Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Meaning of Qat

An anecdote. One day in the summer of 2011, I was in a mostly-stationary taxicab with Michael Totten, marooned on the permanently congested 6th of October Bridge, busy enduring one of those unavoidable stretches of tedium endemic to the reporting profession. I'm not sure why, but I started sketching out a theoretical journalistic trip to Yemen--anywhere but Cairo traffic, amiright--and the otherwise-silent taxi driver, a lanky and unusually clean-shaven and unusually young man by Cairene taxi-driver standards, began speaking in jarringly clear English. Because when he wasn't driving a taxi in Cairo, he was a professional soccer player in Yemen, and he had some strong opinions about the place.

"They are the laziest people in the world," he said. He repeated this phrase three or four times, punctuating each word as if he understood he was delivering a stern moral pronouncement over an entire society of several tens of millions of people. The laziest people in the world--let him leave no doubt. "They sit on a rock, and go like this," he said, propping his chin on a closed fist, "and chew qat. This is all they do. They are the laziest people in the world."

The cabbie did more than reinforce my own, possibly but probably not mistaken notion of Egyptians' condescending attitude towards their Peninsula brethren (America is not without its own regional chauvinisms, either. Obviously.). The real reason I'm beginning a long blog post about qat chewing with this guy is that through defining his entire perception of Yemenis and Yemen in general through qat, he was getting at the idea that certain kinds of widespread and socially-acceptable drug abuse can serve as windows into the societies that tolerate and condone said abuse. I'm about to commit some pretty heinous acts of cultural essentialism here--nothing so crude as "Yemeinis chew lots of qat and are therefore the laziest people on earth," God willing--so my old college English professors are encouraged to stop reading here, right now. As for the rest of you--can drug abuse be read as text (welcome back, English professors!)? Let's try it out.

In Egypt, everyone smokes shisha. It's their national drug. To me, shisa represents anxiety without an outlet. It is the dissonance of having to relax and sit still for long periods of time--which are spent engaging in an activity that inspires little more than discomfort and unease. After a couple hours of shisha-smoking--and coffee drinking, shisha's trusty sidekick--it feels as if the chest cavity is struggling under an immovable leaden weight; breaths are more stilted and labored, the palette is ashen and choked, and the head swims and reels if it isn't calmed with gulps of cold water. Seriously, fuck shisha. It is a pleasure that gradually morphs into agitation, and, for the health conscious, mild regret (of course, I smoked a lot of it over the summer).

I don't know what this says about Egypt--I'm really not qualified to speculate, although I think I'm on to something with that "anxiety without an outlet" thing from earlier--but I have some theories about what America's national drug might suggest about Us. Our national drug is weed, which rubs out anxiety and ambition alike for short periods of time. Put differently, it is anxiety's outlet, a closet it can be stuffed into for an hour or two. There's a dark side to weed--it dulls pleasure along with pain, and I could never understand the appeal of watching a sporting event or a movie or even a concert while on the stuff, which slows the mind and in so doing distances the user from sensory and psychic stimuli regardless of their positive or negative nature. It's great stuff for ESPNews; less appropriate if you're about to watch "Scenes From A Marriage" for the first time. From this, I can conclude that we Americans are stressed the fuck out, that we believe that the elimination of anxiety is worth the elimination of pleasure as well; that modern life and our own desires and expectations are only manageable with an escape hatch at the ready, even if the escape, though temporary and very easy to accomplish, is still more total than many would like to admit. (Israel's national drug is hashish. I don't know what to make of this, but if the urban legends about Hezbollahis flinging hash-laden porcupines over the Israeli-Lebanese border fence using special hash-porcupine slingshots is even a little true, then there's a certain  Jewish historical resonance to the idea of buying stupefying drugs from people who want to kill the majority of us).

Qat is the national drug of Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen, which are more different from each other than I think most people appreciate (Somalia and Ethiopia are about as similar to each other as Ethiopia and the United States are. Other than differences in religion, language, food, music, material culture, historical development and modes of economic and social organization, they're exactly alike!). It is grown in Ethiopia, in the country's polyglot and historically restive east, where the Amhara, Afar, Oromo and Somali regions bleed into one another, and along the approximate frontier between pastoralism and settled agriculture, as well as between orthodox Christianity and Islam. Ethiopia has always lived and died on its periphery--in his excellent popular overview of the country, Harold Marcus posits that Ethiopian history can be understood as a veritable sine-wave of centralization and decay, with the country going through always-temporary periods of deterioration and reconstitution based mostly on developments along its fringes. The east is home to the Oromo, now the country's largest ethnic group and holder of a nearly millenia-old swing vote wrt: whether the Ethiopian national project was or even is all that practicable, and to the Somali, who have been fighting the Ethiopians in some form another for nearly 600 years; not continuously of course, but this is still over twice as long as the United States of America has existed. Ahmed the Left-Handed, one of the more reviled figures in Ethiopian history and the man who burned down the original, gold-clad Church of St. Mary in Axum, invaded from the east--from qat country.

