In my last blog I wrote a little about our trip to Sana’a. Today, Yemen has worse problems than qat, and if anyone could get hold of some, I wouldn’t blame them for chewing it. Again I’ll use excerpts from Voice of a Voyage: Rediscovering the World During a Ten-year Circumnavigation to tell this story.
“The national pastime of Yemen has become [now, the verb tense should probably be ‘was’] the chewing of qat, much to the destruction not only of the individuals who chew it, but of the country itself. Qat (pronounced like a cross between gat and got with a bit of a cough thrown in) is a leaf that is chewed until it becomes a golf-ball-size wad inside the cheek, causing one to spit a lot. It is mildly addictive and contains alkaloid stimulants with amphetamine-like properties, and has various possible side effects including digestive disorders, malnutrition, cancer, and insomnia. It isn’t illegal, as alcohol is, because qat is natural. It’s been around for centuries, but never used to the extent it has in recent years.
Spice seller with a cheek full of qat.
At one checkpoint [on our road trip to Sana’a], the officer with cheek full of qat, peered into our ramshackle station wagon, “Ah, I see you have five tourists here. Very good.”
“No, sir, there are only four here,” Abdullah [our guide] told him.
“What, four? I see five. I count again. See, I am right, five of you, just like your pass says. OK to go. Safe ahead on this road.”
We had a laugh about it along with Abdullah, who was quite opposed to qat and expressed to us his worry about the impact on his country. The truth is, it’s a tragic situation.
A young boy weaver with a cheek full of qat. Photo by Lillian Duckworth S/V Tagora.
Ahead of us, in the blowing sand we saw a marvelous bare tree decorated, or so it seemed, with many different colors. We couldn’t make out what it was until we got closer. My God, it was a plastic bag tree! Caught in its many tiny branches and twigs were multiple colored small bags, the kind qat is sold in. The tree and the ground for miles were littered with green, pink, purple, and clear cheap little bags—qat litter.
Catha edulis grows in the hillside and mountain areas over three thousand feet, and its potency lasts less than forty-eight hours. This creates a qat trail: early in the morning, the leaves of this shrub, sometimes as big as a tree, are picked and loaded into trucks and an assortment of vehicles that then make a mad dash for the cities. Once there, each driver heads to the vendors he supplies in the various public markets. Waiting impatiently, the crush of buyers descends on the small stalls. One day, I almost got knocked down as I was unknowingly in the way between the qat seller and the rush of buyers. Quickly the leaves are gone, and soon most Yemenis have a cheek full of qat.”
More on qat, water, and national addictions next time.