Me Chewing Qat in Yemen

Chewing Qat (aka “Getting High”) In Yemen

Derek Yemen 100 Comments

Me Chewing Qat in Yemen

If there’s one word that I heard more than any other during my stay in Yemen, it is the word ‘qat’. And the reason that word is so important is because, at approximately 2pm every single day, the entire nation stops everything they are doing and focuses on qat and on qat only.

Qat is a plant that is grown all over Yemen, on what seems to be every square inch of land, whether in the valleys or on the mountainsides, that could be used to grow a plant. When the leaves of the plant are fresh, they are chewed, an activity that leads to a state of increased excitement with the possibility of mild euphoria as a bonus. This state is the result of a stimulant similar to amphetamine that is found in the plant and which, using the best description I’ve heard, acts as if you’re drinking endless cups of very strong coffee. Qat, and the substance it contains, is actually illegal in many countries and its use is mostly limited to Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and a handful of other countries in the same geographical area.

In Yemen, people chew qat while walking, sitting, talking, driving, working and just about anything else they might be doing. And when I say ‘people’, I am referring to what appears to be the entire over-18 male population of the country as well as many women, who also chew the leaves according to their husbands at least.

It’s quite traditional for Yemeni males to wear a jambiya every day, a curved ceremonial blade that is displayed in the front by wedging it into a thick belt. And when qat time comes around, most males suddenly have a huge bag of leaves hanging from the handle of their knife so that they have easy access to their qat.

This is not just some hobby. Every male I met admitted that they were addicted to qat and that the only way they could stop chewing it was if they had no money at all and couldn’t afford even the cheapest variety, which runs about 500 rials ($2 USD) for a huge bag.

Did I try it out? Of course I did. Not a day went by when a local person didn’t give me a gift of qat to chew and you know how it goes…when you receive a gift of qat, it’s certainly rude to refuse.

HOW DOES CHEWING QAT WORK?

Morning – Go to the Qat Market to buy your daily supply, choosing the best quality that you can afford. Qat typically stays fresh for one day so most people buy a new batch every day.

Qat Market in Yemen

Qat Market, Jebel, Yemen

1:30pm – Eat a massive lunch.

Lunch in Yemen

2:00pm – Pull out your bag of qat, find a comfortable mufrage (sitting room designed specifically for chewing qat that can be found in every home, restaurant and hotel and may sometimes be located outside) and get into the proper qat chewing position. See below photos for an example…

Mufrage in Yemen

2:01pm – Start chewing qat by first pulling the leaves out of the plastic bag. Then, place a few leaves and stems into your mouth and chew on them for a minute before stuffing those leaves and stems, using your tongue, into the inner cheek on one side of your mouth. Continue chewing the leaves slowly, squeezing out the juice, while stuffing more and more leaves into your mouth the entire time until you have a bulge in your cheek the size of ?????. And then you repeat the process, over and over and over and over and over again, never spitting the growing mass of leaves out of your mouth.

Chewing Qat in Yemen 5

3:00pm – Keep on chewing qat, crunching up those leaves and growing that bulge.

Chewing Qat in Yemen 4

4:00pm – Don’t stop now! Keep chewing.

Chewing Qat in Yemen 3

5:00pm – You guessed it…chew away my friends!

Chewing Qat in Yemen 6

6:00pm – The weakest qat chewers will now spit their mushy ball of chewed up leaves out of their mouth while the stronger ones will continue going for many hours more.

Chewing Qat in Yemen

Some time in the night – The qat session finally comes to an end and you spit out the remaining qat from your mouth. You drink a cup of black tea and then you sit there on the cushioned floor of the mufrage, trying to engage in some conversation with the others around you until dinner is served or it’s time for sleep.

Chewing Qat in Yemen 2

WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF QAT?

As mentioned above, qat users get a bit excited and as a result, they will often become extremely talkative and hyper, spitting out words in such a rapid and animated fashion to anyone who will listen. However, it also seemed to me that just as many users I met were perfectly content to sit in silence, staring at the wall and minding their own business.

