Khat (Qat): its Users, Effects and Impact on the Daily Life and Economy of Yemen

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khat plant

Khat (qat) is a mild stimulant that comes from the leaves of the “Catha edulis”, a small evergreen tree or bush that grows mostly in the mountains at an elevation of between 1,500 and 2,500 meters and is originally from Ethiopia. The tree can reach a height of nine meters. feet. The active ingredient, cathinone, is chemically similar to amphetamines. [Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic]

Khat (pronounced “cot” or “gaht” and also spelled khat) is chewed in Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Africa and even available in some European and U.S. cities. In Yemen, it is an obsession and a way of life. Khat is illegal in most Arab countries.

Khat use is legal in Yemen and has been officially sanctioned by religious authorities. The government does little to discourage its use. The president and other top level politicians use it; soldiers receive daily rations; and the government gets a large proportion of its revenues from khat taxes.

In the United States khat is classified as an illegal Schedule 1 narcotic. Cathinone extracted from khat and a synthetic version of cathinone—methcathinone—are sold on the streets of the United States in te form of a powder or capsule. They are much more potent than khat and more amphetamine-like and have been compared to cocaine.

Khat has been used for centuries in Yemen and the Horn of Africa by laborers in need of an energy boost and by men to pleasantly while away afternoons. According to legend khat was discovered by a goatherd who saw how energized his goats got after nibbling on the leaves so he though he would try it himself, He reportedly was so energized himself he stayed up all night, and being a good Muslim, devoted his attention and time to praying and studying the Qur’an. People on the Arabian peninsula have been chewing khat for at least 1,000 years. There are records of mystics and merchants chewing it in the 10th century. Khat was never exported like coffee because the leaves quickly lost their potency while coffee beans were easy to transport and kept their potency.

Websites and Resources: Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Arab Cultural Awareness ; Arab Cultural Center ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA ; Arab American Institute ; Introduction to the Arabic Language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia ;

Sharia (Islamic Law): Oxford Dictionary of Islam ; Encyclopædia Britannica ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Sharia by Knut S. Vikør, Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics ; Law by Norman Calder, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sharia Law in the International Legal Sphere – Yale University ; 'Recognizing Sharia' in Britain, anthropologist John R. Bowen discusses Britain's sharia courts ; "The Reward of the Omnipotent" late 19th Arabic manuscript about Sharia

Effects of Khat

Khat contains an alkaloid which act as a mild stimulant. It produces an alert, dreamy euphoria and quells hunger. It has been compared to drinking coffee, chewing coca leaves or bettlenut but is a little bit dreamier. Users also say its helps them relax and concentrate and think more clearly, plus it boosts their sexual prowess.

khat ready for chewing

Yemenis call khat “the flower of paradise.” One Yemeni man told the New York Times, “It is our whiskey! It is what gives us our power!” Another said, “Without khat, Yemen is nothing!”Users sit around and have dreamy, excited conversations. Describing the effects, a Yemeni neuropsychiatric professor and member of Parliament said, "Users tend to embark on long speeches encouraged by the false notion that they are treating their listeners to jewels of knowledge."

After about 15 minutes of chewing, khat users experience a feeling of heightened alertness. This lasts for about two hours. This is followed by about two hours of euphoria and that in turn is followed by a period in which users feels like a vegetable. Khat chewing suppresses hunger and users generally don’t feel like eating anything until a couple of hours after the khat has worn off. Many khat users never get around to eating their evening meal.

One khat seller told the Washington Post: “Everybody knows [khat] is of no good use. But there is nothing else to entertain us.” Women claim it doesn’t increase sexual powers. It kills appetites. Some people go into neurotic fits in which they do things like repeatedly fix the same appliance.

Khat chewers claim that khat chewing enhances their personal powers. Students claims it helps them study better. Politicians say it helps them make difficult decisions. Important business discussions often take place over khat. Tribal leaders say it helps them settle disputes and work out equitable blood money arrangements. Some have said the drug increases their awareness and understanding also claim, with all seriousness, that the world is flat.

