Scrabble and the UIC

January 23, 2007 at 1:28 pm (Sam's Posts)

I always wondered what the word “Qat” meant, because I had used it so many times in Scrabble games to get rid of the ‘Q’ when I didn’t have a ‘U’. As it turns out, there’s a fascinating story behind it.

Qat, or khat, is a plant with leaves that, when chewed, release cathinone, a ketone amphetamine that is classified as a Schedule I drug in the U.S (read: illegal), along with heroin, cannabis, and MDMA, among others. However, the plant loses its potency steadily after it is harvested, to the point where it becomes a Schedule IV drug (read: legal) in the U.S. after 48 hours.

Here’s where it gets interesting: There are no regulations on qat in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The plant, which, I read, was originally cultivated in Ethiopia, was brought to Yemen seven centuries ago, and is now the primary contributor to Yemen’s GDP. In the past few decades, qat consumption has so pervaded society that at least one survey estimates consistent qat usage at 90% of the male population in Yemen. Again, there are no regulations on qat there, so qat farmers take advantage of recent infrastructural improvements to ship the leaves to urban Yemen, as well as to Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, as fast as possible in order to maximize its potency (this means that most qat is picked in the morning, and used in the afternoon). Apparently every home in Yemen has a well-kept room devoted solely to qat sessions, which happen more or less every day after lunch. People seem to say that it gives clarity and promotes healthy dialogue, often leading to its use in business deals. But many others argue that qat is shortening the work day and drastically decreasing productivity. Many also suspect that qat is harmful to one’s health. Attempts to regulate qat in Yemen have met substantial resistance in the past; the people, and the economy, rely upon it.

Here’s what the Regional Office of the Eastern Mediterranean for WHO says, regarding Yemeni health:

“In recent years the lifestyle of Yemenis has radically changed with fast food, a sedentary lifestyle, the tension of modern city life, smoking, obesity, and  lack of physical activity. Ischaemic heart disease and hypertension have become another health problem in Yemen. Almost all male Yemenis chew khat, and khat chewing among women and school-age children has increased markedly. It is well known that khat raises blood pressure and heart rate. Cathinone, the active ingredient in khat leaves, produces severe coronary vasospasm in animal models. Khat also increases the desire to smoke, produces more nervous tension, increases sympathetic activity, and encourages a sedentary life.”

(Report on the WHO STEPwise surveillance system (for Egypt, Sudan, and the Republic of Yemen))

The qat-chewing phenomenon is fascinating in itself to me. But one more thing to consider – qat is also harvested and used in Somalia. At the very end of some news articles (Western media outlets, of course)covering Somali current events, hidden amidst AL-QAEDA! and REPRESSION!, is the fact that the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) has, among its many stabilizing actions, banned qat from Somalia. Of course, I don’t mean to ignore whatever violations of individual rights that the UIC may have committed, and I think it’s very important to consider the qat farmers whose livelihoods were made illegal – but I am again reminded that something so vital to national, and international, stability as governmental health policy can be completely ignored in the media when it comes to the war on terror.



  1. msoule said,

    The “war on terror” glosses over all kinds of things (America’s responsibility for its actions that have caused the sentiment that drives it, for one). But the fact that the Islamic courts have struck qat use is of no surprise to me. Muslims don’t customarily drink anything stronger than juice nor do they use other mind-altering substances. In my understanding, the use of such substances is unclean and impure in the eyes of God. Except in this case. I assume that the report on Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen is mostly reporting on the activities of Muslim men. The fact that the use of this substance is somehow condoned culturally is definitely an interesting anomaly.

    i’d be most interested to know just how intoxicating this stuff is. If it’s in the same category as MDMA and heroin when fresh, it’s gotta have some kind of big kick to it. Is it more like cannabis or more like heroin, though?

    How long do you think this qat prohibition will last? And how much do you wanna bet that there’s qat bootleggers in Somalia? We all know how well the Temperance Movement in the States fared.

  2. sstolper said,

    This thing continues to hover just below the radar, slowly gaining momentum. I feel like in 10 years this is going to be a big issue.

    A few weeks ago there was an article in the BBC about khat’s destructive effect on the water supply of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.

    “Yemenis have about one-fiftieth as much water per head as the world average.”

    “Of the country’s scarce water, 40% goes on irrigating khat”


    Also, to bolster my claims of the increasing momentum of qat, let me point out that the Economist also did a piece a few weeks ago on the lucrative qat trade in England. Of course, since the phenomenon only affects immigrants, there’s still not much concern. But soon enough.

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