Behind the scenes, your blood pressure and heart rate increase, you lose your appetite and to top it off, you become constipated. Long term effects may include cancer of the mouth, depression and psychosis, all fun stuff.

Growing Qat in Yemen

MY EXPERIENCE CHEWING QAT

It was okay. Seemed like quite an effort for such a little buzz. The qat made me a bit spacey and somewhat hyper, and I had a good time as a result, but it took four hours of chewing leaves to get there. However, with a 65% unemployment rate in Yemen, I can understand the appeal. A quick high would leave most people with very little to do all afternoon and evening. Qat fills in the day.

But for me, all that chewing was a painstaking process as the inside of my mouth became sore and raw, the stuff kept me awake at night and I’m quite sure that it messed with my digestive system. And that’s after only chewing qat for one week.

Would I do it again? Sure, simply because that’s the thing to do in Yemen and in the end, it is a social activity. Had I not chewed qat I probably would not have had the same interactions and conversations with locals that I ended up having. Qat honestly helped bridge the tourist gap, allowing me to take a few more steps closer to the culture I wanted to learn about.

I could definitely have done without the constipation though.


Have you ever tried qat? Would you try it?

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Comments 100

  1. Ameena

    Hi Earl,
    I have friends from many countries and two are from Yeman and spoke about Gat a few times and I alway thought It was tobaco. Then when I heard one of my friends who is doing an Abnormal Psychology masters talk about her dissertation that is on mephedrone (slang name meow meow). This chemical is an extraction from Gat and cause short term memory problems, hallucinations etc. There are many harmful long term physical and mental effects. She then mention a leaf used in African areas, this drew me google ‘Gat’ to see if that was the leaf she was talking about, and here I am giving a big thankyou as you have made me more knowledgable and helped my friend with a little more info on Gat. THANK YOU!
    Ameena

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Ameena – That is definitely qat and one of my friend’s who is a psychiatrist has told me that one of the chemicals in the leaf is what is used in a recreational drug that is apparently getting popular around the world, called ‘bath salts’. It definitely has negative effects and is not something that is too good for anyone at all.

  2. ahlam

    hi,

    am a woman live in yemen, i chew qat every day and i will tell you one thing, yemen is the worst country in the world, but qat is the best thing in yemen and about yemen.. to me its life especilay with hookah hhhhh … trust me 🙂

    come earl again and i will show you a true qat experiment .. lol

  3. jewamongyou

    I tried some in Israel, among Yemeni Jews. I didn’t chew it nearly long enough to get any effect. It’s illegal in Israel, so I guess that makes me a criminal. I agree with your assessment; it’s main value is social. It’s way too much trouble for just a minor buzz.

  4. Sara

    I’m born American but still got my Yemeni roots, yet never tried qat and never will because it just looks nasty. Im glad you got the yemeni culture experience. However, qat is really killing the nation and it def should be banned this way Yemen can get up their ass and start working and making better lives for the future. But this is what they been doing so who are we to stop them.

    Hahaha At the constipation . I hope you tasted aseed or salta even better sabayah while you were there.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Sara – Qat is definitely a major problem over there and it’s going to be a hard one to fix. I certainly would like to see it banned as well if that would help lead to some improvements for the people of the country. And yes, I did taste all of that Yemeni food as well 🙂

  5. Mike Mills

    I came across your blog by proving to someone qat was a valid Words entry. I tried it in Salalah a year ago with much the same results. Enjoyed. Wondering if you have traveled to Iran. Tehran specifically, as I lived there as a teen in the 70s and am considering a return.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Mike – Ha, that’s a cool way to find the blog! As for Iran, I have not been. I’d like to go but I’ll wait until US citizens are allowed to go without being with a guide all the time. It might be awhile but hopefully not.