Khat Chewing

Khat leaves must be consumed within 24 hours after they are picked or the loose their potency. Young leaves and shoots are more potent than mature leaves. The small red leaves on the top of the shoot are the best.

Khat users carefully rub and pick off the tender leaves and soft tips of the branches with their thumb and forefinger and pop them in their mouth. The leaves and tips have a mildly bitter taste and are chewed slowly until they form a ball in one or both cheeks. The ball is gnawed slowly and rolled around. Users get high by sucking on the juice without swallowing the juice or the leaves. Cheeks get numb. As is the case with chewing tobacco and betelnut, users periodically spit out the juice. Asher wrote: “They chew furiously, stripping the succulent green leaves from the stems with their teeth, while simultaneously puffing hungrily on cigarettes.”

khat user in Yemen

One user told the Washington Post: “First you clean it...Then you pluck the leaves off down to the stem. Don’t chew it straight away, just store it your cheek and let the juices flow. The effect depends on the type. Some makes you feel like walking till you drop. Some makes you feel like siting on your butt for hours.”

Khat chewing can be kind of disgusting. Sometimes the cheeks bulge out to a grotesque degree, a green slime forms around their lips, and the eyes get glazey and wired. Heavy users have greenish teeth and spit out the greenish juice on the ground or in spittoons or cups.

Khat Users in Yemen

Khat is great unifier in Yemen. The richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor chew it. By some estimates, 80 percent of men chew khat. About 50 percent of women chew it. Many children chew it. Old people with no teeth have it put through a special machine and eat their khat with spoons.

It has been said that half of the population of Yemen is high on khat on any given day. One Yemeni man told National Geographic, “A man can go for a long time without food and water—but not one day without khat.” The only region of Yemen where it is not widely chewed is Hadramawt, where it is too hot and low to produce good khat.

Users put the leaves in their mouth and slowly chew them into a pasty wad that extends one or both cheeks like a chipmunk. Some users have wads in each cheek that are the size of tennis balls. Such users often look scary and get quite intense. Their eyes have a glassy intensity and sometimes they chew their nails until they bleed.

Users claim khat is not addictive. One user told the Washington Post, “I tried to give it up but for three days I felt depressed and sleepy and lazy. You can chew khat and stand on a building 12 stories high...I have so much power that I could be a leading force for Islam.”

Buying Khat in Yemen

khat seller

Sellers at the huge Hasaba khat market in San’aa promise customers that all sorts of wonderful things will happen if they consume their khat. Foreigners are told they “will sing in Arabic like nightingales.” Vendors have signs that read things “Chew and relax. Success will come to you.” The khat from the south is said to be better than the khat from the north, which comes from big, bushy trees with lots of dry leaves.

Describing the scene at a khat market in Aden at 8:00am, Michael Asher wrote in the Washington Post: “Bearded khat traders” stand “among piles of shoots tied into bundles like coiled streamers. Trading is brisk, loud and acrimonious. Many of the men buyers and sellers are already chawing, their faces bloated on one side like toothache-sufferers.”

A bundle of medium grade khat, enough to last for an afternoon, costs around $10. Low grade stuff cost a few dollars. Buyers often place their bundles in plastic bags and these are lopped around the daggers that stick out of their sash-like belts. Khat that isn’t going to be chewed right away is sprinkled with water and wrapped in towels so it doesn’t dry out and then placed in plastic bags with holes so it can breathe.

The best quality khat in San’aa is sold at the Kuwait market on Agriculture Street. Bundles for an afternoon of khat chewing sell for $50 here. It is patronized almost exclusively by the rich who send their chauffeurs in BMWs and Toyota Land Cruisers to pick it up. Local people call the market “suq al-waratha wa al-saraq”, which loosely translated means “market of trust-fund babies and thieves.” [Source: National Geographic]

Khat-Chewing Ritual in Yemen

After noon prayer in Yemen, people begin shopping for khat and later gather with friends for a chew. By 2:00pm everybody has left work and begun gather for khat chewing sessions. During the civil wars, soldiers stopped fighting at chewing time. Chewing khat in the morning is considered shameful and decadent. Even so, in the morning people start looking forward to the afternoon khat session and begin making preparations. One Sanaani businessman told National Geographic: “Midmorning all my friends are on the phone discussing where to meet for the chew. Then they decide where to meet for lunch beforehand—that’s very important. Then they go buy their khat, with a lot of one upmanship about who is the best judge of quality and who can drive good bargains with the dealers. Then they go chew all afternoon before faunally heading home to their wives, who have been having their own chew.”

