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Narcotic Leaf the Key to Yemeni Life in Britain   Syndicate Poppies.org Content with XML Click here to post this article to your Blogger
Posted by ajones -- July 15, 2001

SHEFFIELD, England, July 15 (Reuters) - On the floor of a disused northern English corner shop, hidden from the world by boarded-up windows, a group of Yemeni men lie waiting for a delivery of narcotic leaves to help while away their day.

They are slouching on mattresses around the edge of the room, barefoot, quietly anticipating a long afternoon of relaxed conversation fuelled by "qat" leaves, a natural stimulant with the qualities of a mild amphetamine.

Chewing qat leaves, which come from a plant of the same name, is a daily ritual for men in the tiny Arab state of Yemen, and it remains central to social life for Yemeni communities living away from home.

"Where English people go to the pub and have a drink, we chew qat," said Ibrahim Hassan, who works with Arab and African refugees in the northern industrial city of Sheffield, home to a high number -- around 9,000 -- of Yemenis.

Branches of qat are picked from bushes in the fields of Yemen and Somalia, collected into bundles, sprinkled with water and wrapped in banana leaves to keep them fresh during their flight to London.

They are then distributed at markets and cafes in London, Birmingham and Sheffield by qat sellers, at around five pounds ($6.91) for 400 grams (14 ounces), a 200 percent mark-up on the street price in Yemen, according to Hassan.

Once the branches have been picked, the race is on to deliver them to market. The green leaves and the most tender parts of the stem contain cathonine, a natural stimulant which produces a mild high after prolonged chewing, but which breaks down and loses it potency after 48 hours.

"It arrives in London around four in the morning, and we usually get it by early afternoon," said Hassan, eagerly unwrapping his bundle of 30 or so branches, enough to last a about six hours.

Although there could be up to 20 "qat sessions" going on across Sheffield on any afternoon, each with around 30 participants, the market for the plant was seasonal, Hassan said.


"There are high seasons. The week after Ramadan we chew a lot, every night until just before dawn. We also chew a lot the week after Haj," he said, referring to the Muslim fasting month and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Yemen Airways, one of the airlines that carry qat as cargo to London, said it typically carried around 400 kg (880 lb) of the plant twice weekly from the Yemeni capital Sanaa. "That's around 20 boxes full each time, but at Ramadan we carried three times that much in one flight," a spokeswoman said.

In the United States cathonine is illegal and classified alongside heroin and cocaine, but in Britain, the Medicine Controls Agency of the government's Department of Health says it considers it a medicine with no anti-social side effects.

Sheffield's qat chewers agree. "When my son is 15 or 16, I would rather he chewed qat with us rather than going out and mixing with the wrong people or getting into hard drugs," said Sameh Mukerker, who had travelled from Birmingham for the session.


The smallest leaves, and the most tender parts of the stem, are the choicest pickings. They are consumed by slowly stuffing more and more leaves into the left cheek, where they are crushed but not swallowed, allowing the juice to enter the blood stream through the gum.

For the expert, the result is a stimulation of the senses. For the uninitiated, it is sore gums and constipation.

As their cheeks began to bulge, the 30 or so people in the room agreed that the medicinal qualities of qat needed more research, but its psychological effects were clear to see.

"It makes you happy, and it makes you sexier," Mukerker said. "If you are not sure if you love someone, you will know after chewing qat. My wife loves me when I chew," he said, slurping on a plastic bottle of water mixed with honey, to prevent dehydration and take away the bitter taste.


The effects of chewing comes in stages, according to some experienced users. "To begin with we joke around, then people quieten down a bit and watch TV, then we have discussions," said Salem Alsanki, who works selling car parts in Birmingham, and has conducted research on the effects of qat.

The World Health Organisation does not consider qat an addictive drug, although it does describe it as "dependence inducing."

A study by the Yemeni government last year said about 90 percent of Yemeni male adults, 40 percent of female adults and 30 percent of children under 15 chewed qat regularly, either daily or weekly.

"They spend about 30 percent of their income on qat in Yemen," Alsanki said, adding that one or two of the small evergreen bushes would be enough to last a family a whole year. Yemen, bordered by oil-rich Saudi Arabia, is the poorest country in the Arab world.

Qat-chewing Yemenis are proud to admit they are regular users. "I only chew it occasionally. But then, I have an occasion every day," said Mukerker.

The jovial banter of the first three hours died down a little, when the time came for the Yemeni television news, and an older member of the community began to discuss more serious issues.

"When an elder speaks, the younger ones will immediately quieten down in deference and respect," Alsanki explained, as the qat session turned into a type of council meeting on problems within the Yemeni community in England.


The qat session is more than just a social event enabling Yemeni expatriates to remind themselves of home, those taking part explained. Members of various communities attend the sessions, some from other cities or parts of Sheffield, and some representing mixed-race families or new arrivals in England.

"We talk about the well-being of our community here in Sheffield and other communities in England," Alsanki explained.

The Arab community was proud of its self-sufficiency, and its ability to manage its own problems without recourse to outside help, he said.

"We meet friends here, we help each other," he said. "It is here we make the decision to help one of the community if they are going bankrupt. If families have lost their father, we help the kids to study, we help them to find jobs."

Relations with the wider community in Sheffield were extremely good as a result, Mukerker said. "We fight crime here, to protect our reputation as Arabs," he said. "If an Arab commits a crime, we make a council here and punish him."

The worst punishment for an Arab man was losing the respect of his elders, Alsanki explained. "We will even exile people if necessary. He will lose all respect in the eyes of the community. That kills an Arabic man," he said.

A few weeks ago, a teenager in the community had been beaten up by a gang of youths while out at a club in Sheffield. One of the elders suspected the teenager was planning to get a group of friends together from the community to go and retaliate.

"That is when we get involved," Alsanki said. Elders warned the boy that if he retaliated, the situation would turn into a war and jeopardise the standing of Arabs in the eyes of the wider community. "We are protecting a long-term relationship, and more importantly our reputation," Alsanki said.

"People outside don't understand this, but they certainly feel the results."

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