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Monday, April 02, 2012

Trivia and Places : Yemen and the "Khat"

I had the chance of going to Yemen when I was working in the Middle East. An Arab country that  is quite different  from  the rest  of  the Arab world, culture-wise. Yemen has oil and gas, but not in large quantity and has a very minimal reserve. It is not a rich country, in fact, it is considered poor and under develop.  The only exception among the countries in the Arabian Peninsula. 

The country used to be divided into North and South Yemen until its unification. South Yemen used to be a socialist state allied with USSR. Yemen still has insurgency in some parts of the country, so there are some dangers traveling to some parts of the country. 

During my trip to this country, I was not as excited as my other trips to other countries in the Middle East. But I was in for a surprise when I arrived. No fanciful airport or high-rise buildings to see. The surprise started when my travel by land commenced. It was like entering into a time warp and being brought back to a civilization 200 years  ago.( Men in traditional attire with knives or gun tucked on their waist is a common sight .) If not for the evidences of modern technology, like cars and power cables, you would think that  you have time-travelled into the past.  What Yemen lacks in infrastructure and development is compensated by the natural wonders of its landscape, historical landmarks and antique architectures.( It is considered  by UN a World Heritage Site) In fact, I would consider it the most beautiful country  I have visited in the Arabian peninsula. 
 Sanaa and its beautifully designed buildings
But Yemen has something else unique about its culture and this is the "khat"- a plant. Life in Yemen seems to revolve  around this plant. They have large plantations of this plant and khat markets to trade this "national plant" of Yemen. Other countries peripheral to Yemen also have this plant but Yemenis'  devotion in the cultivation and use of this plant is exceptional. Yemen which used to plant  coffee and export high quality coffee beans has replaced it with khat.

If the Japanese and Chinese have their reverence for tea for their ceremonies and for their social activities, khat is "it" for the Yemeni. It is not used as a drink like tea, the leaves are chewed fresh and raw, but not swallowed. ( Similar to the way  tobacco is chewed by the Major League Baseball players in the US). Whatever remains of the chewed leaves is deposited on one side of the mouth for quite a time and only spat out when there is not enough space to deposit them. Khat  chewing can be considered the  national past time of Yemeni men.(I didn't  dare ask if women also chew khat out of respect for their islamic culture. Most  Yemeni women have their faces covered in veils.) Khat chewing  activity normally starts in the afternoon until early in the evening. It is simultaneously done with other activities they are doing.  Almost all adult Yemeni men seem to have the habit of chewing khat. 

I find the Yemenis  a very friendly, hospitable and happy lot. It must be their culture or maybe . . .  yes, the "khat".

What is Gat / Ghat or Khat?
1) Khatqatgat or miraa  /ˈkɑːt/ kahtCatha edulis, family CelastraceaeArabicقات‎ qātYemeni Arabic: [ɡɑːt]Hebrewגת‎ gatSomaliqaad;Amharicጫት? č'at) is a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Amongst communities from these areas, khat chewing has a long history as a social custom dating back thousands of years.
Khat contains the alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant, which is said to cause excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria. In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified it as a drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence(less than tobacco or alcohol), although the WHO does not consider khat to be seriously addictive. The plant has been targeted by anti-drug organizations like the DEA. It is a controlled or illegal substance in some countries, but is legal for sale and production in others.

Ghat is a leaf chewed in Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, and among Yemenite Jews in Israel that has stimulative qualities. Ghat chewing sessions involve playing the 'ud smoking a nargilah and other such Eastern reveries.
Ghat or Khat plant

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