Thursday, 7 December 2006

“The Flowers of Paradise” – The use and effects of qat in Yemen

Qat, or Catha edulis, is a leaf chewed mainly in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. It is chewed as a social drug, and its use has been compared to that of coffee in the West. However, its impact and influence on Yemeni life is significantly greater; on average, chewers spend between a third and a quarter of their total income on it. Around three-quarters of adults have it regularly, and as a result, it has become a way of life: as Rushby says in Eating the Flowers of Paradise, “In Sana’a, qat governs.” Qat is an essential part of Yemeni life, with social, economic, medical and religious ramifications, which will be dealt with in turn.

A Ritualistic Process

How qat is chewed varies, but a broad distinction can be made between how it is chewed in towns and cities and how it is done in the countryside. After twenty-four to forty-eight hours after picking, qat loses its potency and is less enjoyable to chew. It is therefore almost always chewed fresh, and in areas where it is grown, it is normally harvested, sold and used on the same day. Normally cultivated at high altitude, often at over one thousand metres, it is an impressive feat that it is transported with such speed and efficiency all over Yemen and the African countries where it is popular. Milich and Al-Sabbry hold that it is an operation that rivals the “ancient frankincense trade routes on which the Yemeni kingdoms thrived.” In towns, it is bought at about lunch-time, between eleven and one, from markets specialising in qat. Shops close and workers go home between two and three o’clock, as in cities such as Cairo, but after that the vast majority of men go to qat sessions. These generally take place in a rectangular room called a mafraj, adorned with pillows and rugs, usually at the tops of houses. They are hot rooms, as chewers that find cold air, even the slightest draught, lessens the effect of the drug. The chewers sit next to each other around the room and engage in conversation. Sometimes there will be a hookah pipe in the middle of the room which is passed around, or in some sessions they chain smoke. Often, but not always, they will follow a set format, starting with zabj, or, as Tim Mackintosh-Smith refers to it, “rapid banter”. This takes the form of gulling and telling jokes about others present. After, perhaps, half an hour, this “devolves into solo joke telling”. Conversation then breaks down into smaller groups and after some time ceases completely. A serious mood comes over the group and it is not uncommon for people become irritable. These sessions normally last about five or six hours. In rural areas, qat is chewed throughout the day, starting straight after breakfast, and everyone chews it – it enhances both work and play, and it is much less formal than the gatherings in the towns. However, qat sessions are not viewed as wasted time. They are a time when business can be done, poetry composed, decisions taken and agreements come to. It is not unheard of that politicians make important decisions while in the mafrag. They are highly social events; Rushby tells of a Yemeni who says, “I have not had qat for eight months…who would I sit with?” – implying that it is the social side of the session rather than the qat itself which is the important factor. Although the sexes do not chew together (in towns), women’s qat gatherings tend to be more raucous affairs, with singing and dancing, than the pensive gatherings of the men. Furthermore, often when men go to chew their wife takes over the house with her (female) friends (but this is most likely a result of the men leaving in the first place).

