Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tales of the Demented Traveller

Qat tales from Yemen
Stories by Emerson Grossmith (originally published in "Big World" Travel magazine)
Turkish Citadel, my home in Zabid.
The bulbul or nightingale is chirping in the nearby papaya trees and the diesel pumps are starting up again—it must be morning. The sun blinds me as it creeps through my British Army mosquito net. I kill the last of the blood-sucking mosquitoes as their swollen bodies prevent them from escaping. I manage to somehow crawl out of my mosquito net just before I roast under the gruelling Yemeni sun. I live within the medieval Turkish citadel of Zabid, which is located on the Tihama Plain in Yemen. We dubbed this the Qasr Keall (Fort Keall) in honour of Dr. Keall, who is referred to as the mudhir. Qasr Keall is to be my home for the next two months of excavations. However, it is only 6:00am and I am already starting to sweat—not a good sign!

Qat chewing camelteer, near Zabid citadel.
I rise too quickly from my makeshift bed and almost pass out. After regaining consciousness, I curse having spent last evening with the ‘boys’ for the pleasure of chewing qat and drinking gin—again. What were formally bad habits are now starting to become part of my daily routine. Blame it on the sun, I say. The ‘boys’ are two Yemeni archaeologists who I am entrusted to teach some of the finer aspects of Islamic archaeology. In addition to their studies, they also have a penchant for strong booze and the dreaded narcotic plant of the Arabian Peninsula— qat. The chewing of qat (pronounced kat) is rampant throughout the Arabian peninsula and eastern Africa. Local tradition relates that the qat bush wasoriginally brought over to the Arabian Peninsula some 700 years ago. According to the Koran, the consumption of qat is permitted whereas the consumption of alcohol is forbidden.

Last night, we were celebrating the fact that we had been able to get contraband liquor in spite of it being forbidden in Yemen. To procure the evil spirits involved an epic 11/2-hour high-speed taxi drive from Zabid to the contraband capital of Yemen—Mafraq. In fact, all taxi trips in Yemen take on epic proportions, especially when the drivers are under the influence of qat—which is usually the case.
Mafraq literally means ‘junction’ in Arabic and it is nothing more than a tumble down ghost town. I expected to see Angel Eyes—Clint Eastwood amble down the street at any moment. We pulled up beside a nondescript gas station, whereupon two rough looking characters lurched out of the shade. At first, I thought we were going to be carjacked but it turns out that these ruffians wanted to take our orders--
"Ahmar or abyan, or red or white" they asked.
I wondered what the hell they were on about. 
Then the two Yemeni guys smiled and told us--
"White is Beefeater Gin or vodka" said the younger guy.
"And red is Johnnie Walker Red or whiskey." said the other guy, smiling through his blackened teeth. 
Naturally, we chose the gin— it mixes better with the local limejuice. The liquor is smuggled by boat across the Red Sea from Djibouti and is primarily sold to westerners but quite often it finds its way into Yemeni households. However, there is no law that forbids westerners from consuming alcohol. As a result, the boys are happy because this means that they can buy as much liquor as they want without the fear of being hassled by the police who check for contraband at the many checkpoints. The taxi ride back to Zabid was rather merry—complete with beer for the driver, qat to make the time fly and a box of gin that would keep the staff going for a couple of days and make the journey less painful.

The ‘boys’, Hassan and Ali are a lot younger than I am but years of working in this hostile climate and evenings of copious spirituous libations have taken their toll on them. For the record, I don’t know how many more of these late nights I can handle with sundowners but it passes the time as we have no TV, internet--only my trusty old SONY short-wave radio and the BBC World Service for entertainment. Nevertheless, we all have to be up and ready to work by 6 am, or the mudhir will feed our bones to the kites that fly ominously over our heads. After a moment or two, I stumble off the roof in the general direction of our hammam or toilet. At the foot of the stairs I meet Ahmed and he looks much worse than I feel. He has a sheepish grin and greets me in the traditional manner—
Sabah al-khayr’ (Good morning).
Blood streams to my brain and I finally respond with —
Sabah ha noor’ (Morning of light).
We then shake hands and he asks me—
Kayf halek?’ (How are you?).
Not missing a beat, I respond—
Mush tammam’ (Not well) and continue with—
Qat mish qwayiss!’ (Qat is no good!)
Hassan laughs or rather croaks, as his lungs are trying to work after a night of cigarette smoking and chewing qat. Hassan’s grin is a cross between a Cheshire cat’s grin and a dental hygienist’s nightmare. Most Yemenis suffer from blackened teeth as the result of too much sugar in their black tea. For that matter, neither of us is a pretty sight and maybe the black kites will have us for a meal after all.

