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Chewing the Khat: A Lumpy Dud

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 12, 1997; Page B01

It was an hour into my first khat chew, and so far the experience had been something of a letdown. I was not euphoric, or even mildly lightheaded. God was nowhere in sight. The dominant sensation, in fact, was of sore gums and a painfully distended cheek. "How much longer?" I asked my Yemeni traveling companions. "Wait until sunset," they promised. "You'll see."

I looked at my watch. Sunset was at least three hours away. My enthusiasm waning, I stripped off another bunch of bitter-tasting leaves from the branches I cradled in my lap, then added them to the already formidable wad inside my right cheek. Slowly I resumed my chewing.

Needless to say, this was all in the name of field research.

A leafy plant whose stimulative properties have been likened to that of a mild amphetamine -- or perhaps a double espresso -- khat is both ubiquitous and legal in Yemen, a remote and beguiling land of mud-brick skyscrapers and fierce mountain tribesmen whose fashion accessories tend toward curved daggers and Kalashnikov assault rifles. Khat is a dominant feature of Yemeni social life, at least for men, who typically spend their afternoons in hours-long khat sessions with friends.

Most Yemenis say khat facilitates problem-solving within tribes -- such as negotiating "blood money" to be paid as compensation to families of murder victims -- and helps sustain Yemen's unique brand of consultative democracy. Western visitors, including foreign correspondents, tend to parrot this line, describing khat-chewing as a custom that is no more harmful -- indeed, perhaps less so -- than cocktail hour back home.

But among educated Yemenis, especially women, khat increasingly is seen as a drain on valuable human, agricultural and financial resources. That would be troubling in any country, but it is especially so in Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, with an average per capita income of $341.

"It is becoming a social sickness," said Undersecretary of Information Amat Aleem Sosowa, the highest-ranking woman in Yemen's government. "I usually boycott such settings."

Khat is used by the lowliest goatherd and the loftiest government minister. It defines the rhythms of the day. Government offices typically close at 2 p.m., allowing plenty of time for the afternoon chew. In Sanaa's old Jewish quarter, site of one of the busiest khat markets, buyers purchase their khat in plastic bags, then loop the bags over the handles of their daggers, called jambiyas, as they make their way through ancient alleys to khat-chewing sessions in private homes.

There they sprawl on cushions, puffing on water pipes or cigarettes and sipping from water bottles to combat the dehydration that is one of khat's side effects. Conversation, which flows rapidly at the outset, wanes as the khat begins to take effect and the chewers approach "Solomon's hour," an introspective time that is often accompanied by the playing of the oud, a traditional stringed instrument. The typical session lasts from three to four hours, after which the chewer spits out his wad of khat-mulch and goes home.

"We do a lot of official work while chewing khat," said Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdel-Karim Iryani. "To say that this national pastime, which is 600 years old, would be affected significantly by any intellectual backlash, I doubt it. Many intellectuals, including university professors, chew khat. You know it is the best material for staying up all night and studying."

Iryani, who has a doctorate in biogenetics from Yale University, admits to qualms about the use of precious farmland and groundwater for growing khat instead of fruits, grains and vegetables. But he added, "The economics of khat are so huge that mere preaching is not going to work. . . . It is the most profitable cash crop in the country."

It's also a key component of Yemeni politics. Because candidates typically do most of their campaigning at khat sessions, political parties spend a fortune supplying khat to their constituents, according to Iryani, who also serves as secretary general of the ruling People's General Congress. "Without khat, you are not campaigning," he said.

During a visit one afternoon to Al Moaydib, a farming village near the mountain city of Taiz in southern Yemen, I interrupted one such session at the home of the local sheik, a candidate for Iryani's party in the parliamentary elections held April 27. Stepping over plastic-wrapped bags of khat branches -- the leaves must be consumed within 24 hours or they lose their potency -- I entered a smoke-filled room occupied by about 30 Yemeni men. Dressed, for the most part, in polyester sport coats over belted cotton robes -- the Yemeni national uniform -- the sheik's constituents sprawled languorously on cushions. Kalashnikovs and discarded branches lay scattered on the floor.

The men barely acknowledged my presence; clearly, Solomon's hour had arrived. Feeling decidedly out of sync with the prevailing mood, I soon left.

The experience recalled a conversation several days earlier with Shada Mohammed, a lawyer in the Yemeni capital. The 27-year-old Mohammed spent four years working for one of Yemen's best-known lawyers. Because she is a woman, Mohammed was excluded from the daily khat sessions where the lawyer and his male partners conducted much of their business. "This is a big problem for a woman," she said. "It's not nice when there are 20 men sitting on the floor and I have to go in and ask about cases." So Mohammed quit to start Sanaa's first women's law firm with two partners.

Women are not the only critics. Several years ago, a former minister of education, Ahmed Jaber Afeef, joined a handful of Yemeni intellectuals in starting Yemen's first anti-khat society. Among other things, the group urged the government to ban khat from its offices and institute an afternoon shift so that civil servants would have an alternative to khat sessions.

"We failed drastically," said Afeef. "Everything goes for khat," he complained. "What would you think of a society where the elderly and the young sit idly for five consecutive hours each and every day? . . . The whole state chews khat."

Khat's central place in the lives of ordinary Yemenis was apparent during two days of conversations with Fayez, a 26-year-old Army lieutenant who moonlights as a driver for one of Yemen's tour companies. A swashbuckling type who wore a 9mm pistol on his hip, Fayez uses khat to stay awake on long drives. He starts chewing in the morning and keeps it up until sunset. Even when not on the road, he said, he chews khat daily with friends, sometimes while watching "Rambo" movies on his videocassette recorder. "By the time it is close to sunset, everybody has reached Nirvana and they want to live in their own sea of thoughts," he said.

Fayez estimated the daily cost of his habit at 700 riyals, about $6, or far more than he could afford if he had to rely solely on his army pay of 6,000 riyals ($50) per month. Fayez acknowledged that his khat-chewing leaves him little time for his wife and three children. The only exception is on Thursday evenings, when he and his wife chew khat together. "She doesn't like it that much, but she feels comfortable because the khat keeps me next to her," he said.

Like most khat chewers, Fayez said, he rarely eats dinner -- khat is a well-known appetite suppressant -- and the aftermath of his khat sessions are often tainted by irritability and even paranoia. "My grandfather used to say, `When you chew khat, you are on top of the planet, but after you spit it out, the planet is on top of you,' " he sighed.

On the basis of my own limited experience -- during the long drive from Taiz back to Sanaa -- I tend to share the doubts about khat. True, eventually my senses seemed sharper and somehow the twisting mountain road, with its lack of guardrails and precipitous drops, began to seem less life-threatening. But four hours of masticating what looked like hedge clippings seemed a high price to pay. From now on, I'm sticking to beer.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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