|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives|
The Twin Twigs: Coffee and Qat in Yemen
Yemeni legend has it that one day a man took his goats to browse among shrubs in the mountains. The goatherd noticed that--after eating berries from one plant--one of his goats began to prance around as though half crazed. Curious at such a strange sight, the old man tried some of the berries himself. He suddenly felt years younger.
The goatherd ran down the mountainside to tell his friends about his wonderful discovery. One of these friends was a poet. He went back up the mountain with the old man to see what all the fuss was about. After popping a few berries into his mouth, the poet became so excited by the results that he instantly composed a poem in praise of the shrub. This poem spread the fame of the plant far and wide.
The legend, which may have originated in Ethiopia, concerns the discovery of coffee. The drink is such a part of life today that we forget it was largely unknown until a few centuries ago. The first Westerners to sample the brew were apparently two Portuguese priests who passed through the south Arabian port of Aden in 1538. At much the same time, coffeehouses appeared in Turkey, but the habit would not become the rage of Europe until the mid seventeenth century and arrived on this side of the Atlantic even later.
The tale of the goat notwithstanding, the origin of coffee drinking remains a mystery. What is known is that the tree is native to East Africa and came to the world's attention via Arabia. Coffee was being grown in the fertile highlands of Yemen, a rugged, mountainous land at the southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula, by the fourteenth century a.d. A Dutch trading ship, having called at the Yemeni port of Mocha on the Red Sea in 1628, purchased the first consignment of Yemeni coffee bound for Europe.
For about a century Yemen stood alone as the world's coffee producer. Indeed, coffee put Yemen on the world map, and one type of the brew is even named after the port of Mocha. But plantations built in the Western colonies eventually grew too large for Yemeni producers to compete with. Today, the only way an American is likely to experience Yemeni coffee is via a gourmet coffeeshop.
Despite coffee's origins in Arab societies, the Islamic community at first balked at its use. In 1511, religious scholars gathered in Mecca for a conference to decide whether coffee was an intoxicant and if it should be banned, like wine and opium. Based on the flimsy medical evidence of the time the scholars decided against coffee, arguing that it altered the mind. The popularity of coffee, especially among the Ottoman Turks, soon returned the drink to respectability, but it remained a symbol of decadence in the eyes of the devout. In 1613 fanatical mobs ransacked Cairo's coffeehouses, believing them to be dens of iniquity.
But not all Muslims regarded coffee as a threat to religious values. A rival origin legend to that of the browsing goat is the tale of a drowsy Sufi mystic. This gentleman found coffee to be a godsend, as it aided him in staying awake to perform his late-night devotions. Wandering mystics were no doubt the main individuals responsible for the initial distribution of coffee drinking in the realm of Islam.
Coffee in the valley of al-Ahjur
I first heard the stories of the goat and the mystic in 1978, from tribal farmers in the highland valley of al-Ahjur, in what was then the Yemen Arab Republic. An impressive agricultural area, al-Ahjur is a fertile valley around eight thousand feet in elevation and surrounded by imposing cliffs. The landscape is dominated by a descending series of tidy, walled terraces that are carpeted by green crops after the spring rains. Pueblo-like villages, with makeshift dirt tracks etched between them, hug the cliffs.
My wife, Najwa, and I were engaged in a study of traditional agricultural and irrigation practices. So I was particularly interested in local ideas about what was being grown. But I was surprised at how little coffee was under cultivation. Stands of coffee were visible on the lush, stepped terraces carved into the sides of the valley, but far more land was devoted to another shrub. Grown solely for its leaves, this hardy plant was qat. Qat is the Arabic term for a stimulant plant known in scientific circles as Catha edulis.
Qat is little known and generally dimly viewed outside of Yemen and a few countries in Africa. But in Yemen, qat is at the center of a significant daily ritual. Men gather with friends or associates and literally "chew" over the day's issues while physically chewing qat. The shrub's young and tender leaves, when chewed, stimulate the central nervous system. Many women, particularly in the cities, also hold afternoon qat parties. The "qat chew" is something of a national pastime, a tradition that readily survives the rapid pace of social and economic change in the country.
