Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Sun, May 26th, 2019

Chewing on the “Khat” Issue

Before the recent conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the most likely story in the media about Yemen generally had to do with the stimulant qāt, usually glossed as “khat” in English. The plant in question is scientifically known as Catha edulis and was first identified by the Finnish botanist Peter Forsskal, who died and was buried in Yemen in 1763 as part of the famous Niebuhr expedition sent by the King of Denmark.

In Yemen, as in Ethiopia, Somalia and other parts of Africa, the young leaves of the qāt tree are “chewed” with the juice slowly being absorbed in the system. The leaves are not so much “chewed” as stored in the mouth, as indicated by the Yemeni verb khazana (to store something). This produces a stimulant pseudo-ephedrine effect, similar to the use of amphetamines. Although it is often called a narcotic, it should not be confused with such drugs as cocaine or heroin. In fact, it does not induce sleep but makes one wide awake and is not habit-forming as is the case with major drugs or cigarettes. It has been around in Yemen for over five centuries and even became an important medicant in the country’s traditional medicine.

A reporter for CNN, Sam Kiley, has recently visited the Huthi-controlled areas of  Yemen and has written an article called “Starving Yemen’s Drug Problem.”  As is typical for reporters who trek in on an assignment with barely any knowledge of Yemen, the article exoticizes the “khat” issue from the start. It starts by setting the stage of “the sun at its scorching zenith” at noon in Yemen, as though the heat makes everything else irrelevant. In the highlands of Yemen, where most of the qāt is used, the temperature in April and May is not very scorching. The temperature in the capital Ṣan‘ā’ on May 22 has a high of 23° C. Even in the middle of summer the highland valleys and mountains of Yemen do not reach the truly scorching temperatures of the coastal zone.

Then we are told that there’s “no shame attached to getting high on khat.” Even though this is immediately noted to be like the effect of amphetamines, the average reader will interpret “getting high” as something much stronger. It does not help that throughout the article qāt is referred to as a “drug”, with the negative connotation that implies. Nor is the effect like taking medically supplied amphetamines, which can be easily misused. This is not to say that there are no medical side effects in qāt chewing, but it is much harder to overdose when using the fresh leaves. I seriously doubt the claim that 90% of Yemeni men and 70% of Yemeni women chew qāt, especially on a daily basis. The author cites a bulletin of WHO, which does not indicate the source of its estimation. None of the previous surveys conducted over the years in Yemen have ever noted that amount, although it is commonly assumed by foreigners. With the economic downturn it is probably the case that many Yemenis who would like to chew cannot afford it.

The article is correct in noting that qāt became one of Yemen’s major crops, starting in the 1980s, due to the rapid expansion of tubewell irrigation and decline in terrace cultivation of traditional sorghum, wheat and barley. However, coffee production has also increased during this time, the limitation on its cultivation being more an economic problem of competing on the world market than its land being taken over by qāt. This is not to justify the switch from food crops to qāt, but it should be noted that as a cash crop it has been a boon even for Yemen’s small household farmers in order to bring in cash. This was especially the case after the foreign remittances from Yemeni workers collapsed in 1990 due to the first Gulf War. The author found out its importance as a cash crop when he interviewed a local farmer in a village east of Ṣan‘ā’.

The disturbing part of the article is the idea that most Yemenis are more interested in “getting high” on “khat” than avoiding famine. The article closes with the comment that the “khat” industry is worth some $12 billion (dollars?), but fails to point out that all the profits stay in Yemen, since there is no export. This means that those Yemenis who can afford to buy it are redistributing the wealth, although the profits do get recycled into the war as well. But to claim that “khat” is “an addiction that’s being enabled by humanitarian aid” is nonsense. This implies that the millions of Yemenis who are depending on foreign aid would not be hungry if they were not spending money on qāt. It ignores the fact that in some parts of Yemen there is hardly any food of any kind available. Do you think that a Yemeni father or mother would rather buy qāt than feed his or her malnourished children?

There is no question that Yemen needs to grow more of its own food, although that is made more difficult by the instability of the current war. There was also a decline in food production in Yemen’s north during the civil war in the 1960s. It is not humanitarian aid that is responsible for the current level of qāt cultivation and use, but the war itself. The article blames Yemenis for starving, with no indication that five years of a brutal war staged by the Saudi Coalition with its sectarian consequences have made the humanitarian crisis the worst in the world. The food insecurity in Yemen is real and cannot be explained away as a suicidal drug addiction by the vast majority of Yemenis.

[A note to readers: if you use the Wikipedia article on Catha edulis, do so with caution as it has numerous errors. I have written several articles on qāt in Yemen, most recently “Qāt and Traditional Healing in Yemen.”  In H. Schönig and I. Heymeyer, editors, Herbal Medicine in Yemen, 69-102. Leiden: Brill, 2012.]


About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.