Occassionally, well, more than occassionally I like to have friends over for an interpretive Yemeni dinner. Interpretive because I dont actually know the recipes. I just remember tastes and textures and I sort of find my way around it. When I was growing up in Yemen I couldn’t boil water let alone an egg. It was dire necessity that got me cooking and I discovered that it is something I loved to do.. The best part of cooking is that when you are the one doing the cooking, no one expects you to do the washing up as well.. which is great because I hate washing up. I even hate loading up a dishwasher.
A Lebanese friend of mine once suggested that I organise a Qat session and he would bring a sheesha.. It was something often suggested but never ever realised. So I decided its time to do it. No particular reason. Just why not. After all, I am Yemeni and Qat was a national pastime. I was curious. Would I douse the flat in gasoline like my Aunt did when she tried it for the first time? Or would I be de-lousing my head from imaginary lice as some other first time user told me? I was excited to find out..
First thing I had to do is get the Qat. I headed for Tottenham and aimlessly walked around waiting for a Somali. Any Somali. It didnt take long. I stopped one and asked where can I find Qat? Turns out it was on top of the shop behind me. up a flight of dark stairs to a landing where a familiar unfamiliar sight greeted me. Lounged shoulder to shoulder a group of around twenty glassy-eyed Somalis all stopped their conversation and stared. Qat leaves all over the floor, Bottles of Pepsi at regular intervals, and a film of cigarette smoke suspended between me and them. Flashback. Why are they staring? What am I not getting? And it suddenly hit me: “Asalamu Alaikum!!” “Wa Alaikum Alsalam!” twenty voices called back..I’d forgotten to greet. Conversations resume.
I ask for Qat, and one of them stands up and walks me to a separate room which is lined with fridges stuffed with Qat. Determined not to get a bad score i put on the best experienced Qat chewer act. Do you have Yemeni Qat? Very rarely, we mostly have Ethiopian and Somali Qat. I see, that’s a shame, which ones you got? We only have harari now.. How old is it? We got this today. very fresh. (Of course it is.. who do you think I am? a novice?) he opens a fridge and hands me the six bunches I asked for.. NO. NO. NO. I’ll pick them. (Wanted to look like an expert). I basically pretend I’m shopping for coriander. I go for the greenest color, the most tender shoots, and the biggest bunch.. Job done. The haggling part didn’t go so well. he wraps them in banana leaves and I go back to the streets of London and head home.
I make 3asid. For the authentic Yemeni feel. But I make the 3asid into dumplings swimming in the meat broth and topped with hulba.. (repackaged it into something a little more Western in appearance.)
Dinner goes down well. I leave them at the table while I pulled all the stops. I put my Yemeni gear on, set up the shisha, the Coke Bottles and glasses, laid out the Qat after washing it, and put on some Sana’ani music on the CD Player for a bit of ambience. I couldn’t replicate the harsh florescent hospital lighting you find in most modern Yemeni houses but I was okay with that.. Returning to my friends, I invited them to start my little experiment.
“How should we sit?” Sit whatever way you feel comfortable.
“So we’re not supposed to swallow the leaves?” No, you store it in your mouth and swallow the juice.
“Can I mix it with mints? or gum?” Why on earth would you do that Victor? It’s not very authentic.
“There’s no way I will end up with a ball. I keep swallowing everything, its a reflex.. what should I do?” Good point. I have the same problem. Maybe we should just stuff the whole bunch so we can short cut to the masticated cud ball stage. We start taking big bites, twigs and all. Pack it in guys!! Aim for the ball..
Mouths full, conversations dries up, and we get down to some serious grinding.
“Do you feel anything?” We’ve only just started..
“What do we do now?” Just chew for God’s sake.. It’s not something you snort up your nose and expect a reaction in 15 seconds.. We cant just SIT here asking each other if we feel something yet every five minutes.. Just relax. forget about the ball in your mouth.. How’s Tamir? The deflection works and Lilly starts talking about her Iraqi fiancé, which leads to her talking about her evil mother-in-law-to-be, which leads to more conversations and we manage to get by the awkward moment. Soon everyone is laughing at each others distorted face.. eventually it wasnt even an issue.. Everyone got comfortable.
For me it started almost imperceptibly. It started with me observing more than talking.. which is fine because everyone else was doing the talking. I found myself listening to every word being said. I was detached but engaged. relaxed but alert. I also had the impression that my vision was somehow sharper and that I can see the colors of things more vividly. Everything seemed brighter.. Bit by bit I found that I was slipping into different worlds. My head felt very fluid. There was no structure. it was the kind of frame of mind where you felt you can discuss and look at anything from any angle with an open mind. Anything that captivated my attention no matter how trivial set me off into another world.. I felt, to be honest, in total bliss, I just sat there grinning. I was aware that this is the euphoria. I had no fear that I might do something totally weird. That was until the waves started. No one every told me about the waves.
After an hour and a half of chewing. I was feeling very warm. My breathing was very deep. I was actually sweating. Then I got this rush. this huge but gentle wave of .. “bliss”. I also had this desire to stretch and yawn. But I wasnt sleepy. Just wave after wave.. of well.. “bliss” As the waves intensified I started to get a little concerned.
“Are you okay?” me? yes fine you?