Coffee-husk tea.For the past six centuries, coffee and qat have been the twin twigs of Yemeni agriculture, even though neither is indigenous to Arabian soil. In most Yemeni eyes, the legends of the goat and the mystic serve equally well for the discovery of qat as they do for coffee. Tradition has it that both were first planted in the region of Udayn (literally, "two twigs") in the southern highlands of Yemen. Both have served as important cash crops for Yemeni farmers. And not surprisingly, both coffee and qat have stimulated debate as to whether Islam permits their usage.
Curiously enough, Yemenis rarely drink coffee. Indeed, traditional healers, although conceding it may have useful medicinal benefits, claim that the brew overheats the body. But the real reason may be that Yemenis, acting as practical businessmen, traditionally have regarded coffee as a cash crop and exported all the beans that they could.
For home use, coffee beans are placed in a pan on top of the tannur (a clay oven) and roasted for about a half-hour until there is a strong aroma. These lightly roasted beans are ground and placed in the bottom of a small clay pot or glass thermos with boiling water poured over. The result is a rather weak drink, by our standards, with a chocolate-like taste. This is only a breakfast drink, not something a Yemeni would drink throughout the day.
While coffee husks seem useless waste to most people, they are never discarded in Yemen. This is the only country where the husks are made into a kind of herb tea. Placed in a pot of water, along with spices such as ginger or cinnamon, they are brought to boil for a few minutes. The resulting drink, something like an earthy herb tea, is kept in a thermos and poured for guests. Younger Yemenis tend to use sugar, but the older generations shy away from sugar.
Yemenis refer to the drink made from coffee husks as qahwa, the normal Arabic term for coffee and possibly the origin of our English word. Although this is still a favorite in traditional households, the country is rapidly switching to imported tea. Tea is, of course, far cheaper when you do not have a coffee-husk supply of your own. Anyone who wonders about the continued importance of the drink need only note that in the market it actually costs more, kilogram for kilogram, to buy the husks than it does the beans! In fact, Yemen may be the only country to import coffee husks from abroad.
Raising coffee.My introduction to coffee-husk tea and chewing qat came even as I first settled into al-Ahjur. The valley begins at the upper reaches of the coffee-producing zone. The well-drained volcanic loam of the terrace soils is well suited for coffee cultivation. In al-Ahjur, the traditional method of planting is to place the berry in a carefully prepared surface that is free from stones. Soil is then sprinkled over the berry, and water is applied daily. The seedlings that come up are later transplanted farther apart.
In addition to frequent watering of the young plants, it is important to provide shade and protect the seedlings from the midday sun. Coffee terraces are sometimes found with large trees such as wild fig or acacia. Other terraces feature makeshift shelters of rocks and prickly pear leaves erected over each plant. Farmers know that too much shade can be a bad thing, encouraging upward growth for maturing plants at the expense of berry production.
The coffee plant takes about three years to mature and will bear for at least six years. Most trees bear considerably longer if well cared for. Trees more than thirty years old are often found in plots, but they must be sheltered from the strong winds that swirl through the terraces in late autumn and winter. Diseases such as berry rot and pests including fruit flies are ever-present enemies of the farmers here, although pesticides are now widely used.
Berries are harvested entirely by hand, with the main picking in June and July. An average tree can bear up to five kilograms of berries a year. In al-Ahjur, the annual yield for an average tree is around twenty-six hundred kilograms, but it may fluctuate dramatically from one year to another. The berries are put in buckets or leather bags and taken somewhere to dry in the sun, usually on the flat roof of a house. (There is little likelihood of rain except for the two main rainy seasons of spring and late summer.) After a week the husks begin to crack and can be removed by roughly grinding with a hand mill. The farmer also has the option of selling the berries whole to coffee merchants, who have access to modern processing equipment. When the grower sells the beans, dried but not roasted, to a wholesaler, he receives about half the consumer price on the market.
