Clarke Brooke. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Khat (Catha edulis Forsk., Celastracae) is a flowering evergreen tree that grows in parts of eastern Africa and the southwestern highlands of Arabia. Its young leaves and tender stem tips, also called khat, are stimulating and produce a mild euphoria when chewed and their juices ingested. Khat has various psycho-stimulant alkaloids, of which the main one, cathinone, is amphetamine related and highly unstable. Khat leaves and shoots contain various alkaloids, of which cathinone and cathine are the primary and secondary active ingredients in stimulating the central nervous system. As with other psychoactive plants, the effects of the active constituents differ from one specimen to another according to the cultivar’s size, age, health, and the site conditions of growth, such as exposure, soil, soil moisture, and drainage.
Most of the world’s khat is grown in Yemen, Ethiopia, and Kenya, where its use is long established. Khat is a major import of Somalia and Djibouti, and demand in both countries far exceeds domestic production. During the past half-century, the number of users has increased substantially, and emigrants from the khat-chewing countries have introduced (on a small scale) the use of the drug to some countries in Europe and North America.
International trade in khat is a multimillion-dollar business in the Horn of Africa and southwestern Arabia. Daily consumption of the drug is estimated to be about 5 million portions of khat (Kalix 1994: 69), or about 500,000 kilograms of the leaf material chewed. The various estimates of the total number of regular users range from 3 to 6 million. Methcathinone, a synthetic, white, chunky powder, known in the United States by the street name “cat,” is a substance very dissimilar from khat.
“Khat” (pronounced “cot”) is an inexact transliteration of the Arabic name of the plant, and is also spelled “qat,” “kat,” “gat,” and “ghat.” Philologists consider that the spellings “qāt” or “kat” (with diacritical marks) most closely approximate the transliteration of the Arabic in Roman characters.
The Khat Plant
There are two known species of the genus Catha: Catha edulis and Catha spinosa. Both were first described by Peter Forsskal in 1775. Only C. edulis is cultivated, and in eastern Africa and the southwestern Arabian peninsula it grows at higher, wetter elevations than C. spinosa, which occurs wild in northern Yemen.
Khat is a straight, slender tree with a thin bark that varies in color from light gray to dark brown. The trees bear persistent, leathery leaves that are elliptical with finely toothed edges. The leaves are approximately 50 to 100 millimeters (mm) long and 20 to 50 mm broad (Revri 1983: 37). Young leaves are shiny and vary in color from pale green to red, becoming green or yellowish green at full growth. The flowers are small (diameter 4 to 5 mm) and either white or greenish in color. Freshly cut twigs that carry tender new leaves and buds near the end of the branch are most highly appreciated for chewing.
The height of mature trees under cultivation ranges from about 2 to 10 meters (Brooke 1960: 52; Kennedy 1987: 177). The leaves grow rapidly if the plant is well watered, and if heavy harvesting continues throughout the year, the trees retain the form of bushes (Tutwiler and Caprisco 1981: 53). Under very favorable conditions in eastern and eastcentral Africa, wild C. edulis grows to a height of about 25 meters (Greenway 1947: 98).
Khat requires a yearly minimum of approximately 400 mm of water from rainfall or irrigation and an average temperature not less than 17 degrees Celsius. Growth is retarded by successive night frosts at high elevations and by rainfall in excess of 800 mm if the soil is not freely drained (Revri 1983: 18-19). Healthy trees may yield for at least 50 years.
C. edulis has been cultivated in greenhouses at various botanical gardens and has been grown in the open for scientific purposes in Egypt, Sri Lanka, Bombay, Algeria, Portugal, southern France, Florida, and southern California.
Khat is reproduced vegetatively from shoots (suckers or sprouts) cut from the basal root or the trunk of the tree. These provide more rapid growth than cuttings from branches.Three or four shoots, 25 to 50 centimeters (cm) long, are planted together in rows of shallow holes at 1 to 2 meter intervals (Revri 1983: 62). Harvesting of leaves usually begins 3 to 4 years after planting. (Brooke 1960: 53; Morghem and Rufat 1983: 215-16).
Kinds of Khat
The total number of the kinds of khat consumed throughout the world, if known, would well exceed 100.There are at least 7 kinds marketed at Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, and more than 40 kinds are recognized in Yemen on the basis of geographical origin (Krikorian 1984: 160). Consumer differentiation among the various kinds is based on the potency of psychostimulation, flavor, and the tenderness of the leaves. These characteristics differ according to growing conditions, husbandry, and farm practice, such as irrigation or lack of it, soil types, and other ecological variables. According to Bob Hill (1965: 16): “It is said that the palates of some chewers are so sensitive that they can distinguish not only in what area the products originate, but the individual field as well.”
