Qat is an illegal drug in the United States. Possession of qat can lead to 30 years imprisonment in Saudi Arabia. But, in Yemen, it is used openly and is quite common.
According to one study, leaves of the qat shrub are chewed tin Yemen by 91 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women on a regular basis. Indeed, qat consumption is so widespread in Yemen that it is impossible to have much understanding of the country without some knowledge of it.
Is qat harmful? It is sometimes described in the Western press as a narcotic. The specialist literature on the subject, though, insists that it is not. It is an alkaloid instead, which has effects similar to, but less pronounced than, amphetamines.
According to Shelagh Weir, author of a book on the subject, “Qat is not normally addictive, although it has often been denounced on that assumption.” She also wrote that the role of qat “may be compared to that of alcohol in the West, but there is no evidence that it is as physically or socially harmful.”
These words of hers were published in an information sheet about qat which was routinely distributed to American visitors throughout the 1980s by the U.S. Embassy in what was then North Yemen.
The American diplomats there didn’t seem to think it was very harmful. And they knew that if you wanted to do business with Yemenis, you had to chew qat with them at their regular afternoon qat sessions. This is when most real business gets done.
The qat session, or qat party, is a well established social institution in Yemen. The session begins after lunch and continues until early evening. Everyone brings his own qat to the party. The party takes place in a special room called a mafraj. Men and women chew separately. The only women I have ever seen at a qat session were Westerners. Yemeni men seem to think of Western women as “honorary men.”
What are qat’s effects? It is reputed to suppress the desire for food, sleep and sex. This last claim is a little dubious, though, given that Yemen has one of the highest birth rates in the world.
Indeed, with effects like these, you might wonder why anyone would chew qat at all. But it does have some more positive effects. It helps create an atmosphere of bonhomie. It also creates the impression of enhanced mental acuity. While this may be something of an illusion, I have often been struck (although I was not chewing) by the intellectual tenor of the conversation during qat parties. Indeed, these conversations tend to be far more serious and focused than would occur among a group of people in the West after a glass of wine or a beer. Although conversations at qat parties often become quite spirited, I have never seen them give rise to aggressiveness Q as alcohol consumption can lead to.
So is qat chewing a curse that we should try to rescue the Yemenis from, or is it a benevolent social ritual that should be understood and accommodated? I do not know the answer.
What I do know is that as a result of visiting Yemen, I will always think of catnip as kitty qat.
Originally published as “Yemen: The Role of Qat,” Middle East Times (metimes.com), January 30, 2008.