I did drugs in Yemen with two men I hardly knew. Well, I call it a drug, and really it is a drug, but in Yemen they pretend it isn’t. It’s a leaf called qat, very similar to coca leaf, and if there’s a single soul in Yemen who doesn’t chew qat every day of their life, I did not see them or meet them in the three weeks I was there.
I need you to understand how absurd this situation is: In the US qat is a Schedule 1 narcotic, which ranks it alongside heroin, crystal meth and GHB, the date-rape drug. Yemen is a very strict Muslim country. Women are grudgingly allowed to drive in Yemen, but they aren’t allowed to purchase or own a car, which seems to me a recipe for creating a nation of female car thieves. But despite being so strict, qat is so common there it’s almost compulsory.
Work days in Yemen end around 2.30pm so that people can find a shady place and recline on their left side, with their head propped on their left hand, and shovel handfuls of leaf into their mouth. They store the chewed leaf in one cheek like lazy chipmunks and sluice cold water through it from time to time to extract more of that sweet, sweet psychoactive sap. When Razzam and Saddiq invited me to chew qat with them, how could I say no?
They chew qat all afternoon but peak chewing time is the Hour of Solomon, the hour around sunset. Why Solomon? Because by the time the sun sets they’ll have been chewing so long they have become very wise, and make thoughtful pronouncements about the world.
‘That is when all the best decisions are made,’ said Razzam enthusiastically.
I joined them in Saddiq’s chewing room on the top floor of his gingerbread-decorated mud-brick home in downtown Sana’a. It’s a long, empty west-facing room scattered with pillows and cushions and lined with windows made from finely shaved coloured alabaster, so that the setting sun moved faint lozenges of red and blue across our faces. I was curious to find out what qat tastes like. I can tell you now: it tastes like leaves. Go to any nearby tree and eat a fistful of leaf. Is that tasty? No, it’s not.
I munched away dutifully; swallowing green foamy saliva, wondering how awful life would have to be before chewing qat seems like a pleasant escape. As I chewed my temperature rose. My face became flushed and my eyeballs ached. I felt like talking but not joyfully and I didn’t have anything to say. It wasn’t all that different from most other hard-drug experiences, I suppose. Then Saddiq put his hand on my leg.
He did it casually, with a reassuring smile, and I wondered what to make of it. Customs are different in Yemen. Men walk hand in hand in the street and kiss each other in greeting. Perhaps this was just friendliness. I didn’t want to offend him by removing his hand. But I didn’t want to lead him on.
We chewed a little longer. The leaf didn’t get any tastier. Leaves don’t. I started to feel nauseous. After about 10 minutes Saddiq moved his hand a little further up my thigh. I looked at him suspiciously, but other than the hand action, he wasn’t acting out of the ordinary – he was telling me some story about how he taught his son to fire an AK47. It is difficult to be a guest in someone else’s home, in someone else’s country, in someone else’s culture, doing drugs. Etiquette-wise, it’s a nightmare. Fortunately nature provided me with a solution.
‘Excuse me,’ I interrupted him, before vomiting all over myself.
Getaway, October 2016