  6. azi

    hi their i have reading your article so many times since you posted it. i like it. i am from East Africa Ethiopia but i live in U.S.A and almost have of the population back home use khat as a social gathering and time to time it become normal. i hate that but what can i do. thank you for your ab-date

  7. Ahmed Adamz

    Hello earl, Amazing article, I live in somalia and frankly speaking chewing khat is the main cause of poverty, unemployment etc in those regions..I dont recommend anyone to chew khat..but im glad you try and feel the stimulation. I enjoy reading ur articles.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Ahmed – I have definitely read about the negative economic effects of khat and I believe the same is true for Yemen as well. On a side note, I appreciate you reading the article and am glad you are enjoying the site!

  8. Khalid Alshahari

    Haha. Nice pics by the way, I’m Khalid, from Yemen. It’s hard to find beautiful spots these days except on the mountains. Anyways great article, Earl. Like the enthusiasm too. Lol. If you ever think of coming again, be sure to go to Aden.
    P.S: What hotel did you stay in?
    P.P.S: Not only people over 18 chew Qat.
    Thanks for visiting

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Ramy – Using the word ‘high’ just means ‘being affected in some way by a drug’, or at least that’s what I meant. And since qat does contain an amphetamine-like substance, that does affect someone who uses it, that’s why I use the term.

  9. Mohammed

    Dear Earl,

    I really enjoyed reading this article & the pics are cool too 🙂
    I’m from Yemen and i’m chewing Qat now as well .. lol xD
    Just wanted to say hi & come visit us again!

    Thank you! 🙂

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Mohammed – Haha…I hope you have a nice muffrage to chew your qat in 🙂 I will certainly do my best to get back to Yemen at some point. Thanks for the comment!

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  15. Lauren

    Earl,
    Thanks for responding to my post about safety, and sorry for waiting so long to write back. You are probably right about chewing qat making no difference in you being kidnapped, and I just hope that the people that you meet in general are safe, especially since you’ve been kidnapped before.

  16. Sara

    Ha! I love those photos of you! Qat seems like an interesting experience. I would probably try it out of respect if it was a local custom, but that’s a LOT of leaves in your mouth! That hotel room looks gorgeous! Can’t wait for more updates on your stay in Yemen!

  17. Karisa

    That certainly sounds like an interesting experience! I’m curious if you ever saw any women chewing quat? What do the women do all day while their husbands/sons/fathers/brothers are sitting around chewing all day? lol

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Karisa – Yes, the women chew qat as well, just in a different room than the men. Although, they don’t chew nearly as much.

  18. Andy

    Should I ever visit Yemen I’d certainly chew my share of Qat with them… and then let them try an overdose of my beloved Yerba Mate tea for comparison! 😉

  19. Will

    Is qat the same stuff they chew in Somalia?

    I’ve never heard of qat before but I would try it. But like you said it takes a lot of work!

  20. Thomas Dembie

    Great post! Seems like much of the world has the same tradition! I first discovered this in Burma. It certainly does a number on your teeth if you go at it over time like many people do!

  21. Steve C

    It seems that wherever you go, each culture has it’s way of escaping reality from something that grows locally. Great Post! Now I have another escape path to put on my list of things to dooooooooooo…………….

    I’m with you in that I think travelers should engage in the local pleasures. It’s a great way to make friends even though it brings a lot of laughs and giggles when you’re doing it with them. Betel Nut anyone?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Steve – That’s how I feel…doing something like qat for a week is well worth it considering the benefits of meeting new people, all of whom are excited to see a foreigner trying out their local tradition. The interactions really are much deeper when you do partake in such activities.

  22. Rebecca

    I’d heard of qat before, and knew it was some sort of drug that Ethiopians used, but didn’t know much more than that! I don’t think I would try it, because there seems to be much more bad things about it than good..

