The best way to familiarize one’s self with a foreign environment is without question enveloped in the concept called “Total Immersion.” There are some exceptions – swimming comes to mind – but all in all just jumping in yield the best results. This is seen in learning a new language, developing a new skill, or familiarizing yourself with a new culture. The learning curve may be steep, but the rewards are more fruitful. With this in mind, I decided to investigate a phenomenon found almost exclusively in Yemen, namely partaking in the use of the recreational drug called Qat. (Scrabble players rejoice!) Qat is a leafy plant similar to some exotic strains of lettuce in appearance, with long, narrow purplish stems and a green leaf with a 2:1 length to width ratio. It is also chewed by 99% of Yemeni men, which considering it’s US classification as an illegal drug and it’s supposed hallucinogenic properties, the wide spread use of it can be disconcerting when your minibus driver has a cheek full and is driving rapidly around a traffic circle, horn blaring, with the sliding side door locked in the fully open position. Seeing armed guards yielding Kalishnakovs carefully selecting and peeling off the best leaves can also make one extra careful not to arouse unnecessary suspicion. But when in Yemen, do as the Yemenis do: chew qat.
I did not try this new leafy drug alone, I had the company of one Joe, a 7 year Iraq War vet (Purple Heart), who is a serious backpacker and traveler, and the first white guy my age that I have met since the good old U.S of A. We minibussed it over to Krater (a suburb of Aden named because it sits in a volcanic crater, obviously) and began our hunt for this mysterious drug. It was actually easier than would be thought, given the complete legality of it in this country, and a helpful guy from the souq walked us to the town square that functions as the main supply artery in this part of town. One whole end of the square was lined with tables, each manned by two or three gentlemen and covered in small bundles carefully wrapped up in towels. We approached a table in the middle, chosen only because this is the table to which we were led, and began our enquiries. A small mental image will help set the scene here: two white guys buying Yemeni street drugs in broad daylight; two white guys who don’t speak a lick of Arabic (except for some numbers on Joe’s part); the only two white guys within a 500 mile radius – a bit of a stretch, but just picture it. All eyes are on us as we fumble around with words and gestures and get quoted a price for what looks to be an average bundle: 2000 riyals = $10.00. No way, we turn away. “Sadik (friend) sadik wait, 1500 riyals!” No. Next stall. New bundles unwrapped, all eyes still upon us. “1800 riyals.” Next table. “1000 riyals.” Next table. “1200 riyals.” This was getting annoying, but finally we spied a likely loyal customer paying 400 for a bundle. Jackpot. We stood by, making it clear that we were closely following the transaction, asked a bundle from beneath the same towel, and gave the guy 400 riyals. Bargaining done and product received, we were given a standing ovation complete with hoots and whistles from the entire vending community. We snuck away, satisfied with our bargaining (Joe deserves most, if not all of, the credit for this) to now try and figure out what the hell one does with a bundle of qat.
Keen observational techniques told us that one does not eat the stems, and from the bulges in one cheek of everyone around, we knew that we needed to act chipmunk like, and having scurried into a street-side coffee shop, we began plucking leaves and placing them into our mouths. Chewing made sense, as it would release the internal juices, but chewing resulted in hundred of tiny leaf chunks getting caught in and on your teeth, sliding backwards towards your throat in a gag-inducing manner, and making the whole wad generally hard to contain. We noticed that people were folding the leaves a few times, biting down, and moving the leaf into the appropriate position. We followed suit but kept the chewed wad inside our mouths, and soon developed a characteristic cheek tumor-looking thing. We were unsure of whether anything was happening or not, but trying to have a conversation while chewing the cud (bovinically speaking) gives the impression that something in the speech department is lacking. We sat at our coffee table, pondering the effects and drawing the attention of every single man, woman and child that happened to be walking by. (Most of the men, who are the majority of qat chewers, smiled while pointing to their cheeks and asked “Is good?”) Qat eaters are not hard to find: if you cannot get a good look at their face, or have only a view of their profile, the pink bag sticking obtrusively from a pocket is a telltale sign. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we were getting local respect for trying to “fit in.”
Turns out that only a small percentage of the leaves are good to eat. The upper or young leaves, are the fresh offshoots containing the good stuff, while the lower leaves are not only not potent, but are typically covered in pesticide. Now would be a good time for a digression, as the use of pesticide on recreational drugs is a simply astounding phenomenon. Some Yemeni men, the addicted subsection of the populace, spend up to 30% of their income on qat and can spend roughly four hours a day doing nothing but chewing the cud. There may or may not be criminal organizations that relegate the growing and distribution of qat, and it has been estimated that 75% of fertile land is used to grow qat – instead of food, or at least the wildly popular and profitable Yemeni coffee, renowned as some of the worlds best. Anyways, it remains that the qat crop is so important that pesticides need to be used to keep harvests bountiful, thus making some of the plant parts toxic. (This is not the part that is considered the drug.) We were soon told of this fact, and a kind Yemeni, young, carefully picked through our bag and got rid of everything that wasn’t good to eat. By this time were part of a group of young Yemenis who were accompanying an older couple from Eritrea/Italy, and they happily told us all about the drug, it’s uses, side effects (intentional and not), the social ramifications, etc. It was a good group of people to have around when trying new mind altering substances, especially as being part of a group helped prevent kids from coming up to us and pointing and laughing. Eventually we learned not to swallow they leaves, to spit the some of the juice, how to fold the leaves properly and so on. We sat around in total for three or four hours, tried some delicious Yemeni drinks, and had absolutely no idea what this stuff was supposed to do or why we even persisted in trying to get anything out of it. In the end, we decided that the stuff was useless, had no effect, and left – but not before making plans with our new friends for tomorrow. (They spoke great English.)
Moral of the story? Don’t do drugs if you don’t know how to do them properly. But I gotta go, I’m jonesin’.