But today, you are not likely to find a more harmonious boundary between Christendom and the Umma than the Medieval walled city of Harar, a multiconfessional warren of mud-brick mosques and polyp-dome tombs, and a profoundly qat-addled town, where plastic bags of the stuff begin to materialize by mid-morning, and where seemingly every square-inch of downtown curbside is cluttered with chewers by mid-afternoon. Harar is particularlistic as opposed to generically Orthodox or Muslim; it has its own forceful and intoxicating character that the ubiquity of qat undoubtedly contributes to. If qat is indeed a National Drug--if it says something about the place that grows and abuses the fuck out of it--then we've already reached a point of complication. A historically violent and tumultuous liminal space--Ethiopia's powder keg, sort of--is the origin of a drug that makes its users docile and zoned out, in turn contributing, however obliquely, to the modern-day sense of equanimity and moderation (I counted zero hijabs in Harar) and tolerance that helps make that place unique. It is as if chewing it brings you to a zone beyond or outside of history--as if the drug is pure immediacy, a psychic extension of those tombs and mosques and box canyon alleyways, of the women wearing jangling metal necklaces and crouching over fulcrum-shaped wicker tables in the marketplaces, of hidden craft shops and muraled horseshoe-shaped mud houses that don't seem to belong to the Middle East or to the Horn or to anywhere you're familiar with really, of marketplaces acraded with pointed Arab archways and streets stalked after dark by yapping hyenas and the feeling of a heady and indescribably vast distance from anything familiar--including anything familiar, even after three weeks of travel, within Ethiopia itself--of everything seeming new and wonderful and giddy and strange.

This feeling is a tourist's luxury and a lie. The realities are less benign and certainly shouldn't be exoticized (should anything, really?). Qat is everywhere in Harar. Men in clean clothes carry mutliple bags of the stuff; men in tatters scour the streets for discarded leaves, competing with the goats and sheep. The alleys are encrusted in dried and decaying stems; in traffic circles and median strips and curbs, men stuff one leaf after another into their mouths for hours at a time, virtually unmoving, with no other apparent demands on their time or ambition. It is epidemic.

What desires does it suppress? What subtle control does it exert? What urges does it domesticate? What pains does it cancel? What joys and ambitions does it kill? A dip into a bag of qat is essential in Harar. Because if you answer these questions for yourself, you might be able to answer them for a significant number of people in town.


I first tried qat near the tomb of Hamid Nur, a tall and narrow mud-brick dome layered in pickle-colored greenwash. People in Ethiopia tend to overestimate the age of things by a century or five, but the attendant will square with you: the tomb is a little over 400 years old, and within it lies the emir responsible for building the walls of Harar, to defend against newly-arrived Oromo migrants from modern-day Kenya. Hamid Nur presided over a kind of Harari golden age, a period during which the city--or rather, the independent city-state, a status the place maintains under Ethiopia's ethnicity-based federal system--turned into east Africa's Timbuktu, a cosmopolitan trading hub ideally positioned between geographical zones and empires, as well as a center of Islamic scholarship. Harar was the point where trading routes from the Arabian Penninsula, Solomonic-period Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa and even and especially India converged, and Hamid Nur helped guide the city to prominence. But he's buried in a modest structure, now hemmed in by muddy alleyways strewn with rotting qat leaves--although there's a wooden roof over the corner of the romantically out-of-control garden surrounding the tomb, and the entire halfcourt-sized compound is green and shady and remarkably quiet. The Taj Mahal,  the greatest of Islamic tombs, captures humanity's impotent frustration at the permanenance and enormity of death, and the beauty made possible by our inevitably futile attempts to gain an upper hand over the thing. The tomb of Hamid Nur, made out of wood beams and painted mud, is just a nice place to sit down for awhile, and you can stare at it, while lounging under the aforementioned wooden roof in the corner of the compound, without being burdened by any deep metaphysical concerns, or even any deep non-metaphysical concerns for that matter. Make yourself at home--this place was practically designed for chewing qat, which, as it turns out, is best enjoyed over long periods of time and in a shady, quiet and above all comfortable place.

My entry into the stuff was a young man named Abdulaziz, who looked about my age and had a freshly-trimmed beard and a smartphone even fancier than mine. He was studying to be a irrigation engineer and had cousins in Washington, DC. He lived in the walled city with his wife and six month old daughter, and chewed qat at around this time, and in roughly this place, every single day.

