Incuriosity killed the qat
It's dangerous, addictive and should be banned, according to Sayeeda Warsi. But has she bothered to do her research?
Brian Whitaker, guardian.co.uk
Monday June 16, 2008
It didn't last long. Just a few days after David Davis launched his campaign against the "slow strangulation" of Britain's "fundamental freedoms", along comes Sayeeda Warsi, shadow minister for community cohesion, to do the opposite. In fact it's worse than that, because what she proposes is an attack on freedom specifically targeted at several of Britain's smaller ethnic minorities.
In an article on Cif yesterday she announced that the next Conservative government will ban qat (also known as "khat" or "chat" or, for the botanically-minded, catha edulis).
Qat is a leaf that has been chewed for centuries in Yemen and parts of east Africa, plus Saudi Arabia (where, Baroness Warsi will be pleased to hear, it's also banned; in fact, people occasionally get their head chopped off for possessing it).
More recently, Yemenis, Somalis and others who settled in Britain have brought the practice here and qat is sold openly - and legally - by corner shops in their communities. Its use is almost entirely confined to these communities and it is unlikely ever to become a fashionable club drug - it's bulky, it has to be consumed when as fresh as possible, it smells like a privet hedge and it leaves your teeth and tongue covered in green bits.
When chewing qat, you nip the leaves off the stalk and crush them between your teeth. Expert chewers don't swallow: they build up a wad in their mouth, slowly absorbing the juices, until it looks as if they have a golf ball stuffed inside their cheek. After an hour or so you have lift-off, and it's a slow, gentle, wide-eyed high that lasts for hours. You feel (and actually are) totally alert and thoughts flow easily - which is why so many Yemeni students chew qat at exam time and swear by its effectiveness.
Yemeni society revolves around qat in the same way the EastEnders revolves around the Queen Vic. After lunch the men sit around on cushions and chew in a smoke-filled room (the windows must be closed because according to legend you can catch your death from a cold draught while chewing). It goes on till sunset and they talk, mainly, about, politics and how to set the world to rights - a bit like a Cif discussion thread really, but more coherent.
In Yemen, qat is as much a national institution as tea in Britain or wine in France. This poses a dilemma for the more strait-laced foreign diplomats and business visitors. The British embassy in Sana'a once received a stern note from its masters in London warning of the prevalence of qat, and of the damage to Britain's reputation that might result if any of the embassy staff were tempted to indulge in it. The message arrived while the ambassador was out - chewing with the Yemeni prime minister.
In her article, Warsi talks as if it's only men who chew qat, but in Yemen women chew too, though in separate rooms. I don't know what goes on there but a female friend told me rather mysteriously that all-women chewing sessions can become remarkably intimate.
Contrary to what Warsi says in her article, there's no real evidence that qat is chemically addictive, though people can become psychologically dependent. In that respect it's similar to cannabis: if it turns into a daily habit you'll miss the drug and the social life that goes with it when you suddenly stop.
She also states that qat is carcinogenic. A study in Yemen by three senior doctors was more cautious about a connection between long-term qat use and cancer though it did say there was an increased risk of heart attacks among people with high blood pressure. It also expressed concern about health hazards from pesticides used in qat cultivation - since chewers rarely bother to wash the leaves.
Like alcohol, qat is neither intrinsically bad nor intrinsically good – it all depends on how people use it. Warsi quotes a Somali woman as saying that the menfolk "chew it all night and during the day they can't do anything". Well, yes. That's what happens if you stay up all night, whether you're chewing qat, drinking beer or just watching TV.
Criminalising qat because large numbers of Somali youths do badly at school and then become unemployed layabouts seems an odd way of tackling the real problem. It also infringes the rights of others in the community who chew sensibly and in the traditional setting. Warsi's arguments about the social ills of qat abuse could be applied just as easily to alcohol, say, or betting shops. Singling out qat for special treatment looks like racial discrimination.
Before she pursues this any further, I'd urge Sayeeda Warsi to read a couple of books on the subject. One is Shelagh Weir's Qat in Yemen (published by that drug-riddled den of debauchery, the British Museum). The other is Kevin Rushby's qat-fuelled travelogue, Eating the Flowers of Paradise.
Come to think of it, though, there's no substitute for first-hand research, so I hope she'll take up this invitation to chew over the issue with me and a few friends. Preferably before the next election, while it's still legal.