Monday, 27 December 2010

Chewing khat!

Extract from The Time: 
By 4 in the afternoon, most men walking the streets of Sana'a are high, or about to get high — not on any sort of manufactured narcotics, but on khat, a shrub whose young leaves contain a compound with effects similar to those of amphetamines. Khat is popular in many countries of the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa, but in Yemen it's a full-blown national addiction. As much as 90% of men and 1 in 4 women in Yemen are estimated to chew the leaves, storing a wad in one cheek as the khat slowly breaks down into the saliva and enters the bloodstream. The newcomer to Yemen's ancient capital can't miss the spectacle of almost an entire adult population presenting cheeks bulging with cud, leaving behind green confetti of discarded leaves and branches.

Read more:,8599,1917685,00.html#ixzz19zJrwC5q

The khat plant is known by a variety of names, such as qat and gat in Yemen, qaat and jaad in Somalia, and chat in Ethiopia. Khat has been grown for use as a stimulant for centuries in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. There, chewing khat 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.

Khat 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 Sanaa basin are diminishing; because of this, government officials have proposed relocating large portions of the population of Sana'a to the coast of the Red Sea.

Khat consumption induces mild euphoria and excitement. A meta-analysis in The Lancet has stated that khat 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. The effects of oral administration of cathinone occur more rapidly than the effects of amphetamine, roughly 15 minutes as compared to 30 minutes in amphetamine. Khat can induce manic behaviors and hyperactivity.

All above were extracted from Wikipedia, you can learn more at:

Kindly note this part:

Individuals become very talkative under the influence of the drug and may appear to be unrealistic and emotionally unstable

Arriving to Sana’a on a late spring evening in 1998, high on the mountain, over 2300 meters of altitude, it is simply one of the highest capital in the world.
The old part of Sana’a is a breathtaking site, classified as a world heritage by the UNESCO and claimed by some to be the first inhabited city in the world for over 25 centuries with some constructions still standing tall for over 1400 years.

I remember reading this sentence by an English writer, Jonathan Raban: ''You could look at the walls of Sana'a for a year, finding more and more hidden meanings in them'.'

The next day, early in the morning, I took a taxi towards my old friend and client B. It happened to be the first day after he totally renewed his shop and transformed it into a beautiful modern-looking and totally out of space spot within the very old downtown area where all the old hardware shops are located.

Going to B office on the upper floor, I realize that the works have not touched this room where we usually sit. He explained that he insisted that renovation does not touch his sanctorum; nothing was done here apart from refreshing the painting of the walls.
Inside the room, nothing changed, his micro desk in the corner where he literally never sits and all around the room the beautiful oriental carpet and the floor sitting where we usually sit!

We had a regular small business every year with B, which never grew, for no particular reason; it was just like that.
With the passing years, you just get used to hearing explanations for why a business does not grow due to economy and other perfectly sound reasons. You just sit there, move your head listening, but not listening in reality.
It does not matter in which country you are, at least within where I travel, but the reasons are always the same, which according to clients are just very particular to one or the other country!

We just sat for the first couple of hours, consuming a non stop flow of glasses of tea which however you try, you simply cannot keep track of the number, discussing family, weather and everything one can imagine, just avoiding one subject, work!
Interrupted from time to time by B remembering something and shouting every few minutes to one of his team on the other floor to come to his office and giving him some instructions, I wait patiently until I can catch an opportunity to drive the subject toward work!

In the few previous times I have been here drinking the generous 10 litres of tea every time, he always tried to invite me to the daily evening ritual he has with his team after work.
At 17:00 when he is ready to close his shop, everyone gathers in his room, sits on the carpet and the Khat party begins for few hours.... Everyday, with no exception… And I always managed to find a good excuse to skip the ritual.
Today he made it clear that he will take no excuses: I am the first guest visiting him after the works finished in his shop and he would be disappointed if I did not celebrate with his team.

The Khat chewing has a special ritual, the khat are small leaves similar to mint, They presumably clean them well, put the leaves on a small tissue on the floor, wait for B to examine the leaves, taking a few looking at them carefully, smelling them, putting a couple in his mouth for the taste, just like a French taster carefully examining a 20-year old bottle of 1990 Sancerre Blanc!
Than taking more leaves till one side of the mouth is totally filled, then his team joins him and they just sit there for hours chewing and refilling!

No matter where you go in Sana'a, streets, offices, homes, shops there is just no place in Yemen where the Khat is not consumed in the evening, it is just like how smoking used to be here in Greece everywhere even in hospitals!

I remember the Yemeni president making so strong a point of Khat consumption that he had to threaten to fire any minister to forbid them from chewing khat during his meetings, and it just simply did not work.

To make things worse, an important part of the Yemeni traditional clothes is the Jambiya. Like one finishes getting dressed up, puts his watch on and goes out, the same goes with Jambiya; Yemeni just finish getting dressed up, put the Jambiya on their belt and go out or go to work.
Walking in Sana'a streets by night, although I know it is quite a safe place, just the idea of all those hundreds of thousands of people under khat influence ''unrealistic and emotionally unstable'', armed with Jambiya, is not particularly comfortable!


Sitting on the floor with my precious company which become louder with more leafs chewed, wondering if I should or should not try some khat, suddenly a hard knock on the door, I almost run to jump from the windows thinking it has to be a police raid! 
Than remembered that it is perfectly legal and it just turned out to be some other shops owners and friends of B celebrating the shop opening and I stood as everyone, lined up and got my hugs from every visitor on my turn.

Within an hour of our khat session, the room was absoluitely packed with almost every shop owner in the street in the party.

Hugging the last visitor wondering ''who is he'' we all sited again on the nice carpet with my mind still hesitating to  try few leafs myself, finally made my mind and took few leafs and start chewing like everyone, the taste is just like what u expect when u taste an unknown herbs but not really bad.

Few minutes and I started to experience this strange feeling that I should stand up and go hug again everyone as to say sorry that my first hug was less friendly to my brothers in khat!

Anyway I convinced myself that it is not appropriate to do so now and I will make it up for them when the evening end and will hug stronger!
As I was totally consumed by this thought, my brother next to me started a chat:

-Marhaba, he said
-Esm el karim ( he explained he did not hear my name well when B introduced me)
-Charles aw Charlie zay matheb! (Charles or Charlie, as you like!) I had no doubt that it will be Charlie...
-Ahlan Charlie, ana Walid ( welcome Charlie, I am Walid)

Again I had this feeling that I should stand and hug him for welcome, but thought better not and no more khat or I will be spending the night hugging strange people!
So I just answered in Arabic: Pleased to meet you

And we went into a very pleasant chat that to be totally honest, I cant remember anything from it! 

The evening went by with extra few liters of tea, more khat for everyone though I managed to get away with the few leafs I chewed but the environment was really friendly and joyful with around 22:00 people started leaving although it was to late for them as I have recovered from my emotional feeling and they did not get the warm hug I intended few hours ago!

B decided to invited me home for diner, I knew B for few years but never had this pleasure being invited at his home and generally though in general I prefer in my travel having a bite peacefully at my hotel or most often even just at my room, I knew being invited to his home is offered to very few foreigner and I did not hesitated to accept.

To be continued.....

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