Yemen, Coffee and Qat

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, coffee.

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 work.

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 side-effects.

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.