YEMEN, COFFEE AND QAT
By Dr. Mohamed Elmasry
April 20, 2007
ADEN, Yemen -- If you are a coffee drinker, you probably know that
some of the best coffee in the world comes from Yemen. In fact,
"Mokha" (which has nothing to do with chocolate) was the first variety
introduced into Europe.
Mokha, or Mocha, is also the name of a tiny Yemeni town on the Red
Sea, some 100 km from the Indian Ocean port city of Aden, which is the
economic and commercial capital of the nation. Aden's natural deep
port was formed by ancient volcanic activity which created huge
sheltering lava mountains.
Back in the 14th century, Yemenis introduced what was then called
"Arabic coffee" to the world. It first traveled via European sailors
passing through the tiny coastal town of Mokha. The Arabic word
"qahwah" went through a number of spelling and pronunciation changes,
like "coho," and "cohoo," before ending up as the now-familiar noun,
But today Yemenis are not heavy coffee-drinkers; instead, they prefer
to chew copious quantities of a stimulating leaf called Qat.
Qat was first introduced into Yemen during the 15th centuries by
African traders from across the Red Sea and it has stayed ever since.
To get an idea of the pervasive appeal of Qat, imagine North American
pro baseball players on the field with their cheeks full of "smokeless
tobacco," slowly chewing between plays to draw the concentrated juices
into their bloodstream; many claim it improves their concentration.
Similarly, more than 80 per cent of adult Yemenis - men, women, young
and old - regularly chew green Qat leaves. Some indulge only in the
evening, some on weekends or days off; others all day long and even at
Believe it or not, an average Yemeni spends more on Qat than on food;
and Qat-chewing far surpasses smoking.
Yemen's anti-Qat lobby charges that even the country's famed coffee
trees have been uprooted in some areas, to be replaced by crops of
increasingly valuable Qat.
In his book, "Eating the Flowers of Paradise," Kevin Rushby describes
his experience of chewing Qat, "each day at three, climbing the steps
to a smoky room with a bundle [of Qat] under the arm; then closing the
door to the outside world, chewing the leaves, gently crushing them
with the teeth and waiting for the drug to take effect. No rush, just
a silky transition, scarcely noticed, and then the room casts loose
its moorings. 'Capturing moments of eternity,' someone once called the
subtle tinkering with time that Qat effects. After two years, I no
longer knew if life was good because of Yemen or because of Qat."
Today, many tourists visiting Yemen hear of the appealing effects of
Qat and are eager to try it.
The Qat plant (whose botanical name is Catha Edulis Forsk) was
discovered accidentally by Ethiopian farmers who noticed that when
their sheep would chew leaves from a certain plant they became full of
energy. It was also discovered that you cannot simply eat Qat, or turn
the leaves into juice for quick consumption. It must be slowly chewed
and allowed to mix with saliva, which releases the drug's effect on
the body before digestion occurs. Qat-chewing is called Takhzeen in
Arabic; literally meaning to store the plant leaves in one's mouth for
a long time.
One of the most troubling effects of Qat, however, happens outside the
body: some 80 per cent of Yemen's fresh water is consumed just to grow
it, severely compromising already scarce water supplies needed for
irrigating coffee and food crops.
Yet Qat usage just seems to keep growing and spreading, as new
habitual chewers - including more women and even children - add daily
to the demand for it. This is because Qat is a social drug which has
permeated all levels of society just as tobacco smoking did in North
America until a few years ago. It is addictive, but does not produce
the inebriation of alcohol; hence Muslim scholars are split on how to
deal with it. Some say it is Mobah (somewhat permissible), while
others call it Haram (not permissible at all) because of its bad
In their own defense, Qat-chewers believe the leaves give them more
energy and vitality. "No Qat, no energy; and hence no work, study,
sex, or whatever," they say.
Opponents of Qat warn of its many negative physical and mental side-
effects. But ending Qat usage in Yemen will take years, if not
generations. Yemenis have become so collectively addicted to it, there
are those who feel obliged to set aside specific "chewing times."
Years ago, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh revealed that he chewed
Qat only on weekends; later, he publicly announced that he would try
to stop chewing it altogether. In 2002, all government employees were
banned from chewing Qat on the job. But today, five years later, it
has only witnessed more growth than ever before.
Did I try it? No, thank you; I did not.
(Dr. Mohamed Elmasry is national president of the Canadian Islamic
Congress. He can be reached at np @ canadianislamiccongress.com)
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