24 April, 2006

Qat: The Psychoactive Plant

Qat!I have never ever used any form of intoxicant or alcohol; but I have tried qat. Out of curiosity; not more than five times. A few times in East Africa and only once since coming to Yemen, in 1991 - which was my last taste of it. I can not say, I have chewed qat in the real sense as those who use it - do; but, I have tried it. And even if I have meagerly tasted very little of the leafy narcotic - I can say this: it is not worth it. It is not worth the time, the expenses and the pain. Yes, the pain.

Qat is bitter and has a very bad taste. That is how I felt it. Each time I tried it, I always felt very disturbed and loose my normal calmness; I also - always lost my appetite and sleep. Completely. And, even though I always tried just a few sticks: three to four at most; and yet, qat had such a bad effect on me. Chewing just a few sticks or leaves is not considered chewing at all; some, say - it is because I have tried to chew so little, that is why it effects me so badly. But that isn't so. The effects of qat are there for me to see - every day. The very bad and destructive effects of it.

Before the unification of Yemen, the Marxist south banned qat in Hadhramaut; but, since the early 1990s, with more freedom and liberalism - qat has gradually but surely become popular in Hadhramout, more so along the coastal urban areas; Mukalla in particular. Many chew qat every day, but most people chew it on weekends; Thursdays and Fridays. Before - the intellectuals and the educated avoided it; not any more. Women still distance themselves from qat; but, for how long? It is only a matter of time. And I can see how it is ravaging people and families.

Normally, a sizable portion of a person's or a family's income is spent on qat; I know of some who spend more than half their income on the leaves and the soft drinks and sweets that accompany it. When qat is chewed, soft drinks and sweets are a necessity - to offset the bitter tasting leaves. Each afternoon, it is normal to see men crowded in qat markets and then heading off with the leaves in plastic bags; plastic bags. One reason why the bags seem to be every where around Al Mukalla. After lunch - at home, along the streets and on pavements, in cars and trucks, under shaded places - the chewing starts. Once the chewing is on - there simply isn't much time for any thing else; least of all - for the family. Qat chewing is a very selfish habit; chewers prefer being with other chewers during the session, or being alone. The worse thing I have noticed about chewers, is that - when at home, they very rarely share the soft drinks and sweets with the family; not even with the children! And then there is qat's toll on health.

Qat, is rarely cleaned before chewing; and, unlike when eating normal food, the hands are very rarely washed too, before using qat. Even if the leaves are cleaned, the pesticides used during the cultivation will always remain. Then there is the lack of sleep and other bad side effects caused by the leaves; the chewers, most of them, will only mention the 'positive sides' of chewing. I know of no single positive side of qat chewing; except for it bringing people socially together.

But I know of its many destructive sides and negative effects: on income, health, marriage and families; and the Yemeni economy and environment as a whole. Worse of all: qat chewing is a bad habit; and like all bad habits - very difficult to break.

More on qat:
The "Rational Peasant"