after noon, khat time

Khat-chewing is mainly done at home. Traditional Yemeni tower houses are topped by a large “mafraj” (“room with a view”), where people gather to check khat in the afternoon. The windows are low so everyone can admire the view while sitting on the floor. The “manzar”, a separate attic on the roof serves the same purpose. A typical session involves a dozen to two dozen men who sit around from the early afternoon to the early evening. Most offices close by 2:00pm so that Yemenis can indulge themselves on a daily basis. Many workers leave around noon so they can get to the khat market to get the freshest leaves.

Friends take turns hosting the khat-chewing sessions at their house. They sit on cushions positioned on the floor or upholstered seats set up by the walls. Describing one session, Noel Grove wrote in National Geographic: “The room gradually filled with some two dozen men. Quiet conversation mingles with the rustle of branches. The tenderest khat leaves were pinched off and popped into the mouth, to be chewed and sucked for hours.”

The khat chewers talk about all sorts of things as their the wads in their cheeks grow in size. They puff on cigarettes or water pipes, which is said to enhance the intoxicated effect of khat, and drink lots of water (chewing dries out the mouth and causes dehydration, water helps a person chew). Tough leaves are just discarded and tossed around whereeve the chewer happens to be: in his car, one the street. Rooms, where indoor khat-chewing sessions take place, are so littered with leaves, they look the nest of a female marsupial ready to give birth.

Khat Social Activity and Daily Life in Yemen

Khat is regarded as a social drug. Men usually chew with men and women usually chew with women. Sometimes husbands and wives will chew together or with their children. Children often take their first chew when they around eight. A Yemeni judge told AP: “Khat sessions remove all social divisions and bring together men from different walks of life.”

chewing khat on the job

The conversation is often animated at first and becomes dreamier and more introspective. When “Solomon’s hour” arrives the users often sit around quietly and listened to traditional instrumental music. One user told the New York Times, “By the time its close to sunset, everybody has reached Nirvana and they want to live in their own sea of thoughts.” Before the late afternoon prayer everyone spits out their wad, washes out their mouth, prays and goes home.

There is a lot of social pressure among men to participate in the khat-chewing sessions. Those who don’t indulge are regarded as anti-social and weird. Many users who participate in daily khat-chewing sessions have confessed they have little time for the wives or children. And, in spite of khat’s reputation as a social drug there are plenty of solitary khat users.

People, such as policemen and taxi drivers, that have to work in the afternoon—when everybody else is at home chewing—usually chew on the job. Soldiers walk around with big wads in their cheeks and a gun slung over their shoulder. Minibus drivers weave through traffic with glazed over eyes. . During elections voters wait in line with wards of khat in their mouth. In the afternoon many motorists on the roads are chewing khat. At weddings guest chew khat provided by their host. On flights into Yemen foreign passengers are sometimes given khat as a welcoming present. The easiest way for someone to make friends or earn valuable business contacts in Yemen is to host a khat party and pay for everyone’s khat

Khat Agriculture in Yemen

Khat is an ideal cash crop. It grows well in poor soil, doesn’t need a lot of soil, and can be harvested frequently throughout the year. Farmers who grow good quality stuff can make $1,000 in a single day and that is a lot of money in poor Yemen. High quality crops are guarded by fences and gunmen.

In the old days, khat was grown between coffee shrubs and other plant crops. These days it has displaced many crops. Coffee plantations, grape ardors and apple orchards have all been cleared to make way for khat plants. The harvesting largely is done by children who climb up the slim trees ad pluck of branches with leaves. Farmers that grow khat earn five times more per acre than they would if they grew coffee and 25 times more than cereal like corn,.

