All about qat sessions: what happens inside the qat chewing room [Archives:2008/1157/Reportage]
For The Yemen Times
During the daytime in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, its streets are filled with large numbers of pedestrians and vehicles, clearly reflecting an active and hardworking life. To the contrary, in the afternoon and toward evening, one won't see as many people hustling and bustling as in the morning hours. So, do you wonder what happened? Do you want to know why there are such active and passive times?
The reason is qat, which most Yemenis chew without resistance or objection. Many new qat chewers of both sexes are embracing this bad custom. The following is a description of the ins and outs of chewing qat.
In the beginning are the preparations and procedures for the qat session.
Generally, when building a home in Yemen, one must take into account a qat chewing sitting room, called either a mandharh, a mafraj or a diwan, which is nearly always separate from the other rooms or built on the roof with a small bathroom. The room shouldn't face south or west, but rather should face east or north in order to allow more sunshine into it.
The reason for this is because the warmer the qat chewing room is, the sooner the qat's affect upon the body. This is also why those who chew qat in their vehicles roll up the windows and would rather sit in a crowded space rather than in the open air.
Another qat rule is that wearing one-piece loose clothing, such as a thobe, a ma'awiz or a futa, is better than wearing trousers in order to get comfortable and relax. Some chewers prepare soft drinks and rose or other scented water to remedy a dry mouth from chewing qat. Qat sessions always begin in the afternoon and last until nighttime – or even until midnight for those who are strongly addicted.
Euphoria, then depression
Every chewer has a bundle of qat placed dearly and handily next to him or her. Chewers start slowly by wiping the small soft leaves with their fingers, throwing out the rough ones and then gradually inserting them into the inside of the cheek while chewing them slowly.
Over time, the cheek begins to swell with every additional qat leaf until the qat chewing room resembles a dentist's office filled with swollen cheeks – except that these individuals are happy with what's inside their mouths!
Qat chewers typically sit in an Arab seating arrangement, generally in a U- or an L-shape, where everyone faces each other. As they adjust to their position, they begin leaning to the left, supporting themselves on a raised pillow called a masnad or a matka. They generally begin positioning themselves by relaxing to the left side, switching sides from time to time.
As newcomers enter the qat room, one hears cries of welcome and jokes tossed about as chewers share their qat and comment on the quality of each one's qat. More wealthy individuals buy the more expensive qat, while poorer ones buy the cheap stuff, but at the end of the day, all must chew.
The session commences with chitchat and loud excited discussions about daily social affairs. Qat sessions are equal status occasions wherein one can find a minister sitting beside a driver and everyone feels they have the same right to participate in the discussion and to agree or disagree. Discussions mostly regard political issues or national topics, with all inhibitions fading away as chewers become more comfortable voicing their opinions fearlessly.
As the qat's effect starts to kick in, the chewer's imagination soars and his or her sense of reality begins to blur. Chewers then cluster into smaller groups where the sound of conversation gets lower and lower until there's complete silence in the room as each chewer becomes lost in his or her own thoughts.
By the end of the session, one can witness a quietness hovering over these chewers as if there's no one in the room. However, it's actually the effect of the qat causing each to think about his or her everyday circumstances or illusions. This is called “the hour of Sulaimaniya” (Solomon), particularly in the city of Sana'a.
The effect of the Sulaimaniya hour varies from one person to another. For most, it's about attaining a state of numbness and confused thinking, but for others, it makes the mind alert and they start getting ideas they didn't have before. It also gives them a sense of euphoria.
Additionally, many students chew during exam time because qat stimulates the brain with a narcotic substance called cathinone.
Others don't wish to be bothered, becoming very angry if someone disturbs their state of illusion. Sedate qat chewers often make decisions or commit to things they regret once they are free of the qat's effect.
Toward nighttime, depression gradually replaces this sense of euphoria. While there may have been heated discussions and even arguments during the qat session – especially at the beginning – all hard feelings are forgotten and chewers leave the session one by one, as if nothing happened. In fact, some claim the next day that they do not remember the arguments taken place the night before.
The qat session starts to wrap up by spitting the over-chewed leaves from the mouth. Chewers often spit the remains into brass containers created especially for this purpose called matfal, which literally means, “the thing into which you spit.”
During the qat session, some smoke cigarettes and some the water pipe, called a meda'a or shisha. When they conclude the session, they wind up the shisha pipe and put it away in preparation to take it back with them (provided they brought it from home).
Some take the time to gather up the dry qat leaves scattered around the room, but they mostly just leave them on the floor, creating a mess that the women of the house will have to clean after the men are gone.
However, some qat chewers prefer spitting the chewed qat on their way out, leaving green patches in the street. They also usually drink water to remove the bitter taste of the qat from their mouth. After spitting out the qat, chewers are accustomed to having coffee or tea with milk.
Among the effects of qat is diminishing or killing the appetite, so qat chewers typically don't eat large meals, particularly following a session.
But what about those who try to give up chewing qat after being addicted? There are withdrawal symptoms, one of which is known locally as al-razim in the northern areas and al-dukak in the south. Al-razim also is known as the more general concept of al-jathoom, which Arabs describe as being possessed.
It's a sort of nightmare during sleep for former chewers after not chewing qat, often including a feeling of being thrown off a cliff or something heavy placed on the chest so that the dreamer stops or has difficulty breathing.
Many times, these former chewers see people or beasts chasing them in the dream or they are wounded and scream for help without any sound coming from their mouth. Doctors explain this as a neurological effect as a reaction to being deprived of a chemical that the body was used to.