This stuff is what the goats chew, he said after 30 minutes of munching on plastic-green leaves, incense wafting through the compound, Qaranic chanting playing on someone's cellphone, the latest call to prayer ignored, sweet coffee brought by a young girl and then slowly gulped out of handmade clay mugs, the sun held pleasantly in abeyance, wind brushing the weeds. Give me 30 birr, he said, and I will get you the good stuff. The real stuff. And I will show you how to chew it.

As noon approached, as I looked around at the small handful of strung-out young men lounging in the tomb's garden, a strong and largely although not entirely anthropological desire emerged to see what it was like to be seriously wasted on the stuff. When Abdulaziz returned with a fresh bag, he explained that you only chew the small leaves, the brownish-green ones ones at the top of the stem, preferably the ones so small that they've curled into themselves, although the medium and larger-sized leaves surrounding them are potent as well. The apple-green ones, large and thick and lower down on the stem, are a waste of energy and taste especially terrible. Don't bother.

And now, an abrupt transition from freeform social, historical and experiential-type observations to a more clinical sorta question and answer thing clearly ripped off from the Ithaca episode of Ulysses.

WHAT DOES QAT TASTE LIKE?: Qat is vegetative and bitter. It has a sickly sour quality, although if you've been eating backcountry injira for three weeks straight then sickly-sourness has been a constant and unshakable companion for you. It is hard to masticate to a complete pulp; it is less tough or resistant than, for instance, an overcooked piece of meat, but it is so simultaneously plastic and granular--even the softer, smaller, rolled-up leaves--that chewing it eventually requires a heavy, sustained motion that makes the jaw ache for days afterwards. When fully broken down, the qat leaf becomes a heavy, viscous paste that gently swells the inside of the mouth, and the paste always seems to migrate to the inside fold of the upper lip, requiring a chewer to periodically circulate his tongue around the borders of his cheeks and mouth. This is actually hard; qat doesn't just swell the inner mouth, but numbs and mildly paralyzes it. Qat isn't eaten exactly--you don't swallow until the last possible moment, when the paste become so thick and unpleasant that you're left with no other choice. But this takes awhile, and gets at one of the most appealing aspects of qat chewing--it's time consuming. It's real work. It's not something to eat--it's something to do, as the old tagline goes. It's like eating sunflower seeds, if sunflower seeds had a stimulant effect somewhere between caffeine and cocaine. Ooops! Getting ahead of myself here.

IS IT ADDICTIVE?: Hell yes! When you're chewing qat, you feel an urge to continue chewing the shit that's so powerful it isn't even consciously noticed or recognized as an urge. You just kind of mechanically keep feeding yourself leaves; whether you want to continue chewing or not is inconsequential. You just keep plucking leaves and shoving them into your mouth and it could be hours before it occurs to you to do anything other than this or to stop.

IS QAT A SOCIAL LUBRICANT?: I can't say the conversation I had with the 3 or 4 chewers at the Tomb was all that stimulating, but there were certain language and cultural barriers that kept things on a rudimentary level, aside from the occasional inquiries about my religion or place of birth or the spelling of my name. I don't think qat makes you talkative, exactly--I had fun imagining a living room full of American high school kids silently munching qat with their eyes pasted over (how about a qat lounge in the center field loft at Nats Park? Probably wouldn't fly, because of the appetite suppressant thing. Maybe we could replace the East Village's shisha bars with qat houses? I know which I'd rather go to.)--but the fact that it takes an incredibly long time to chew the stuff, combined with its near-ubiquity, makes it a social drug almost by default.

A snippet of conversation: in Islam, we believe in one God. Not four, not two, one. I agree, I said.

WHAT ARE THE PHYSICAL EFFECTS OF QAT?: Qat has a stimulant effect somewhere between caffeine and cocaine. Your heart rate increases slightly, your skin seems to radiate and crawl. The mouth dries out--have a large bottle of water at the ready is my advice--although you don't feel any agitation because any excess energy is channeled into the labor-intensive chewing process itself. So you feel simultaneously stimulated and listless (qat isn't the only drug that has this effect I've heard), as if the drug has focused you on this one task to the exclusion of all others. Everything else becomes laborious: shifting position, reaching for your camera, raising a clay coffee mug to your lips, retrieving a water bottle from your backpack, swallowing the coffee and/or water, maintaining conversation with people whose language you don't speak, etc. The body is lulled into a deep inertia, but not to the point where you want to nod off--which is impossible anyway, what with the uptick in the heart rate and the clean but slightly tingling body high. The most powerful effect is related to the appetite: hunger physically dissipates; eating just sort of vanishes as a physical need altogether. Which brings me to

WHAT ARE THE PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF QAT?: the dark side of the drug, and with it the core observation of this blog post. Qat destroys all appetites--like, all of them. Trust me on this. Qat destroys all appetites and I think this has a lot to do with why it is both widely abused and socially tolerated. It is not unlike marijuana in this respect, although pot leaves one particular appetite (the Double-Stuff Oreo appetite) disastrously intact. Qat doesn't discriminate. Hungry? Chew some qat, because you soon won't be. Qat is a powerful appetite suppressant, disturbingly handy in places where food is scarce, or where the source and nature of any given meal is uncertain. Qat inflicts a kind of synthetic appetitive discipline, and it banishes all thought of food, or really any other need.