Coffee is firmly implanted in the lifestyle of the modern, industrialized world, but Yemen's other prominent stimulant is virtually unknown. In al-Ahjur, farmers focus on basic grain crops to meet household needs, but the primacy of the two main cash crops is indisputable. Of the two, qat is the most lucrative, often five times more profitable than coffee. As farmers the world over know, the more valuable the crop the greater the need to protect it from thieves. Qat stands are easy to pick out because they are surrounded by high stone walls or barbed-wire fences. Few crops are so protected in Yemen.
Qat can be cultivated as a bushy shrub or a tall tree--depending on the climate and methods of pruning--and on irrigated or rain-fed land. In al-Ahjur, most qat trees are tall and narrow. A ladder is needed to harvest the leaves, or else the trunk must be bent low. The great advantage of growing qat is that it thrives like a weed and is resistant to most pests (although I have seen goats tearing away at lower leaves). Little labor is required in caring for the tree, except for the periodic need to harvest the crop. Qat is propagated by young seedlings, and after three years the new leaves and shoots can be picked. Trees continue to bear for decades and are harvested two or three times a year.
The method of picking is to cut off the end of a branch with young leaves on it. This must be done just before the crop is to be consumed or marketed: The value of qat stems solely from its power as a stimulant, and the desired effect comes best from fresh leaves. Farmers usually stagger their harvesting so that fresh crops are available at any time of year. The branches are bundled together with whatever is handy. Farmers in al-Ahjur often use the stems of sorrel, a common weed along the terraces. In some parts of the country the individual leaves are plucked and tightly wrapped in a small bundle or inside banana leaves. These more compact bunches are easier to transport over long distances but require more labor in packaging.
Chewing the cud.Few Yemenis will buy qat picked more than twenty-four hours before they chew. The active ingredients in the leaves are alkaloids. When the leaves are chewed, they stimulate the body in much the same way as fresh coca leaves chewed by the Quechua Indians in Peru. Although non-Yemenis tend to think of qat as a drug, I would argue that it is no more a narcotic than is coffee. There is no conclusive evidence that chewing is physically addictive, nor that it poses serious health risks. Yemeni men go off to work in Saudi Arabia for months at a time with no discernible withdrawal symptoms.
The Arabic term for chewing the leaves literally means "to store them" in the mouth. This is an apt description of how the leaves are used. The idea is not to chew and swallow, as if qat were a kind of food, but to store up the leaves in a wad in one cheek. This man-made cud makes the habitual chewer look like he has a perpetual toothache. Leaves are added from time to time as the bulk of the wad decreases so that there will be a slow but steady stream of bitter juice descending to the stomach. Due to the astringent quality of the juices, small swigs of water are imbibed to assuage thirst. Qat acts as an anorectic, so the Yemeni never eats while he chews. After several hours of massaging the wad in his cheek, the Yemeni will usually spit out what is left, although some will swallow what little remains.
Chewing is not as easy as it might seem. As a novice trying to get the leaves to shape into a wad, I learned the hard way how easy it is to swallow them. It is also necessary to know which leaves to choose, having first decided on the appropriate variety of qat. Only the tenderest new leaves and shoots are broken off and placed in the mouth. To eat the older, more bitter, leaves is the sign of a real bumpkin. The taste of the juices crushed from the leaves is not inviting at first try and improves only with repeated use. The effect is not immediate and will vary depending on the quality and amount of qat chewed.
Gathering to chew.In general, about fifteen minutes after beginning to chew, the pupils of one's eyes begin to dilate and a heightened sense of awareness occurs. Conversation becomes visibly animated as the chewer feels invigorated and his mind races. Poets claim their muse is most receptive at this time. After two hours, the initial stimulation fades into a calmness and general feeling of contentment. Thoughts turn inward, and conversation cools to soft whispers. The only sound that ties you to the present is the continual gurgling of the hubble-bubble pipe.
