Thoughts on qat chewing [Archives:2006/998/Culture]

November 13 2006

Nisreen Shadad
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Qat chewing is a popular social pastime in Yemen. Numerous reports and articles have been written about this habit, but there hasn't been much about what goes through people's minds as they chew or what it does for them.

Qat is a natural stimulant from the Catha edulis plant found in flowering evergreen trees or large shrubs growing in East Africa and Southern Arabia. Reaching heights of 10 to 20 feet, its scrawny leaves resemble withered basil. It originated in Ethiopia and spread until its use covered Kenya, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Uganda, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Arabia, the Congo, Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) and South Africa.

Most Yemeni men, women and even children chew qat and it plays a dominant role in celebrations, marriages and political meetings. Of course, qat's effects are difficult to quantify, since its leaves are a non-standardized material, the potency of which depends on freshness and origin, and there are certainly differences in the speed of the effects between chewers with varied mastication processes.

International organizations were confronted with the problems associated with qat as early as 1935, when the League of Nations advisory committee on dangerous drugs trafficking discussed two technical reports on the subject.

Through the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs, international attention once again was directed to the nature and extent of qat usage, with the commission's laboratory reinvestigating qat's chemical composition in 1971.

Such studies led to isolating an alkaloid from qat leaves that's chemically similar to amphetamine and for which the name cathinone was suggested. It also was observed that, to a certain extent, cathinone content correlated with qat's market price.

Regular chewing can cause medical problems associated with the mouth and digestive tract, leading to inflammation and secondary infections. Evidence suggests that excessive qat use can cause psychological problems like depression and anxiety leading to drug-induced psychosis. Additionally, there have been reports of qat chewers being poisoned due to inappropriate use of agricultural fertilizers. There's also some evidence of increased risk of mouth cancer.

In the minds of qat chewers

Since most behavior and actions are triggered by thought, qat chewers have varied explanations as to why they adopt the habit, relating the practice to their social structure, health and mindset. Considering the thoughts they come up with, one can't imagine the types of things qat chewers are thinking.

Most who chew qat confirm its general unimportance, but they often need it to 'burn the midnight oil' and become empowered.

Teacher and a mother of three, Umm Ahmed Yahya, says, “Qat causes me to lose my grip on my time and money, but because I have a lot of work, I need it to give me energy.” Abdu Hassan also believes qat isn't important, but he chews it to stay up at night.

According to 40-year-old mother and tailor Safia Abdullah and her sister Mariam, qat is only a stimulant. “While chewing, qat anesthetizes my body's pain, as I suffer backaches requiring me to lie down sometimes. But I can sit painlessly while chewing,” Mariam noted.

“Qat is zift [meaning filthy],” housewife Dawla declares. Though she knows qat's harmful affects, she still chews it to energize her to do what she needs.

Children also have joined the qat chewing club, although some believe qat doesn't give them anything. “Qat isn't that important to me, so I'll never chew it in the future unless there's a special occasion,” 12-year-old Maher Hamed says.

However, many children are unaware of their reasons for chewing qat. “Everyone chews, so I do too,” says 15-year-old Mohammed Taher, a worker at a buffet. Though fellow buffet worker Maher Al-Aamri chews qat because it's a tradition and it relaxes him, he admits, “I really don't know the real reason why I chew.” Like others, Indian restaurant manager Joseph believes qat wastes time and money, but he has chewed it for the experience.

Others confirm qat's insignificance in Yemeni society as a whole; however, they believe its benefits go beyond keeping one awake and empowering. “Undoubtedly, qat serves a particular segment of society – qat traders. Above all else, it's considered an alternative to drugs, so if we compare drug use in Yemen to other countries, we find that it's much lower,” army major Mohammed Al-Marrani says.

On the other hand are some for whom qat means much more. “I like qat. I like how it makes me feel. It helps me relax and helps me interact more with Yemenis. When I'm chewing, it helps me improve my Arabic,” American journalist Cole Estrada says.

Clarifying its significance for him as a writer, he says, “I chew when I'm working. I'm a writer and editor, so qat helps me concentrate and focus on my work. Qat also helps people be more verbal, so I'm able to be more expressive in my writing.”

Qat trader Khalid Mothafer says, “I like qat because it makes me feel relaxed and anesthetized.” Regarding its importance for him, “It's my job.”

The nature of ideas while chewing qat

Mothafer, Al-Marrani and Hamed all get grand ambitions while chewing qat. “When I chew, I think of studying hard and helping my parents. Besides, I feel I want to talk more than usual – with anyone about anything,” Hamed says.

For Estrada, “When I chew qat with my friend and business partner, we 'brainstorm' about projects we're planning – how to execute them and how to make them more comprehensive. I find it a very productive time.”

However, Al-Aamri describes such ideas as delusions: “They're simply sand castles.” Agreeing, Umm Ahmed Yahya says, “Qat can make trivial matters seem more complex. I remember the first time I chewed qat, the sorrows and pains I experienced from my childhood until now presented themselves before my eyes. I felt that I was very much in the dark and all of my family members hated me, so I stayed up that night just crying.”

Joseph and Abdu Hassan agree with Umm Ahmed Yahya in terms of remembering their past life, but Joseph adds, “My past life is presented to me as a movie with both sides – the hard times and the good times,” whereas Abdu Hassan remembers only his past problems.

“The ideas we have before chewing are not a far cry from the ideas we have while chewing, but if we're depressed, it makes us more so, whereas if we're happy, it makes us happier,” Safia and Mariam note.

T. Al-Ghurbani seems more interactive on this subject and when asked her thoughts, she says, “Yeah, you can't count the ideas. I think of numerous projects and ways I can improve my future life perspective and personality. Sitting with others is more enjoyable because we bounce ideas off of each other.”

Duration of ideas from qat chewing

Mothafer, Al-Marrani, Dawla and Joseph all agree: “After sleeping, everything diminishes the next day.” Agreeing with the others, Estrada adds, “I'm no longer afraid. When chewing is over, the urgency of the ideas we discussed diminishes. At times, you feel like you can do anything and you're very optimistic, but when that's over, reality sets in and things seem less likely.”

According to Al-Aamri and Hamed, such ideas diminish “after removing the qat,” while others say they continue only another 15 to 30 minutes.

Psychoanalysis of qat chewers' ideas

“Ideas differ from one person to another, owing to the quality of the qat and the chewer's personality,” psychology specialist Dhiya Fadhl says, “Qat activates thoughts one already has, with the nature of such thoughts reflecting their personality.

“Those who've recalled painful situations are those whose sorrows still reside in their hearts. In fact, they haven't forgotten their painful events; therefore, when something readily comes to remind them, they respond immediately. Similarly, for those who are depressed or happy, they become either more depressed or happier when chewing.”

Fellow psychology specialist Samira Muhsin notes, “Qat has a substance that affects the nervous system and subsequently influences people's thoughts.”

“While working and chewing, physical exertion mostly uses up one's energy, so thoughts decrease as a result. However, when alone, thoughts increase much more. When chewing with others, people usually discuss, plan and make decisions. The last part is chewing qat while one is suffering from psychological disease melancholy. Undoubtedly, qat increases his or her state and subsequently, the usual thought he has is to commit suicide,” Fadhl says.

Ahmed Abdullah, another psychology specialist, confirms the existence of such a state,

“For patients taking medication, qat neutralizes such medicine, thus further complicating the depressed state and reinforcing suicidal thoughts.”