The sun is starting to arc over the battlements and yes; it is going to be another hot day of digging outside the citadel of Zabid. Work comes and goes as the boys are back to chewing qat in the afternoon either under the shade of the papaya trees or in the cool recesses of the many Turkish arches that line the compound. Most of our Yemeni staff chew qat daily and I think that it must be an expensive habit. Most books refer to qat as either a “mild stimulant’ or a “mildly narcotic leaf, but they claim— it is not addictive. I beg to differ! Perhaps, these so-called authorities have never tried the drug. Hassan and Ali made a recent trip to Canada as a guest of the mudhir. Ali recounted to me the story of how Hassan had experienced what would appear to be classic drug withdrawal symptoms from qat: nausea and profuse sweating even though it was -10 C degrees outside. The lads were lucky that Toronto has a large Somali population and some of the shopkeepers have a steady supply of qat flown in on daily Somali Air flights. However, the boys paid the inflated price of $50 for a bundle of qat that would normally cost them $5 in the qat souk in Sana’a. I wondered if this is where the term gadzouks came from? Moreover, both Hassan and Ali have been chewing qat since they were teenagers and it doesn’t look like they are about to quit anytime soon!

Be that as it may, the chewing of qat is an essential part of the Yemeni social fabric for both men and women. From 2pm till 6pm, all of Yemen shuts down strictly for the purpose of chewing qat. Moreover, if one is to really experience Yemen then one must chew qat. And, if one is to chew qat, then one has to chew a lot of it—usually one kilo worth of the green stuff. There are about four grades of qat ranging from rough woody sections or trucker grade to the finer quality top end leaves like Shami and Hamdani varieties. There is a discernible taste difference between the cheaper and expensive varieties: the lower you go on the bush the rougher the leaves and the most tender leaves come from the upper branches. 


An afternoon qat chewing session, Wadi Zabid.
To enjoy the pleasures of qat, one must be comfortable. One afternoon I decided to walk up the Wadi Zabid, where I came upon a man and his friends who were ensconced in their afternoon ritual of chewing qat. They had all the accoutrements that should accompany the qat chewing ritual: tihama beds with thick cushions, freshly picked qat, wet tobacco for the narghile or waterpipe, cold water for drinking and an extension tube for the narghile. All the comforts of home brought outside for an afternoon of muted conversations and friendship under the shade of the eucalyptus trees. Qat is an Old World narcotic whereas tobacco is a New World drug and in this small Yemeni yard we have the melding of East meets West.

The men beckoned me to join them but I refused their offer, as I wanted to continue with my exploration of the Wadi Zabid. Later on, I did succumb to chewing qat. I was invited to a qat chewing party that was hosted by our local antiquities representative of Zabid—AK. Most qat parties take place on the upper storey of a house in a room called the mafrajsh—this is the man’s domain. The mafrajsh at AK’s house was pocked with mihrab-like niches that were cut into the plaster walls. These niches are used to store family relics, Islamic posters of the Islamic Holiest place—the Ka’aba, Yemeni banners and the obligatory photo of the recently elected President Saleh. It was both quaint and comfortable at the same time.

As I entered the room, windows were opened so that fresh air would relieve the afternoon heat and air out the billows of stale smoke that had formed from the water pipe. I was accompanied to AK’s house by my two younger Yemeni compadres—Ahmed and Habib. They propped me up with embroidered cushions next to my gracious host AK. AK was our antiquities representative for Zabid and he was obliged to oversee daily operations of our excavations. But, because his wife was expecting, he managed to only show up on pay day. At any rate, he always invited me to come to his place after work and join with him and some friends in “the chewing of qat”. For the most part, I had been able to gracefully decline saying that the mudhir was to blame for my refusal. This was because the mudhir had established a camp policy in which the first commandment sayeth that: “There will be no chewing of qat in the afternoons of work days” followed by “on the weekends you can do what you bloody well like”.
Fair enough, this was the end of the workweek and I was going to do what I bloody well liked—chewing qat with the locals. A refusal to oblige the host would have been considered the height of rudeness—so I gave in to the powers of qat.

Qat chewing is a special occasion and usually the men put on their finest to celebrate the event. AK and his friends were reclined on cushions, deep in conversation, smoking from an ornate narghile whilst Yemeni oud music played feebly from an antiquated ghettoblaster. Each guest had huge wads of qat jammed into their cheeks— they were well on their way to nirvana. Actually, the correct term here is qayf— a kind of transitory state of higher consciousness or an awakened state of being. Something akin to the trance-state that the “whirling dervishes” of the Sufi sect enter into during the course of their whirling dance.

I was handed a bag of what looked like spinach. It was, in fact, high-grade qat. OK, now what do I do? The ritual starts: Ahmed pulled an individual stem of qat between his fingers, flicked at the leaves with his index finger, plucked off the best leaves and handed them to me (I was told later that the qat farmers still use DDT spray on the plants!). The aim of this venture is to stuff as many leaves into your left cheek as humanly possible, spit out the juice and end up with jowls that would make Dizzie Gillespie envious. Apparently, those men with the bigger bulge (in their cheeks!) are admired the most in Yemen. Hence, the nickname for Ahmed is al-Dim, or one who chews too much qat.