Implications for the Economy

Qat has both positive and negative effects on Yemen’s economy. The average spent on qat by chewers is around a third to a quarter of their income and it is therefore no surprise that the economy suffers. In addition to that, the effects of qat induce sleeplessness and fatigue, and this results in a far less productive workforce; in 1973 a study estimated that over four billion working hours were lost to qat in one year (although this is disputed by Yemenis – as a qat session is not viewed as merely time wasted). However, for qat farmers, who are really only concerned with the internal economics, those that affect them, their crop is by far the most profitable plant to cultivate. One half to two thirds of arable land is devoted to qat, simply because it can be sold in the market for about five times that of all other crops, even coffee. Furthermore, in 1992, when the price of coffee slumped, qat held its value. There is also no doubt that qat had a positive effect when, in 1991, the Gulf states expelled over one million Yemeni workers due to Yemeni support of the Iraq war. The demand for labour in the qat industry was so high that the majority of the migratory workers were absorbed into it, and few become unemployed. The main problem with farmers preferring to grow qat over other crops is that it discourages foreign investment – the crop is rarely exported – and so has an adverse effect on the economy. It is also true that it has “undoubtedly stabilized the rate of rural-to-urban migration” to the 7% it is now, due to the labour required in rural areas on plantations and farms. There is little risk involved for farmers as the demand for the leaf is always high – it was estimated that $2 million each day are spent on the leaf in Yemen alone, in a country when public debt totals $5.437 million and where 45.2% of the population live below the poverty line. Weir argued that “the crux of the matter is that people do not pay as little as they can [for qat], but as much as they can afford”. The process whereby qat is taken all over Yemen within twenty-four hours is hugely complex and efficient, especially for such a mountainous, underdeveloped nation and it has been said that if this network was “ever applied to something other than qat, Yemen might suddenly find itself in much better economic condition”.

Effects on Health

Qat’s effects on health are subtle, and arguably significant, but this is often disputed. Its effects are comparable to those of amphetamine, but it is classified in its own group by the World Health Organization. At the start of a session it induces euphoria, this begins after about fifteen minutes, and the ‘high’ is usually reached after three hours of chewing. Soon after, melancholy, depression, and fatigue set in. These effects can last up to twenty-four hours (which has a detrimental effect on the workforce the following day). The incidence of heart-attacks among qat chewers in Yemen is around 49% higher than those who do not chew, but this is put down to the high correlation between those who chew and those who smoke. It is well-documented that qat causes inflammations of various organs, including the stomach; regular use results in gum disease and teeth sometimes to fall out; oesophageal and gastric cancers; hypertension in younger chewers; and it can also lead to a lower sperm count and impotency. However, there are also positive physiological effects of chewing. Kennedy and Hurwit argued that it had an energising effect on workers and students, and it also has a positive effect on the elderly, “In the villages, a great many old people, who…chew moderately, are still able to work in the fields”. This therefore has a constructive effect on productivity, but ironically it is cyclical, as the “fields” they are working in are most likely to be producing qat, which in turn (though contestably) have detrimental effects on productivity in towns and cities.

Religious Ambiguity

Although Islam dictates that alcoholic substances should not be consumed, there is much ambiguity over qat. The vast majority of other Middle Eastern countries, for example, Saudi Arabia, have banned it and the penalties for possession of it are comparable to those for cannabis. The words of the Qur’an that these countries use to justify prohibiting the leaf are, “And do not be cast into ruin by your own hand” – they believe that the negative effects of qat far outdo the positive ones. However, in Yemen this is disagreed with to such an extent that even many religious leaders, the sheiks, chew it regularly; perhaps because they are viewed as something of an outsider if they do not chew qat, and the majority of them do not want to be viewed as such. Even if the government did want to ban it, it would be virtually impossible task to complete as so much of the economy is based on it, and it is so deeply embedded into society.

Abdul-Karim Al-Razihi said that, “Qat…is the opium of our people. It is the green Imam who rules over our republic. It is the key for everything and it is central to all our social occasions. It is the unexplainable that explains everything”. This summarises the use of qat in Yemen succinctly; it is a phenomenon that few can explain, one so central to society that an extensive advertising campaign against it, initiated by the Prime Minister in 1972, was a key factor in his leaving office three months after it. Although many agree that it has adverse effects on health and productivity those Yemenis who chew it vehemently contest both claims, and with due reason: it is the very essence of their society – without it, Yemeni life would be less Yemeni. It is their defining feature. Those who want to be rid of it seem to merely examine the bare scientific facts, and therefore do not see that it is too central to society to ever be forbidden.


Eating the Flowers of Paradise – Kevin Rushby, Constable & Robinson, 1998.
Yemen – Tim Mackintosh-Smith, John Murray Ltd., 1997.