The following interview about Khat with Paul Cochrane discusses various issues surrounding Khat consumption and culture. Paul Cochrane is a journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon, covering the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Paul encountered and experienced Khat cultures first-hand through his travel in the Middle East. Paul's opinion and testimony do not endorse any particular treatment center.
Thank you for allowing me to interview you today. Can tell me a little bit about yourself? How do you first come to learn of Khat?
I first came across khat when reading Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. An avid khat chewer, Mackintosh-Smith brings up khat and its popularity in Yemen. I further encountered khat when studying for my Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut. Khat is a significant problem in Yemen, having a major impact on the economy, with an estimated 50% of Yemenis income going to acquire khat. Yemen is exceedingly poor, the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa, so khat addiction clearly has an impact on spending, on children, nutrition and so on. Furthermore, it is putting immense stress on water resources. Khat is very water intensive to cultivate, and Yemen has water shortages, while cultivating khat means that other crops are not grown.
2. How and at what point during the course of your traveling did you first come to encounter Khat?
I first encountered and tried khat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2008. I had met some young Ethiopians at a coffee shop, and they invited me to a small room above the cafe to chew khat. I was interested to do so as I wanted to write an article about khat in Ethiopia. During my travels there, I went to Harar, a major khat centre 10 hours drive from the capital, where I went to khat markets, visited khat farms, met dealers, distributors and rode delivery trucks.
3. As an organic drug, how is it generally produced and consumed?
Khat is a unique drug in that it has to be consumed within 24 hrs. It consists of cathinone and cathine, and it is the cathinone that produces stimulatory effects, 10 times more potent than cathine. As khat only has its effect within that time frame, it is a highly organized process from picking to sorting to delivering it in time to users - who want it as fresh as it can be. Apparently a pharmaceutical company in Kenya is working on trying to turn khat into a pill that would essentially freeze the khat's stimulatory properties. If this was developed, it would revolutionize the khat trade.
Khat is grown in fields, needing plenty of water, and the bushes grow pretty high, above head height. It is harvested very early in the morning, taken to a market where it is sorted - usually by women - into bundles according to its quality. Good khat is very expensive. It is then transported to markets in towns for people to buy, or placed on Isuzi flat bed trucks that drive at breakneck speed - hence the nickname "Al Qaeda trucks," as in the suicidal recklessness of the drivers - to airports or ports where it is then transported to neighbouring countries: Djibouti, Yemen, Uganda in particular, while also to Europe where it is not illegal and there is a sizeable East Africa/Yemeni expatriate populace, such as in London. In terms of consumption, it is a very sociable practice. Around midday, men - although women do take it - gather together, in rooms, on the street, in houses etc. and sit around plucking the leaves, a few millimetres under the stem. The leaves are then rolled into a ball in the hand, then put under the cheek and chewed. In Ethiopia, the khat is swallowed. In Yemen they spit it out. As it is quite bitter, people take it with peanuts and a soft drink. As khat sets in, after about 20 minutes, you get what is called in Amharic (the Ethiopian language) "merkhana" - high - and then you start talking avidly, music gets more intense. After a few hours you start getting introspective, which is when the group usually breaks up and people go their separate ways. It is a stimulant though, so some take it to study, read, write. It is hard to get to sleep though, so some people drink alcohol or smoke hashish to put them to sleep.
4. Khat is popular amongst many Middle Eastern and East African countries such as Ethiopia, and Yemen, from your personal traveling experience can you tell us about the general Ethiopian perception of Khat?
Khat, or chat as they call it in Ethiopia, is very widely consumed and has been done so for hundreds of years. Less though in the capital where it is not grown. It is popular with people from the north, and around Harar and Dire Dawar, in the east near the Somali border. In these areas there is no religious disapproval, certainly in Harar which is a very Muslim town - I saw a imam in a mosque sprawled on the carpet happily chewing away. It is even taken in the local prison. But in the capital I found some people disapproved, and the more religious Christians very much against it. Politicians also take it and there are stories of lavish khat chewing sessions among the elite.
5. Can you tell us of one memorable experience or encounter with Khat and/or Khat users?
I had lots of curious experiences with khat and khat users, from chewing on buses, in bars, on the street, to lying on the floor in a hotel lobby in the mid-afternoon with a group of men all indulging in khat, to chewing fresh khat with a farmer in his field - it is very addictive, and people chew it all the time. The strangest though was going with a wealthy Ethiopian friend to his house in the capital. Inside the compound they had a private mosque, with a sheikh reciting verses from the Quran. My friend, who works in Saudi Arabia, had told me not to talk about women or anything haram (sinful), yet here we were in a mosque drinking Ethiopian coffee and chewing khat amid a lot of frankincense burning away. Then a woman came up, and told my friend how a sheikh had cured her of breast cancer, then showing us the result; then a dwarf - a servant - came in bringing refreshments. It was all quite surreal, with or without chewing khat!
6. As a journalist, can you tell us about some of your observations concerning the noticeable perks and (social as well as personal) downsides of chewing Khat? Based on your opinion and experience, how is Khat different from other recreational drugs and products that are out there in the U.S. such as alcohol, coffee, marijuana, and opiates?
First, the pros. It is a stimulant, in fact used before coffee (which was discovered in Ethiopia) and similar to cocoa leaves. Students often take it to help them concentrate and study for long periods. It certainly had that affect on me, as I slept very little during my trip there, and on several occasions I didn't notice that I was reading for a straight three odd hours, only realizing when I looked at the clock and it was 2am. Athletes also take it, and you do walk faster during the initial few hours. Khat is a very sociable activity, triggering debate and making people very talkative.
On the downsides, it is very addictive. People spend a good amount of time everyday getting buying and then taking their fix. I noticed how addictive it was, as by midday the day after chewing khat, I could taste it inside my cheek, I wanted it. Curiously, as you take it into your digestive system in Ethiopia, I found my skin, certainly my arm pits, smelt of khat and my bodily deposits were green.
But while the sociable side is positive in many respects, the introspection is less so, as it turns people inward - which could be used constructively, like reading or writing, but in most cases is not. And this is the time when men would usually return home to their family.
Khat is ruining many people's lives and families because so much income goes towards khat, easily 50% or more if you are poor - so less money for food, clothes, education etc. and takes up a good portion of a person's day, with work usually confined to before lunch. Good khat is very expensive, at $10 to even $50 for a bushel. In Ethiopia to get good khat where they produce it costs around $6, poorer quality a few dollars. But most people in Ethiopia only earn a few dollars a day. Another downside is that people eat less, as the chewing makes the body feel it is eating, and as a stimulant it represses the appetite, so people can be undernourished as a result, able to go for long periods of time without eating. Addiction, like addiction to all drugs and alcohol, can also result in losing one's job, house etc. In Harar I saw many men living on the street that were khat users. One man had lost his teeth, so was using a mortar and pestel to crush the khat as he couldn't chew it. I did not hear of Ethiopians turning to crime though to fund their habit.
As I said earlier, khat cultivation means that other crops are not grown as it is much more lucrative for farmers to grow khat. It is water intensive, so it has negative effects on the environment, especially as this part of the world often lacks abundant rainfall (although less the case in northern Ethiopia). In Yemen this is a very pressing issue.
Ethiopians told me khat was not harmful, with users praising it, and did not result in sexual problems such as impotency, organ failure or memory loss, although medical research has shown otherwise, particularly in long term users. However, not enough medical research has been done on the medium to long term effects of khat usage.