Including another fundamental human need, and this might be why qat use in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen is more public and socially acceptable than say, marijuana use in the US. Qat is a magic drug that keeps people umm, away from one another. Useful for the women--hormonal young men are off chewing and gazing into the near-distance instead of chasing them or harassing them or worse. Useful for the men--in Ethiopia, in the US, hell, anywhere, chewing and staring into the near distance is sometimes--usually?--more individually/socially responsible than obeying one's sexual appetites. I don't want to read any deeper neuroses into societies in which seemingly the majority of the male population publicly abuses libido suppressants for hours at a time, every single day. But there's a grim kind of social utility at work here, especially in more conservative societies--albeit a utility functioning on the premise that a stupefied and disinterested population is preferable to one that's constantly making decisions for itself. You can't fornicate on qat--and I imagine that criminal conspiracies, political manifestos and revolutions are equally tough to pull off on the stuff. Maybe tougher. Dictatorships should subsidize the stuff (although interestingly, qat is banned in Eritrea).

There's a certain blunt quality to the highly transparent and shameless nature of qat abuse. In Harar, you're surrounded by desiccated-looking young men, chewing their ambitions or desires, the sense of a present or future, the possibility of anything better or even anything different, the potential for meaningful individual choice, even the aknowledgement of fundamental physical and psychological needs, into a sweet and mind-numbing vegetable paste. They do this every day, for hours, in public.

WHAT IS THE COMEDOWN LIKE?: You feel empty and sort of tired, but not tired exactly--this is where the agitation sets in, even if the source of one's botheration and unease is impossible to pin down. Eating is a chore, walking is a chore, but again, you aren't really tired. You just want to sit down, and stare, and do nothing else more complicated or interesting or meaningful than that.


Qat controls and pacifies through an activity that people seem to enjoy, and that is, actually, sort of objectively enjoyable under the right circumstances. So let's close on the positives: see it's the definitional nature of experiments that their results must be reproducible, and drug experimentation is, in my view, no exception to this rule. The next day I had a long bus ride or rather series of minibus rides from Harar to really as close to Addis Ababa as I could make it between 1 PM and darkness. The 500 kilometer road to the capital through the highlands of Oromia is paved and well-maintained, rising into cloud forests and straddling high ridges, climbing into and out of rain storms, around deep vallies and waterfalls and rivers and into a kind of north-Pacific dampness and fog. Ethiopia is a land of dizzying topo- and geographic change; one night you could be in an ancient desert trading post where wild hyenas, whose jaws are powerful enough to bust a human skull in a single bite, are an accepted and even beloved neighbor; the next, you could be sleeping in a mountain town you'd never heard of, waiting for the roof to begin leaking under deafening torrents of rain.

It is the in-between that can be challenging in Ethiopia. Buses don't leave until they are full--completely full. Ethiopian "full" means people on the floor and in the space between rows of seats; 17 in a 12-seat van is barely acceptable and 20 is the norm; superstar minibus conductors don't quit until their vehicle is a 23-25 person cattlecar, with the contrast between the vast openness of the mountain wilderness and the claustrophobia of the vehicle made more obvious and excruciating with every stop-off, and every new arrival. There is never a shortage of customers; empty space is wasted birr. The minibus will get you where you're going, though, so long as patience is in rude supply. And even if it isn't, what choice do you really have? And if you did have another choice--qat is basically patience you can eat! Qat, as I wrote a few paragraphs ago, "inflicts a kind of synthetic appetitive discipline;" in Ethiopia, the appetite to just like, ditch the bus and walk for a while is one that often needs to be kept in line.

After an hour of chewing, you don't really care where you're going, or how long it will take you to get there. You don't care that you can barely move, that darkness is falling, that the clouds are thick, that it's becoming gradually colder, that you're about to be dumped in a town that doesn't appear in your guidebook, that you don't have a raincoat or even a sweater, that you're totally alone. The mind is clean and unbothered, and the body is contented to be at rest, even in the crawlspace of the backseat of a crowded minibus; the swirl of people entering and leaving, the churn of clouds bursting over the mountains, the darting of a neon bird or the scimitar horns of a passing cattle train--it emerges out of a dream-haze that seems as physically tangible as the clouds scattering over the minibus's windshield. Everything is pleasantly unreal. Perhaps the trip will just keep continuing, and this is all there is.

Qat is very bad, a man two seats over from me said at one point in the trip. You must never chew it. We must stop chewing it. He placed another leaf in his mouth.

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