Some doctors reject the notion of a direct relationship between giving up qat and nightmares, maintaining that it's psychologically induced because the former chewer believes he or she should have such nightmares.
Others have a simpler explanation that when an individual stops chewing qat, he or she starts eating better, sometimes eating before going to bed, which causes discomfort while sleeping.
Ibrahim, a 22-year-old young man working as a school guard, talked about his experiences after chewing qat. “I once was chewing with some of my friends and I started thinking about a previous disagreement I had with my manager. I suddenly decided to go and do something to hurt my manager and take revenge.
“I found myself hiding behind the trees in front of his home and started throwing rocks at his house. I ran away when I heard people coming out of the house. Now when I think of what I did, I feel ashamed – but I still chew qat,” he added.
Mohammed, a 35-year-old insurance company employee, recalled, “I was at my friend's wedding, where the men chew qat with the groom in a huge qat session. I had a nice time and later that night, when the wedding was over, I decided to walk home, although my house was far from the wedding venue.
He continued, “I started walking endlessly without feeling tired. Reaching the bridge near my home, I stood there watching it, mesmerized for a long time until I decided to go home. The next day, I awoke with terrible pain in my legs and I felt so exhausted. I don't know what got into me to do such a thing.”
Khalid, a 38-year-old hospital employee, explained a fantasy he had during one qat session. “One day while chewing qat, I was listening to a radio program about animal wealth and raising livestock. Remembering that I had some money in the bank, I imagined that I used it to buy three sheep, which I bred until they were 100 and even 1,000! I then had to buy a truck to transport them.”
He went on, “My business flourished and I bought a farm where I began raising cows and chicken too. I was so good at my business that I started exporting cows to Holland. I even established a factory for milk and dairy products. I became so rich that I built huge houses, employed all of my poor friends and was known throughout the world.
“However, my dreams were crushed when the qat session was over and I realized that I must go to sleep so that I wouldn't be late for work the next day,” Khalid concluded.
Waheed, a master's student in media, described how qat ruined his thesis. “I had to write the conclusion to my thesis, so I decided to use qat as a stimulant. While I was chewing and revising my thesis, I had second thoughts about many of the previous chapters I already had completed, so I began deleting paragraphs and sections, even destroying entire chapters after deciding that they were unsuitable.
“I went to bed and awoke the next morning in a state of shock at what I'd done and hating myself for destroying more than a year's worth of work, especially because I didn't have a copy of my thesis! I vowed never again to chew qat – at least until I complete my master's degree!”
pharmacology of Qat
The stimulant effect of the plant was originally attributed to “katin”, cathine, a phenethylamine-type substance isolated from the plant. However, the attribution was disputed by reports showing the plant extracts from fresh leaves contained another substance more behaviorally active than cathine. In 1975, the related alkaloid cathinone was isolated, and its absolute configuration was established in 1978. Cathinone is not very stable and breaks down to produce cathine and norephedrine. These chemicals belong to the PPA (phenylpropanolamine) family, a subset of the phenethylamines related to amphetamines and the catecholamines epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Both of Qat's major active ingredients – cathine and cathinone – are phenylalkylamines, meaning they are in the same class of chemicals as amphetamines. In fact, cathinone and cathine have a very similar molecular structure to amphetamine.
When Qat leaves dry, the more potent chemical, cathinone, evaporates within 48 hours leaving behind the milder Schedule IV chemical, cathine. Thus, harvesters transport Qat by packaging the leaves and stems in plastic bags or wrapping them in banana leaves to preserve their moisture and keep the cathinone potent. It is also common for them to sprinkle the plant with water frequently or use refrigeration during transportation.
When the Qat leaves are chewed, cathine and cathinone are released and absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth and the lining of the stomach. The action of cathine and cathinone on the reuptake of epinephrine and norepinephrine has been demonstrated in lab animals, showing that one or both of these chemicals cause the body to recycle these neurotransmitters more slowly, resulting in the wakefulness and insomnia associated with Qat use.
Receptors for serotonin show a high affinity for cathinone suggesting that this chemical is responsible for feelings of euphoria associated with chewing Qat. In mice, cathinone produces the same types of nervous pacing or repetitive scratching behaviors associated with amphetamines. The effects of cathinone peak after 15 to 30 minutes with nearly 98% of the substance metabolized into norephedrine by the liver.
Cathine is somewhat less understood, being believed to act upon the adrenergic receptors causing the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine. It has a half-life of about 3 hours in humans.
Effects of Qat
Qat consumption induces mild euphoria and excitement. Individuals become very talkative under the influence of the drug and may appear to be unrealistic and emotionally unstable. Qat can induce manic behaviors and hyperactivity. Qat is an effective anorectic and its use also results in constipation. Dilated pupils (mydriasis), which are prominent during Qat consumption, reflect the sympathomimetic effects of the drug, which are also reflected in increased heart rate and blood pressure. A state of drowsy hallucinations (hypnagogic hallucinations) may result coming down from Qat use as well. Withdrawal symptoms that may follow prolonged Qat use include lethargy, mild depression, nightmares, and slight tremor. Long term use can precipitate the following effects: negative impact on liver function, permanent tooth darkening (of a greenish tinge), susceptibility to ulcers, and diminished sex drive. Qat is usually not an addictive drug, although those who are addicted generally cannot stay without it for more than 4-5 days, feeling tired and having difficulty concentrating.