There are worries that too much land that could be used used to grow food is being used for khat. Moreover, khat is a thirsty plant that is soaks up scarce water supplies. In some areas, 80 percent of all the available water goes to khat plants. It is also soaking up shrinking aquifers In Yemen as a whole, 40 percent of all irrigated land is devoted to khat growing.

Reporting from Sanaa, Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Lithe men with ladders fan through the grove in the morning light. They joke and taunt. Hands quick in grit and shadow, they harvest the narcotic leaves that set this unsettled nation pleasantly abuzz in the lost hours between midafternoon and dusk. The men stack and bundle khat, a stubborn, flowering plant that can grow tree-high. The crop is hauled to market on trucks, motorcycles and the backs of boys who scurry along ragged roadsides, where girls, all but their eyes hidden by veils, pretend not to watch before vanishing in the dust. [Source: Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2013]

“"I've been in this grove as long as I've known myself," said Ibrahim Atheq, who says he's 23, but the lines around his eyes and the raised veins on his hands betray him. He rustles a branch and the air fills with ashen specks that glisten like strange snow. "No pesticides," said Walid Khamesh, his voice drifting down from a treetop. "Just sand and sun and water six months before we harvest. That's what makes the best khat."

khat fields

Khat Economics

Some feel khat has a positive on he economy. One dedicated user told the Los Angeles Times: “It’s like liquor and chocolate. So many people benefit from it: farmers, sellers, transporters, the government. You are not forced to chew. People are more productive with khat. They work harder, they get paid more. “

But when people are chewing khat instead of working, society doesn't move forward. By some estimates, khat accounts for 30 percent of Yemen’s GPD, a third of Yemeni family incomes and a fourth of the country’s work time. By one calculation, every day Yemenis spend $6 million on khat and lose more than 18 million hours of working time. Poor families often spend more than 50 percent of their income on khat, in many cases buying it over food.

Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Khat is the nation's most lucrative crop, but it could also be its demise, sapping resources and resulting in countless hours of lost productivity. Environmentalists predict that this parched country on the rim of the Arabian Peninsula will run out of water by the end of the decade. Khat cultivation siphons about 40% of the water supply and deters the planting of other crops to feed a population that faces increasing malnutrition, according to the United Nations, in what is already the Arab world's poorest state. [Source: Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2013]

Karen E. Lange wrote in National Geographic: Today, with increased urbanism, easier access to cash, and relaxed social mores, khat is taking deeper root...Khat’s fanning out too, flown daily to African and Yemeni expats in Europe, Australia, and North America while also entering Uganda and Rwanda. With greater demand and better transport— which gets khat to market in 48 hours, while it’s still fresh and potent-farmers are planting more of the profitable, easy-to-grow crop. In Yemen, the cultivated area has increased more than tenfold since 1970; in Ethiopia, khat has become a top foreign-exchange earner. “

Health Effects of Khat

A study by the United States National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that khat produced few serious physical or psychological side effects. One Yemeni man told National Geographic: “If done with restraint, it is a harmless social activity.”

The U.K.'s Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency listed the following problems with khat: heart disease, loss of sex drive, oral cancer, and psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and irritation. On khat’s pervasiveness, psychologist Michael Odenwald told National Geographic: “People chew it in the early morning, on the street. Children and breastfeeding women chew it.” In Somalia, Odenwald has seen abuse linked to mental-health problems.

Some doctors have asserted that long-term khat use causes psychological disorders, unpredictable behavior, temporary schizophrenia, prostrate problems, indigestion, insomnia, constipation, manic behavior, delusions of grandeur, and increases the chances of getting certain diseases such as gastritis and inflammation of the gums.

Khat make the teeth green and subdues hunger but there is no evidence that it is addictive or causes cancer. It also makes users tense and edgy and impairs physicals skills such as driving. Links to cancers of the stomach, esophagus and lymphoma appear to be caused by chemical fertilizers on the leaves not the leaves themselves.