  23. Julio Moreno

    LoL, awesome, I guess I better book my flight to Yemen. This might be an ignorant question, but is Yemen relatively safe to travel? I usually scoff at calling a country unsafe (as apparently even South Korea is considered unsafe at the moment) but Yemen suffers, more than anything, from lack of information. I have been having the hardest time locating relevant articles on the country in general. (if you have more articles, please link me!)

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Julio – I will be writing about the safety situation more in depth in the next week or so. It’s a complicated situation at the moment but I’ll do my best to provide all of the information I gathered.

  24. Cameron

    @Ellen: many women in Yemen chew qat, much fewer than the men, but *never* in public (same with smoking), and most would not admit it, unless asked privately. Ask your friends one on one. Go to a ladies’ party / birth / wedding (always segregated), you might see it. Go to a woman’s home privately with her friends, you will eventually have a chance.

  25. Cameron

    Entertaining read.
    Re: conversations you could not have had, do you actually *remember* them? My experience sitting long hours with people chewing (never chewed in 15 years in Yemen), is that people on qat think they are brilliant when they are being stupid, and afterwards they are often disappointed that they cannot remember the brilliant ideas they had… Also, it is not the speed of their speech that is the problem; that baseball in the mouth messes up pronunciation, and produces a lot of incoherence. “Yaayy!” passes for a complete sentence. I always laugh when Yemenis complement my Arabic – it ain’t that great; a qat chewer’s is just so bad…
    Qat is completely legal and heavily taxed in Yemen, like cigarettes. I believe it is legal in Ethiopia and Djibouti as well, and as for Somalia, “what’s a law?”. It is both haram and very illegal in most other Muslim countries in region, and illegal in the US. May be permitted in the UK – not sure.
    @Mike: “good for ulcers and gastritis” – yeah, if you want both, chew qat. Mouth, throat and stomach cancer are three of the top five cancers in Yemen; very rare elsewhere.
    Re: unemployment, this is a chicken-and-egg problem. Qat destroys productivity and, critically, motivation. It is a major reason Yemen’s economy is in the toilet, and no one can sustain any effort to make real changes in society – Yemen’s revolution is going nowhere. Look at the countries where qat is widely chewed – real jewels, all of them, and Yemen is their Queen. At least no one starves here (yet).
    Check out Earl’s eyes – I am sure he is joking around, but he emulates the actual glazed look qat chewers get after a while – sort of like a goat, after you whack it on the head really hard…
    I guess enjoy it if you can.

    1. alkahest

      Is it the qat, or simply the state of the nations which cause the unemployment, I doubt a mild stimulant would cause that sort of economic hardship, also, farmers switch to it because of increased profit and likely hardship growing a vast variety of plants in the region.

      If unemployment was 65% in Canada or America, would we blame all the coffee these individuals drink all day as their reason for being unable to work?

      Individuals throughout the world really need to gain some proper, reasonable perspective when it comes to hebal medication, even the ones which are overused by individuals throughout the world.

      Great article, would be great to see more scientific sources for the effects, and the detrimental properties of the plant(s) you mention now, and in future posting, keep up the work, your reading is interesting for individuals who do not currently have the opportunity to travel.

      1. Wandering Earl

        @alkahest: The major difference between coffee and qat is that in Yemen, the main reason for earning money is to buy qat for so many people. That’s the priority due to the addiction. I don’t think qat is solely responsible for unemployment, but it certainly keeps people from being too motivated!

        Thanks for reading and offering your thoughts!

        1. alkahest

          Here to point out that if articules keep springing up about these enthobotanicals which ‘get you high’ when you are travelling, and linking such herbs too unemployment in the minds of the uneducated reading the articles, this heightens the chances of these ethnobotanicals becomming targetting to be made illegal. Mitragyna speciosa is the latest victim of this “war on drugs” in the US, and kratom is the only plant which patients could rely on to safely and effectively taper of heroin, morphine, oxycodone, codeine, fentanyl, now, if that move to make it illegal spread, patients are given no other opportunity. Now, in those states, there is no other option besides methadone or suboxone for tapering effectively of their primary pain relief medication.
          Pain relief patients will subsequently not obtain quality relief from any opiate after lengthy periods on either of those two opioids. As for users getting “high” of kratom, these individuals will now likely switch to oxycodone, morphine or heroin as kratom is illegal in their state yet they are used to havint those particular receptors tickled, so if they cannot recieve kratom, they go for the options which ARE available to them still, the illicit one. How is this a ‘harm reduction’ move in any way/shape or form?

