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Yemen’s Big Chew: In Defense of Khat

The other day, a Yemeni friend invited me to his co-worker’s house to chew khat. I receive similar invitations with unfailing regularity; the leafy green plant, as anyone who has spent time here can attest, plays an outsized role in Yemen’s social life.

Introducing myself to those around me, it gradually became clear that I had chewed with more than half of the other people in the room, although never in the same place at the same time. One was a friend of a friend; another worked for a politician I know. Two of the others had seen me at separate chews at the home of a tribal leader from their native district. Another swore he had run into me somewhere, though neither of us could remember where.

This is the world of khat: other countries might have six degrees of separation, but in Yemen, a degree or two of chewing seems to link nearly everyone in the country together. An invitation to chew is, in American social currency, like an invite to a happy hour—they’re usually held after the work day, they tend to be quite informal and they often feature a great deal of venting and discussion.

Plenty of ink has been spilled regarding khat, but reports that cast chewing as catastrophic custom (memorable headline: Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death?) miss the mark. Yes, there are negative effects of excessive khat consumption: its widespread cultivation is straining Yemen’s diminishing aquifers, and many families devote a shocking percentage of their household income to purchasing their daily supply. But I am a khat chewer, and proudly so, because if you want to live in Yemen, and especially if you want to be a correspondent here, khat is the door you have to walk through.

I first chewed khat almost immediately after my arrival in Sanaa and took to it instantly. I’m still not particularly sure why. Khat’s general taste—essentially, different shades of bitterness—isn’t very appealing. I may have gotten used to the sight of green tongues and cheek bulges, but, still, I can’t really argue with those who say there’s something kind of disgusting about the habit itself. The physiological effects aren’t particularly remarkable, though there’s a mild burst of energy and heightened sense of clarity that do seem to make conversations feel smoother and writing flow easier. And the lack of intoxicating effects certainly has its benefits. Ultimately I was—and am—drawn to the way that chewing allows me to blur the divide between Yemeni and foreigner, to structure my social interactions like someone born and raised here and to tacitly dismiss the idea that it should be any different.

I often feel as if chewing is my second job here.

To some extent, it is simply about fitting in. I’ve managed to use khat as a entry point to Yemeni society across nearly every conceivable line. I’ve chewed with radical feminists; I’ve chewed with hard-line Islamist clerics. I’ve chewed with idealistic youth activists; I’ve chewed with arms dealers. Thanks in part to khat, I’ve managed to cover people from all of Yemen’s provinces, politicians from all of Yemen’s major political parties, sheikhs from most of Yemen’s tribes. I can’t really say I did this by pursuing some larger strategy. When you’re chewing, it seems, relationships just happen.

I often feel as if chewing is my second job here, even though it’s closely intertwined with my primary job as a journalist. I almost always accept invitations, whether or not I’m on deadline, and it has nearly always been worth it. It’s not just about the value of making appearances; it’s also about accepting unpredictability, about recognizing the futility of finely tuned plans, especially in a place like Yemen.

I was on deadline when, about a month ago, I received a late night lunch invitation from a prominent member of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress party. I accepted the offer immediately and, as usual, without asking any questions. Twelve hours later, I was sitting in a diwan surrounded by ministers, parliamentarians and officials representing the highest level of the party’s leadership, sitting square across from Ahmed Ali Saleh, the former president’s son and his rumored chosen successor.

“You do know who Ahmed Ali is, right?” the host joked to me a bit later, making light of my apparent nonchalance. Of course, I had nearly fainted when he walked in the room, but I wasn’t about to let that show; nothing kills a Yemeni politician’s khat buzz like an overexcited journalist.

I’m not motivated by altruism in such situations, of course. It’s best not to do anything to disrupt the flow of free-flowing conversation at a chew: I learn more from just listening to the discussion than I do from direct questions. It’s shocking how often I seem to nearly fade into the scenery or, at least, get people to let their guards down. Sheikhs who start off visibly resentful of a random American usually end up excitedly giving me their number by the time we part ways a few hours later. And though khat is no truth serum, people do tend to speak quite openly once things settle into the usual flow. I remember a former official who spent the chew recounting his final conversations with South Yemen’s soon-to-be-slain president during the country’s 1986 civil war. As he wrapped things up, he suddenly grew stone-faced.

“All of what I just said is off the record,” he said. “I guess I forgot you were a journalist.”

Khat is ubiquitous precisely because it does, in some small way, make people forget themselves. Even—or perhaps, especially—when it comes to fraught attempts at conflict resolution, it’s not hard to see the value in keeping people relaxed. Nearly everyone in the room could be wearing a gun—which happens quite a bit in Yemen—but the weaponry seems to fade into the background. With khat, even the most fractious disputes can be resolved without aggression. Arguments at chews aren’t unheard of, but even when they’re between two men with pistols holstered at the waist, there almost never seems to be any chance of violence.

I often wonder if there’s some chemical component of khat that bonds people together; that effect, however, may come less from narcotics and more from sitting with others in discussion for four or five hours at a time. That investment of time is what tends to blur the line between personal and professional relationships.

As a reporter, that’s not always a comfortable blur. I always feel torn when politicians refer to me as a friend. I tell myself that the various political affiliations of my contacts end up canceling each other out. But it can still make it awkward when people ask me for my thoughts on local power brokers. I’ve chewed with them all, and am therefore inclined to feel, at a minimum, some small bond of friendship.

“How lucky we are,” a friend once told me, voice heavy with sarcasm. “As you tell it, we have the nicest politicians in the world.”

Other activist friends have jokingly referred to me as an “enemy of the civil state” because I’ve chewed with some staunch opponents of Yemen’s Arab spring. But deep down I suspect they’re generally just harassing me about not chewing more often with them.

Such occasional gripes notwithstanding, it is impossible for me to calculate how many hours I’ve spent chewing with my closest Yemeni friends; just seeing the number would probably be enough for me to swear off the plant altogether. The real miracle is that me and my friends haven’t gotten tired of each other. Even after listening to each other talk for hours and hours on end, it always feels too soon when the late hour bids us home.

I often wonder how much of this is can be credited to khat, or whether I’m mistaking correlation for causality. I would have clicked with most of them regardless, but would we have grown so close, to the point that my different nationality, religion and culture feel more like minor details? It is hard to believe that it would have happened without khat, this most social of substances. Regardless, I think I’ve learned something I can eventually bring back home to the United States without bringing the leaves home: spend a lot of time listening to people, and before long they will understand you, and you them.

[Top image by Fernando Reus]

Adam Baron
Adam Baron is a writer and political analyst based in Beirut. Follow him on twitter @adammbaron.
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