More than a mouthful

<strong>The Khat Controversy: Stimulating the Debate on Drugs</strong>

David Anderson, Susan Beck

No visitor to Yemen can fail to have adventures. Squeezed between the Empty Quarter and the Red Sea, this poor Arab republic is the ancestral homeland of Osama Bin Laden. It boasts regular kidnappings by ungovernable tribes, suicide bombings and riots, not to mention the cheap and plentiful AK-47s. Some world heavyweight champions of jihad live here, but they are not the dazed young men you see floating happily around the streets of Sana'a with their minds permanently blown. Indeed, it only takes the observant traveller a day or two to notice that the real spectre haunting the country is not terrorism so much as a kind of quotidian recurrence, the somnolent vigil of the khat-chewers.

Yemen, in other words, is a place of contradictions. Unlike the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, which is hot and barren, Yemen resembles a cool, green paradise. Unfortunately, the lush fields that yield its biggest cash crop, the psychoactive plant khat - known to science as Catha edulis - are just the problem. At lunchtime the country grinds to a halt. Offices close, the souks of Sana'a empty. Even restaurants stop serving food as Yemenis head home to chew the narcotic leaf for the rest of the day.

It's a strange thing to wander through a country whose entire male population is simultaneously engaged in this ritual of concentrated mastication, but journalists like to chew the cud, and sometimes it pays off. One afternoon a couple of years ago, I found myself in a bad neighbourhood of Sana'a, close to the Bab Shuub, the northern gateway to the old city, where I was due to meet a well-known fundamentalist. In other circumstances, it would have been a picturesque scene. The houses were built of sun-dried mud brick. Intricate friezes in white gypsum ornamented the walls of a courtyard. But there was something menacing about the youths who sat surrounded by knives and discarded plant stems, beaming deliriously at me. Green mush between the teeth is unattractive, for a start, and the distended cheek of a serious khat-chewer, who can often pack in a wad the size of a tennis ball, is not a good look.

Fortunately, as the authors of The Khat Controversy note, Yemenis pride themselves on the hospitality of the khat session, which can last four, six or even ten hours. "Tammam, sadiq!" ("All right, my friend") said an older man reclining on burlap sacks full of the stimulating shrub, as he threw a few twigs in my direction.

Richard Burton, that most intrepid of Victorian gentlemen travellers, visited Yemen in 1854 and was struck by the rituals of the khat session which has developed over hundreds of years. For example, Yemenis refer to "storing" rather than chewing khat, because they swallow the potent juices but deposit the mush in their cheeks to help absorption into the blood. Lying on mattresses with padded backrests and elbow bolsters, often looking out at the sky from an upstairs room, known as the mafraj, the chewers strip the leaves off the stalk as they listen to music, tell jokes and discuss politics or philosophy.

It's a kind of escapism, of course, but life is hard. For many Yemenis, the drug does seem to work. In his book Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land, the peerless Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who has lived in Sana'a for a quarter of a century, quotes a local proverb that goes: "If your heart is at ease, even a donkey's arsehole can be a maf raj." The narcotic properties of khat are similar to amphetamine. Farmers chew it to fortify themselves for a long day in the fields, students often use it to sharpen their minds before exams, and for certain members of the political elite it serves to some degree as a substitute for the alcohol denied by Islam. It is said that no Yemeni cabinet meeting takes place without it.

Arabic has an untranslatable word - kayf - for the soothing effect of khat, which they also believe stretches attention span and enhances perception by rooting you in a single place. However, there is a cautionary tale in The Arabian Nights about a prince who chewed the leaf in his palace. While he was alert from the waist up, his lower half turned to porphyry.

The Khat Controversy takes a less romantic view of the magic plant and its damaging effect on the agriculture and development not only of Yemen, but of Ethiopia, too. (In another country, Somalia, women have apparently long backed a ban which they hope would stop their husbands from tripping all night and snoozing all day.) The statistics are alarming. Yemenis are so inclined to spend a large chunk of their paltry incomes on khat that farmers are uprooting their fruits, vegetables and coffee in favour of the popular evergreen with its year-round profit. Annual production grew by more than 41 per cent to 150,000 tonnes in the decade to 2006, according to official figures. Cotton, the next biggest crop, weighs in at just 22,000 tonnes. In short, khat is ravaging Yemen's frail economy and sucking up precious water.

Westerners have always preferred coffee (another Arabian plant that induces a mild increase in concentration and well-being) to khat - and one of the reasons is that the leaf, unlike the bean, doesn't travel well. Khat must be chewed within days or it loses its potency. However, air transport means that British enthusiasts can now buy khat from the Yemeni grocers of London's King's Cross. It could change our afternoons.