          There is a systematic demantling of the herbal industry across america, it is occuring one herb/ethnobotanical at a time, and it is sickening and disheartening to witness and see year after year. The laws are slowly herding the masses towards using only pharmaceutical remedies; well what about the individuals who get SICK off their pharmaceuticals when similar herbal counterparts keep their body healthy and regulated, ie. keep their life in one healthy piece, instead of fracturing it and causing more and more problems the longer the chemical pharmaceutical is taken in [protracted withdrawals of benzodiazepeines and pain relievers come to mind (patients have no choice if they are relying on these medicines in a proper-use context).

          These forceful actions will come to harm us all if they are left to carry on in this format.

  26. Ellen

    Fascinating post! I would certainly try it (probably just once, though), but I’m guessing this activity is limited to men. What are the women doing while the men are sitting around chewing qat? Cooking and cleaning I suppose.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Ellen – The women actually chew qat as well, although not as much as the men. So I guess you would be chewing too!

  27. Jade

    I feel exactly the same way about Qat- it’s a lot of jaw ache for little benefit! But it is the perfect accompaniment to a long, bumpy bus ride with locals in Ethiopia:)
    They chew it with bumble gum to take away the sour taste… Doesn’t help too much!
    Can’t wait to here more about the Yemen!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Jade – I’ve heard about the bubble gum but they don’t do that in Yemen…just straight up qat.

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  29. Terry D

    I wonder what it would be like to juice qat and drink it. Also, do you pronounce it like ‘cat’? Yemen seems really cool, looking forward to more stories!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Terry – It is pronounced like ‘khat’ and I’ve heard that in some countries, there is a qat tea.

  30. Stephen

    Great post. Thanks for introducing us to the wonderful world of qat. I guess I would try it if I was there…sounds like it led to some interesting conversations and some sort of acceptence; good if you’re a traveler. Nice photos, too! Made me laugh.

  31. Traveling Ted

    Looks similar to chewing tobacco although it seems to have some positive aspects instead of being completely negative. 65% unemployment is a pretty crazy number. I guess chewing qat is better than doing squat.

  32. Mike

    I chewed it for a couple of hours in Ethiopia. It acted as a mild stimulant, really greened my mouth and curbed my appetite a bit. It’s said to be good for ulcers and gastritis. It is a green leafy plant so I s’pose that makes sense.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Mike – Hadn’t heard that about the ulcers and gastritis but I definitely suffered the same green mouth you did!

  33. Dalene

    Haha, I was coming to leave the exact same comment. I am such a scrabble nerd.

    P.S. Those rooms are GORGEOUS. I am really taken with the windows! I hope you have more pictures of that to share.

    P.P.S. Earl – you have something in your teeth.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Dalene – Haha…and I’m sure there is still green crap in my teeth right now, a week later. Getting it all out was quite a chore! And yes, I’ll be doing a full post about the hotel I stayed at in Sanaa because it was one of my favorite hotels I’ve ever slept in.

  34. Cindy Thistle

    Very interesting and entertaining post. I’m always glad to see someone so in tune with what they’re goals are. Good on ya Earl.

  35. Mzuri

    I really enjoyed the hell out of a book called Eating the Flowers of Paradise: One Man’s Journey Through Ethiopia and Yemen. The Flowers of Paradise being qat. There are part of this book that are hilarious, including the jokes the author learned from Ethiopians and Yemeni.

    In Ethiopia, folks call the trucks carrying qat from fields to market “Al Qaida” because the drivers terrorize people on the road because they drive so fast – as it is imperative for the qat to be fresh.