This traditional water pipe, with its long snakelike, embroidered rope and elaborate brass base, is an integral part of the chew. Tobacco seems the natural complement of qat. The smoke from cheap Yemeni cigarettes swirls visibly in the poorly ventilated diwans (sitting rooms). Near the end of a chew I found that tears would at times stream involuntarily from my eyes as I squinted in the haze to see who had left and who remained. Eventually the euphoria gives way to listlessness, sometimes depression. This is the downside of qat, not a harsh drop but one that leaves you uneasy and easily irritated. Some fight fire with fire by downing some bootleg whiskey, but liquor in any form is forbidden to the Muslim.
Where one chews is an important part of the experience. In Yemen most men gather in diwans, large drawing rooms that are reserved for chews, guests, and important occasions. They sit on mattresses and support their backs and arms with cushions. For those who can afford it, the mafraj (chewing room) is usually on the top floor of a three-or four-story house and may feature colored-glass windows to heighten the chew's effects.
Views from the mafraj can be spectacular, especially in rural homes. I have vivid memories of a certain diwan in al-Ahjur where you could see almost to the end of the horizon as the valley wound its way toward the coast. On a winter's afternoon the fog would roll up the valley, slowly enveloping the mountain cliffs, the terraced fields, the sleepy villages. At such times it was easy to understand why Yemenis refer to their qat as the "elixir of life" and the "flower of paradise."
Inside the diwans, furnishings are scant. Water jugs and spittoons are usually provided by the host. Nowadays, plastic ashtrays advertise Toyota dealers and stereo cassette shops. Each chewer brings his or her own supply of qat leaves, unless it is a formal, invited celebration like a wedding. Prominent government officials and tribal leaders often favor their guests with qat, the Yemeni equivalent of a business lunch. As a foreigner I was initially offered qat so I could try it. But once I had made the plunge and became a familiar face at the mafraj, I was expected to bring my own.
A food for the pious?
Many claims have been made about the possible benefits and harms derived from chewing qat. Local Yemeni healers say it can help against diseases like cholera and syphilis. An old man in the valley told me that qat would take away a stomachache brought on by drinking too much water. Men often brag that chewing enhances their sexual prowess, although many women confided to my anthropologist wife that the opposite is closer to the truth. During the sixteenth century, the women in the southern town of Taizz petitioned the Yemeni sultan to stop their husbands from chewing qat. The women argued that it made their men less amorous. The sultan at first agreed with the women, although it is unclear what proof he saw. Later, we are told he had to change his mind when the local economy began to suffer with decreased production of this important cash crop.
Qat is considered an acceptable substance in the opinion of Yemeni scholars. There is a popular saying that "qat is the food of the pious," a reference to the fact it allows you to stay up longer for religious study and duties. During the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daylight hours, the chew is held after the evening meal and may last far into the morning. Outside of Yemen, however, qat received the same condemnation from most religious scholars as coffee suffered. It is still forbidden in Saudi Arabia, where several hundred thousand Yemeni men worked until recently. But outside of Yemen no one chews anyway, so the issue quickly lost steam. Although qat is chewed on religious holidays, it plays no formal role in the religious ritual of Yemenis, but Muslims in Ethiopia use qat as part of their rites for driving out evil spirits.
A social drug.To focus on the effects of chewing and the alleged harm or benefit on the body misses the point. I know of few Yemenis who chew simply to get high. Chewing is a thoroughly social event where you can meet with friends, forge new personal contacts, and follow up informally on the business of the day. More important than the qat are the fellowship and conviviality of chewing, much like the original coffeehouses in Europe or sharing beers in a pub. In a country where being with other people is preferred to sitting at home alone watching television, qat chewing facilitates socialization. Given the amount of decision making that takes place in the diwans, it is no exaggeration to say that much of the country is in fact run from smoke-filled rooms of qat-chewing men.
