Qat's Cradle


by Graeme Wood

The Guardian is running the latest piece about Yemen's impending qat Armageddon -- the day when qat cultivation finally sucks dry Yemen's last drop of fresh water, and twenty-three million qat addicts wake up with a society-wide unfulfillable jones on a scale not seen since the Opium Wars.

Its enormous need for water is on course to make the capital, Sana'a, the first in the world to die of thirst. With the problem extending across the nation, the country is almost literally chewing itself to death.

From high on the scorched brown rock face that surrounds the Wadi Dahr valley, half an hour's drive north-west of Sana'a, the fertile carpet of vegetation below looks miraculous. Like most of Yemen, these northern mountains are a dry and barren land. But the irrigation needed to grow qat, coupled with an exploding population, means Sana'a's water basin is emptying out at a staggering rate: four times as much water is taken out of the basin as falls into it each year.

Water issues aside, qat deserves a better reputation than it has.  I chewed it multiple times in Yemen and Somalia.  It tastes terrible and bitter, a very shrubby flavor, and it made me extremely thirsty.  But it didn't addle my brain (too late for that, perhaps) or inspire any of the wild-eyed violence some say it causes.

The effect is more like nicotine than meth: it peps you up if you're sluggish, calms you down if you're anxious, focuses the mind, and makes the people you're chewing with just a little more interesting to be around.  In other words, it is a dangerously addictive substance, but with effects more subtle than is commonly appreciated.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith, author of the best modern travel-writing on Yemen, is a huge qat-fiend:

After the noon prayer comes my other favourite journey, the five-minute walk to Sabri's qat shop in the Cattlemarket. Qat is a leaf that is mildly stimulant when chewed; it is to me what opium was to Coleridge. I go back and start munching. The effect is like a deep bowl of thoughts, connecting and concentrating. I look at what I wrote in the morning, and wonder what the problem was.

(Photo by Flickr user Island Spice under a Creative Commons license.)