.
Rushby, Kevin. Eating the Flowers of Paradise: A Journey Through the Drug Fields of Ethiopia and Yemen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Staub, Shalom. Yemenis in New York City: The Folklore of Ethnicity. Philadelphia: Balch Institute Press, 1989.
Swanson, Jon C. “Sojourners and Settlers: Yemenis in America.” MERIP Middle East Report, No. 139, Mar.- Apr. 1986: 5-21.
The Times (London). “A Wake-up Call to World’s Coffee Giants.” October 20, 2006: 8.
U.S. Attorney Southern District of New York. “Press Release: U.S. Announces Takedown of International Narcotics Trafficking.” Department of Justice. July 26, 2006.
-. “Three Members of International Khat Trafficking Ring Sentenced in Manhattan Federal Court.” Department of Justice. October 5, 2007.
Van Schendel, Willem, and Itty Abraham. Illicit Flows And Criminal Things: States, Borders, And the Other Side of Globalization. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.
Varisco, Daniel Martin. “On the Meaning of Chewing: The Significance of Qat (Catha edulis) in the Yemen Arab Republic.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 1986: 1-13.
-. “The Elixir of Life or the Devil’s Cud: The Debate over Qat (Catha edulis) in Yemeni Culture.” In Drug Use and Cultural Contexts ‘Beyond the West’: Tradition, Change and Post-Colonialism, by Ross Coomber and Nigel South, 101-118. London: Free Association Books, 2004.
WCCO. “Arrests Of Somalis Over Khat Stirs Controversy.” wcco.com. June 15, 2007.
Weir, Shelagh. A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.
Wenner, Manfred W. Modern Yemen: 1918-1966. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1967.
Yemen Times. “Qat Threatens Food Safety in Yemen, Minister Says .” October 22, 2007.
-. “The Positive Aspect of Qat.” November 17, 2005.
-. “The Spread of Qat in America .” September 5, 2005.
2 Comments so far
Leave a comment