Qat is at the center of an ongoing debate in Yemen about the country's future. There are those who see the habit as a waste of time and a drain on the household budget and national economy. Why spend fifteen dollars a day for a supply of leaves with no nutritional value? Foreign experts argue that land cultivated with qat should be switched to needed food crops in a country where importation of foodstuffs increases year by year. From such perspectives, qat might be considered a major obstacle to development.
If you think only in terms of nine-to-five office hours, qat does cause a problem. But should outsiders say that qat is really that bad for Yemen? Part of the problem is that people mistakenly look on qat as a narcotic, a harmful drug like cocaine that needs to be weeded out. There is also the impression that increases in qat production in recent years have been at the expense of coffee, but Yemen long ago lost its ability to compete effectively on the world coffee market. Most of the new qat land is in areas not previously farmed, where a farmer with a new well brings land into production that previously was dependent on the whims of fickle weather. In the short run, the boom in qat over the past couple of decades, stimulated by the flow of remittance wealth from Yemenis working in the neighboring oil-producing states, has brought countless small farmers out of poverty. Qat is so easy to grow and in such demand that even the poorest farmer can realize substantial profits. In fact, the qat distribution network in the markets, not to mention the government revenues from taxing its sale, supports the local and national economy in a major way.
The future of qat in Yemen may indeed follow the sad demise of coffee in the region, but for the present these twin twigs are very much a part of the local agricultural fabric. The parallels between qat and coffee are remarkable. Two stimulant plants with no real nutritive value came to Yemen about the same time from across the Red Sea. One eventually spread to the entire world and became one of the major international cash crops; the other is barely known outside Yemen but in recent years has become the most lucrative crop in an otherwise poor country. These connections between qat and coffee are not lost on Yemenis. A nineteenth-century scholar composed a fictional dialogue in prose and poetry between coffee, personified as a man, and qat, as a woman. Each boasts in turn of its benefits and value to Yemen. At the time the contest went to coffee, an ending that would be strangely unsuited to Yemen today.
To chew is to be Yemeni.It is curious that coffee drinking never really took hold in Yemen. It reached ritual status among the Bedouins, who would serve a thick, bitter sip of it to the unexpected guest. It is hard to imagine Cairo or Damascus without their small cafŽs full of old men and young boys playing backgammon and drinking espresso. In Yemen, it is qat that has been highly valued, although only recently has the bulk of the population been able to afford it. But it is not likely that the habit of chewing will spread outside southern Arabia. You need a large block of time off in the late afternoon to sit and contemplate with friends. The coffee break may have been adopted as an international treat, but a qat break for most of the world is out of the question.
The production of coffee in Yemen was overcome by events outside its borders. The recent skyrocketing increase in the cultivation and use of qat by Yemenis is harder to explain. The answer lies not with the plant itself but with the nature of the social and economic change the country is undergoing. Only a few short decades ago, Yemen was an isolated backwater that few foreigners had penetrated. The British involvement in Aden and the 1962 revolution in the north resulted in a developing infrastructure of roads and basic services. With oil revenues now in place, more development is planned. For the first time in history, Yemenis of all social backgrounds are beginning to look at themselves as belonging to a nation rather than a particular tribe or class.
It is vital in such a process of change that Yemenis fix on something in their traditional culture as an anchor with the past. Yemen does not want to be a clone of the West, importing nine-to-five jobs, blue jeans, and Coca-Cola. Coffee, although in a sense native to Yemen, is not particularly Yemeni today, nor was it in the past. Chewing qat is one way in which a Yemeni can do something entirely his own. No other Arab chews, and no other society attaches such importance to the daily afternoon chewing session. Chewing qat becomes a way of being Yemeni in a world where it is increasingly necessary to define oneself.
Daniel Martin Varisco is professor of anthropology at Hofstra University in New York. He edits the bulletin Yemen Update.
Source: Yemen Update