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Qat-heads

September 15, 2009

Oh, one more thing you should know about Yemen: everybody chews qat. Before I arrived here, my familiarity with qat didn’t extend much beyond it’s usage as a Scrabble word, but it didn’t take long for Haley and me to get invited to a chew and learn a thing or to about the “talkative drug”. Qat is a waxy green leaf that has been used as a mind-altering substance around this part of the world for centuries.  Well, “mind-altering” might be bit too strong. Though foreigners and Yemenis alike can wax philosophical about the qualities of a good qat high, as far as drugs go, it’s a pretty mild one. It is a pretty serious addiction here, though, and men and women spend whole afternoons (or evenings during ramadan) in the diwan– a large sitting room- biting off leaves until the bulges in their cheeks reach cartoonish, Popeye-like proportions. After hours of chewing, Yemenis manage to get a good buzz going, but it’s effect on me was similar to that produced by drinking a lot of caffeine -minus the inevitable caffeine crash. The taste was not especially appealing, but not offensive either; like bitter sugar snaps, I decided. Haley and I would turn to each other periodically throughout the evening like two high-school kids trying weed for the first time- “I think I’m feeling something,”- but mostly I think is just made us better guests- more engaged, with longer attention spans. Even the terrible acting on the Yemeni soap operas that we were watching got a bit more enjoyable, and our friend Ali’s jokes about kidnapping us were, um, funnier… It was impossible to sleep after chewing all evening. I was up until 4:00 AM reading, studying Arabic, and writing in my journal. I’m thinking we should bring back a couple of trees to the States and start marketing it as a new study drug.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2009 5:55 am

    I like how everyone gets their own pattern for their comments on your blog. And also how I, like Paul (hi Paul, nice to meet you!), never knew the meaning of “qat,” but used it liberally in Scrabble. Is it anything like betel nuts, which is all over China?

  2. Austin permalink
    September 16, 2009 8:12 am

    “Qat” has also been a Scrabble staple for me as well. Q-word without a U? Brilliant!

    You need to bring some to Sakartvelo. Better yet, bring a sapling. I’m sure it will quickly replace samitchka as the oral fixation of choice.

    • Austin permalink
      September 16, 2009 10:13 am

      Sorry for the code speak:

      Sakartvelo = Republic of Georgia

      Samitchka = sunflower seeds

  3. Matthew Stephens permalink
    September 17, 2009 2:06 am

    Pauly– give us a little background on qat. How long has it been cultivated in Yemen? Is it grown on hillsides? Isn’t it true that coffee was domesticated in Yemen? Why are they fascinated with stimulants?

  4. Paul Stephens permalink*
    September 17, 2009 8:25 am

    I think betel nut might be an apt comparison. When I saw everyone chewing, it reminded me of the Bolivians’ cocoa leaf habit. Another thing I forgot to mention is that qat production uses an enormous amount of water, which Yemen doesn’t have enough of, so the national addiction may have some more serious repercussions than just wasted afternoons.

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