    Fluttering plastic, blue bags litter many towns of Ethiopia, evidence of the daily, afternon qat habit. (The leaves are placed in the plastic bags for the customers.) Fields that used to grow vegetables and grain now grow qat because it pays more.

    Harar may be the capital of qat use in Ethiopia, where you see evidence of the psychosis it produces over time, and even of babies and children who fail to thrive because their mothers are qat addicts, which affects their appetite and thus ability to produce milk.

    Interesting that folks in Yemen buy their qat in the morning. In Harar (Ethiopia) and other localities, it’s an afternoon purchase.

  36. Ron

    I’ve used qat hundreds of times. It’s a great way to unload my “Q” in Words With Friends:). Thanks to you I now know the definition:)
    Keep on truck’in Earl:)

  37. Spinster

    Never tried it, but heard about it for the first time in 2004, in Uganda. I’d try it once, just to say I tried it once in my lifetime.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  38. Sabina

    So interesting. You didn’t say, though, whether Qat is illegal in Yemen. I’m assuming its not since its grown and used so ubiquitously. But is it technically illegal and just something that the police overlook? Also, does it alter your thinking beyond becoming hyper and talkative? Were you able to retain your judgment or did it fly out the window? Were you kind of stoned, like you might feel on marijuana, or were you more clear headed, like you would be after a beer or two? Did you see any women checking qat or was their usage of it something you heard only from the men folk? So many questions, I know. I hope you’ll have time to answer. 🙂

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Sabina – It is legal in Yemen. As for altering your thinking, that’s an interesting questions. According to Yemenis, they don’t drink because alcohol alters the mind but they swear that qat doesn’t do that, which is a bit odd. And the ‘high’ is quite mild so I was able to maintain judgment and I was still in control of myself at all times, except for the night I spent three hours running around my room in the my underwear trying to get rid of two mosquitos. Sometimes I felt like I was a little stoned, other times like I was a little drunk but still, it was very mellow effect. And the women do chew qat as well, although not in the mufrage rooms with the men. But from what I learned they don’t chew as much, just a little each day.

  39. Lauren

    I must say that I like your enthusiasm, and you’re the only travel blog that I read regularly. And it’s partially because you do stuff like go to extremely dangerous locations, and get high with locals. But still, this entry is a little worrisome, and I would be curious to know what security precautions you took in Yemem.
    Under these circumstance, I would not have tried qat because I would have been worried about being kidnapped.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Lauren – Thanks for that nice comment! As for safety, I’ll write a full post about it soon but in summary, Yemen is not nearly as dangerous as we think, especially considering that foreigners are not even allowed to travel to any of the dangerous regions of the country. The government only allows you to travel to those places it deems safe. And as for kidnapping, it’s not what you may think and chewing qat wouldn’t make a difference. The people you meet and spend time with while in the country won’t kidnap you at all.

  40. Mark Wiens

    Fantastic post, and looks like you mastered the ideal chewing position.

    I tried it once in Nairobi, years and years ago, but I gave up chewing before I really felt anything happen. Some people in Kenya will chew the leaves along with bubble gum or peanuts. Did anyone do that in Yemen?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Mark – They just chew qat straight in Yemen which is a shame because having some bubble gum or peanuts with it sounds like a much better idea.

  41. T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries

    Ahahahaha that’s awesome 🙂 A lot like cacao leaves, except you don’t get constipated with those!

    Perfect photos as well 🙂

    But yeah…with a high unemployment rate, and thus difficulty in buying food, it’s like it is down in South America…a way to stave off hunger pains and keep yourself buzzed at the same time while not worrying about the lack of food.

  42. Maria

    Tobacco, Coke and Qat – always a way to catch a buz and stave off hunger pains.
    I gotta tell you that I’ve bookmarked this post because I love the way it’s written and those photos are PRICELESS!!! You made my day.

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