Comments like that brought me to focus that I was in a room with guests that I invited. I stand up to go wash my face and return.. Im not staggering.. nothing swaying.. but definitely not the same. So I decide to sit up straight and join the conversation.. Qat had made me very introverted. Not in a negative way, it just made me want to drift, think, and experience the waves. Some of the others just couldn’t stop talking.. We all had glassy eyes. We all seemed to be intense in trying to communicate or listen. and we were all busy stroking ourselves. I rubbed my head, Izzie rubbed her throat, Eli scratching his beard.. I cant remember what the conversations were about. I just remember thinking what it would be like to watch a movie like this, or go for a walk, or have a shower?
“I’m feeling horny. Is anyone else?” said Izzie the landlady. Awkward silence.
“I’m going to the bathroom, would anyone like a coffee?” I said.
“From the bathroom?” No, obviously AFTER I go to the bathroom.. I leg it out of there. Wasnt sticking around for that conversation.
Obviously after I come back with the coffee, Izzie’s innocent question had short circuited the evening, providing the perfect excuse for ending it. Taxis were ordered.
Warm, sweaty, and at this point, being bashed by waves of “bliss” I decide im just going straight to bed and ride it out. I had the best night sleep every.. and I didnt experience the depressed phase everyone talks about. I just had what my land-lady had. Which is odd because I didn’t think that Qat did that.. I always thought it was a social intellectual sort of drug.. right? So the next Sunday morning i made a quick round of calls. Just to see how everyone is and how they rode out the waves. Looks like we were all on the same wavelength.
So based on my one experiment with five others with Qat, 4 of the 5 described themselves as feeling highly aroused sexually. Coincidence? Yemen does have one of the highest growing populations in the entire world. Does Qat have anything to do with it?. Yes I had waves, and yes it was my first experience and I was a single guy, and yes I do know that it was a mixed gathering, however, I dont think its symptoms are down to my in- experience or the fact that this was a mixed gathering.. basically, its an aphrodisiac. In a country that is very traditional, I just find it a very odd thing to throw into the mix. Especially when the average age of getting married in Yemen is getting higher and higher due to the length of time it takes to get ready to take on the financial responsibilities of getting married.
Keeping strictly to what I know two of my siblings are voracious chewers of qat. I took a picture of one of them with a ball so big that his mouth faced me even though I was looking at the profile of his face. I made him stick it on face book and a Jordanian girl left him a message asking him if he’s got mouth cancer.. Did it embarrass him? Never. In the short few years that he picked up his habit, he has transformed physically and personality. Physically he has changed from a good looking guy into something else. He’s excessively slim. He’s got that knackered look that qat chewers have. You would think he’s grown up doing hard labour, not an educated rather over pampered young man who doesnt even have to iron a shirt. Even I look younger than him now.. His entire day revolves around getting to the Qat session. In the morning, after the night before, he is like a person recovering from a flu. Qat makes you smoke incessantly. Drinking Coke all night doesnt help either. So his mornings are all about his lungs clearing themselves of crap. He is tempremental, has a tea but doesnt feel like breakfast. Has an arguement or two with my parents over the Qat. heads off to work. I say work, its a 4 hour shift essentially. leaves home at 9.00 and is back home by 2.oopm. At this point its all phone calls sorting out who will meet who where for todays qat session. gulps down the meal, heads for bed for a quick nap. He then wakes up, puts his clothes on, knocks on my parents bedroom door with a big smile and asks for Qat money. This is followed by a big row.. which somehow 7 out of 10 times ends up with him not just getting Qat money, but cigarette and coke money too..You cant battle a culture.. and they are too old and tired to let him stay ranting in the house. They give in. This literally happens every single day I go back home.
The whole things a joke anyway, When I ask my dad why he objects to my brothers chewing he says he’s concerned for their health.. So then, naturally, I ask him why dont you be the shining example and stop chewing yourself? Mumble mumble stumble stumble… I can’t hear you dad..
” I only chew once a week…” no you bloody well don’t, you chew everyday..
“Only a little.. and I don’t smoke or drink Cola.. and I can afford it.. ”
With my Mom its turned into a nasty vicious circle. Having never chewed, smoked, or even drank cola, hers is an uphill battle every day.. I get tired just watching her. Every morning its as if its the first morning she’s discovered her kids chew qat.. I think she really believes that she will wear them down one day with the full armoury of weapons at her disposal.. Anger, Pleading, Withholding the finances, Nutrition rich diets to combat the effects of Qat and smoking. expensive honey which she literally runs around feeding them with a spoon… Qat? Have some pistachios instead.. she will do it all every day… every effing day.. When I ask her to just throw the towel in and give it a rest. She says I’m a mother what do you want me to do?? Look at him and look at you.. I count his cigarette butts, sit outside his bed at night hearing him cough.. what do you want me to do? Sit down and watch him die slowly in front of my eyes? Nothing I can say to that.. I take my camera and head out for a walk in Old Sanaa.
Would I try it again? I can’t and probably won’t. I have a very addictive personality so drugs is not something I can handle. Its something I have to stay clear away from. I also cant afford to spend even an hour a day chewing. There arent enough hours in the day in London. Add to that its not a pretty sight, so its not a good look socially here. Not that beer is a better look. New Years in Central London looked like an open air mental asylum. Qat doesnt do that, and that is precisely what Yemeni Qat users hide behind. No one murders or rapes on qat, no one loses their mind on Qat, its gets people together and binds the society together. That’s their argument. Which makes this particular drug so insidious. Its damage can be seen fully the further you step back and the bigger the picture gets. I don’t know what the answer to the Qat epidemic in Yemen is. I just have lots of questions