Anti-Khat Efforts in Yemen

Some mosques and religious groups in Yemen have organized anti-khat campaigns. An anti-khat society was founded but had difficulty attracting members. In 1972, a prime minister who forbade khat chewing during working hours and prohibited khat growing on state land lost his job three months later. The government has done little because ministers and people with power chew it. Even though he was a regular user, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who took power in 1978, denounced khat as a “social evil” and encouraged his countrymen to come up with a more productive way to spend their time.

load of khat arriving at a Yemen market

To get rid of khat, a substitute cash crops is needed and another activity has to be found for men to fill their free time. Khat was made illegal during the work week in Marxist South Yemen. In an effort to boost productivity, the government has forbidden employees from chewing during working hours.

Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “A campaign against khat began recently, including the founding of the Organization of Yemen Without Khat, which is pushing for a law to prohibit children from chewing the plant. A number of high-profile weddings have banned khat at receptions, leaving guests bewildered and a bit jittery amid tables of cakes and juices. "I am anti-khat," said Saddam Kamali, a newlywed. "I wanted my wedding to be free from this plant that costs our country time, money and health." He said those attending the ceremony "believed khat gives them the state of being old, gloomy and sad. This is the condition many Yemeni live in during the long hours of chewing. Without khat, one can laugh, but with khat one becomes enslaved by boredom." [Source: Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2013]

Karen E. Lange wrote in National Geographic: “In the West, countries have debated whether to leave the leaf legal, like tobacco, or ban it, like marijuana. Khat will get you arrested in the US, Canada, and much of Europe. In the UK, for now, it’s perfectly fine.”

Khat in Modern War-Torn Yemen

Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times For many, chewing khat makes Yemen's heat, poverty, rebellions, terrorist attacks, power outages, Islamic fatwas and political turmoil bearable. It calms at first. But its stimulant qualities kick in and suddenly men with leaves bulging in their cheeks, giving them the air of agitated blowfish, launch into talking jags, full of opinions and viewing the world with a restless clarity that eludes them in the non-khat hours. "It is our beer, our drug," said one man, spitting out a sprig. [Source: Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2013]

“In harsh lands, rituals offer repose. By 2 p.m., when the sun beats cruelly, anticipation builds in ancient alleys and in markets, where men bicker and bargain, stems and leaves flying, money counted, and boys, like understudy botanists, learn at the elbows of their fathers. New deliveries speed in from fields on the outskirts and orders echo from behind the tinted windows of tribal sheiks whose utility vehicles disappear in blurs of bodyguards and dust.

“By Yemeni standards, the men in the khat grove do well. But these days their restive country troubles them. Chaos and violence between tribes, Al Qaeda, a mutinous army and political factions have all hurt business. Many customers don't risk the drive anymore to Sana's outskirts, even on Friday, the best day for khat trading.

khat growing among corn

“Some pickers wish that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the strongman who ruled for 33 years before he was forced from power by a popular uprising, would return to office. He's clever enough — his motto is "dancing on the heads of snakes," after all — and they suggest he could stage a comeback. The faces of others contort at his mention. "Saleh is a murderer," said Ismail Otebah. "We have to give the new government time." "In Saleh's day I made 100,000 rials a month but now a lot less," said Khamesh. "The revolution has done us no good. People fear for their security. I just want peace. Whether it's Saleh or whoever, I want calm."

“Another man sidles through the dust, raging against Islamists, who in Yemen, like in other countries of the "Arab Spring," are rising in political power. "They are a bunch of dogs," he said. "The Islamists are behind all that's wrong. Prices go up. Business goes down. We are a country deprived." He walks away toward a bundle of khat wrapped in a blue tarp.

“A loudspeaker in a minaret crackles; men and boys hurry beyond the grove and market, kicking off sandals, washing feet and faces, prostrating in the cool dim of the mosque. The preacher's voice starts slow, his deep voice drawing the devout back to centuries past when caravans wandered the Arabian desert. "The prophet Muhammad left Mecca to Medina," says the preacher, his voice rising and strong. "He was about to be assassinated. They wanted to scatter his blood among all the tribes. ... But he followed the order from God and God saved him."

“The story of intrigue and adventure around the birth of their religion soothes and quiets the men. By late afternoon, though, the tales have faded and men, bags of khat dangling alongside their traditional daggers, sit on cushions, chewing leaves, chain-smoking cigarettes and pondering matters less divine.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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