Throughout the afternoon vast quantities of qat were consumed, as were cups of sweet chai or tea, local tobacco in the water pipe and the chewing of either clove or cardamom pods (which is said to heighten the effects of qat). The chewing of qat in association with cardamom is said to arouse the sexual appetite in men and women. As a result, cardamom is not offered to unmarried men lest they become over amorous. I didn’t have any appetite for food that night and this is apparently one of the other side effects from chewing qat. At 5:30pm, the chewing of qat came to an abrupt end and I was instructed to spit out the great seething wad of green phlegm that had formed in my left cheek. That was a relief and I felt a kilo lighter but I felt like I was in a trance. I can see it now, the weekly meetings of QA (Qats Anonymous—“I was powerless against qat”). Unfortunately, I didn’t heed the last piece of advice regarding spitting out of the juice from the qat and I swallowed most of the active ingredients cathin, cathinon and residual DDT. Sometime later, at four in the morning, I was lying in bed, gazing upon the black universe and still flying.

Night watchman, Misgagi chewing qat.
Back at the citadel, our night watchman— Misgagi enjoys chewing his qat during the afternoons, much to the disdain of the mudhir. According to the mudhir, Misgagi had borrowed money from his father-in-law in order to buy some land and Misgagi was having trouble paying back the loan. The mudhir felt sorry for Misgagi’s plight and offered to help him out of his predicament. In addition to daytime work on the site, the mudhir also gave Misgagi an added bonus of being our night watchman—an additional 500 Yemeni rials per night. However, the mudhir was furious when he found out that Misgagi was spending this added bonus on qat rather than paying off his loan. This was oblivious to Misgagi, who sang loudly while stringing his tihama bed in a qat induced state under the arch of the Bab al-Nasr. This area was the gathering place for the Yemeni staff who wanted to chew qat and enjoy the cooling breezes that swept through the arch in the afternoon.

On one trip back to Zabid, our taxi driver must have thought that his gerry-rigged 1970 Peugeot 905 had been transformed into a Formula One racing car and that he was Gilles Villeneuve on the Grand Prix circuit. I think Gilles would have been proud of him, as our taxi driver drove like a madman around the many hairpin turns of the Ta’izz to Zabid highway. Back in the 1960’s, the Chinese government helped build these tight, Yemeni highland roads—however, they forgot to build the roads so that two cars could pass each other safely. As a result, it was not unusual for our driver to pass another car on a blind curve, which caused no end of excitement. No doubt, the chewing of qat brought on this aggressive road rage exhibited by our driver.

We stopped at a rather precarious 9,000-foot pass to take pictures of the 1000-year old terraces that have been cut from the arid landscape of the western slopes of Yemen. Despite the dryness of this land, the farmers do get a considerable amount of rainfall during the rainy season. It was during the 1800’s that these terraces were used to grow coffee for the burgeoning coffee trade in Europe. However, in the past 50 years this has all changed as the farmers now, would rather grow the more profitable qat. A hectare of qat can bring five times the profit as a hectare of coffee. Moreover, as qat plantations proliferated, the price of the weed dropped dramatically and now anyone can afford it. According to some statistics, up to 30% of many Yemeni household’s monthly income goes towards buying qat—at the expense of buying food.

The taxi stopped and everyone scrambled out of the crowded car and made a beeline for the closest tree or bush. Everyone that is but me—my door would not open. All of a sudden the taxi lurched forward toward the abyss—a 6,000-foot drop. For some reason, the taxi driver had forgotten to put the parking brake on. I panicked. I suddenly remembered that my life insurance wasn’t paid up! Just before I sailed into the deep blue yonder, the driver noticed my plight and deftly put a rock under a rear tire and in doing so, spared me the ride of a lifetime. After exchanging pleasantries, he managed to open the rusted door and I rushed to the nearest bush to relieve myself like never before.

Highlanders buying qat at a traffic jam, near Manakhah.
After awhile, a long while, my nerves finally calmed down and we continued on our way to the capital of Yemen—Sana’a. We came around a hairpin curve and ran smack into a traffic jam that included several men yelling and waving branches of green twigs at our taxi driver. This is the Yemeni version of a drive-in qat shop, complete with young boys who are struggling with ancient AK-47’s that are slung haphazardly over their tiny shoulders. In no time, our taxi driver and Habib got into an argument over the inflated price of qat. Gradually things settled down and they bought enough qat to last the drive to Sana’a. Yemen is not the only country in this region to be cursed by wide spread use of qat. You can find other varieties of qat or Cathea endulis in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and it is smuggled into Saudi Arabia from Yemen. Apart from its unusual narcotic properties, a trip to Yemen would not complete without trying “the little green twig of paradise”.

2 comments:

  1. Your writing is as beautiful as your photographs!

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