The health of the plant is also a marketing factor. C. edulis is subject to attack by a wide range of insect pests, and a kind of khat called kuda, when damaged by a leafhopper (Empoasca spp.), is considered to be the best quality in the Alamaya district of Harer. A toxin contained in the saliva that the insect injects into leaf tissue during feeding produces a milky taste that is preferred by connoisseurs of this expensive kind of khat (Hill 1965: 21).
Khat is sold at the retail level in leafy bundles (rubtah in Arabic), each bundle wrapped in banana leaves or plastic to preserve freshness.A rubtah contains the minimum quantity of leaves and stem tips that most consumers chew in one day (Weir 1985: 89; Kennedy 1987: 80).
Uncertain Origin of Domesticated Khat
Neither khat’s place of origin nor the manner in which it was diffused has been determined, although most experts accept the view that C. edulis was probably first domesticated in the Ethiopian highlands. Based upon his field studies in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia in 1927, botanist and plant geneticist N. I. Vavilov (1951: 37-8) designated Ethiopia as the center of origin of cultivated khat. According to anthropologist George P. Murdock, khat and coffee are two of some eleven important agricultural plants originally domesticated by the Agau, Cushitic speakers of the central highlands of Ethiopia and “one of the most culturally creative people on the entire continent”(1959: 182-3).
Revri was among the minority of khat specialists who challenged the belief of an Ethiopian genesis of the plant. In his view,Yemen is probably the primary center of origin of khat and Ethiopia the secondary center. On the basis of cytogenetic evidence, Revri concluded that C. edulis appears to have evolved from C. spinosa, found wild in the Serat Mountains of Yemen. He suggested that C. edulis, known to the Arabs as a medicinal plant, may have been taken to Ethiopia in the sixth century A.D. and that it was returned to Yemen as a social stimulant in the fourteenth century (Revri 1983: 4).
According to Armin Schopen (1978: 45) and others, the earliest reference to khat is found in Kitab al-Saidana fi al-Tibb, a work on pharmacy and materia medica written in A.D. 1065 by the scholar Abu alBiruni (Abu Raihan Muhammad al-Biruni) in collaboration with a physician. The work described khat as “a commodity from Turkestan. It is sour to taste and slenderly made in the manner of batan-alu. But qat is reddish with a slight blackish tinge. It is believed that batan alu is red, coolant, relieves biliousness, and is a refrigerant for the stomach and the liver.”
Batan-alu is presumably an extract of khat prepared like preserves of fruits and vegetables (Schopen 1978: 45; Krikorian 1984: 136).The fact that al-Biruni, who lived in Ghazni, Afghanistan, identified “Turkestan” (the name loosely applied to the large area of central Asia between Mongolia on the east and the Caspian Sea on the west) as the origin of batanalu is interesting because this and other references to either wild or cultivated C. edulis in the region are uncorroborated. It is plausible that khat used in the preparation of batan alu were dried leaves grown in Ethiopia and brought to central Asia as one of the myriad trade articles carried along the great caravan routes of the Old World.
The earliest work in which khat was identified as a plant is a book of medicinal remedies written in A.D. 1222 by Nagib ad-Din as-Samarkandi. The author, who resided in the ancient city of Samarkand, a major center of trade in Turkestan during the Middle Ages, recommended khat for its healing properties.
The earliest reliable reference to the general practice of khat consumption is in a chronicle of the wars between the Muslim and Christian states of Ethiopia during the early fourteenth century. The chronicler, a Christian, mentioned that khat was popular and widely consumed among the Muslim population (but shunned by Christians). He also wrote that a Muslim sovereign, Sabr ad-Din, boasted of what he would do when he conquered the Christian realm of King Amda Syon:”‘I will take up my residence at Mar’adi, the capital of his kingdom, and I will plant chat there,’ because the Muslims love this plant” (Trimingham 1952: 228).
According to John G. Kennedy (1987: 60-78), the popular use of khat in Yemen probably began in the southern part of the western highlands near Ta’izz during the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Customary use of the plant spread slowly northward, and by the end of the eighteenth century, khat was regularly sold in San’a. During the nineteenth century, use of the drug was widespread in the country, and Yemenis began to export khat overland to Aden (the annual trade grew from 1,000 camel loads in 1887 to 2,000 in 1900). Greenway (1947: 99) mentioned that the use of the leaves of C. edulis was well known to Ethiopians, Somalis, and Arabs at the time of World War I and that the knowledge of such use was spread to other African tribes through their encounters with the khat-chewing custom during war service in Ethiopia and Kenya.
The earliest concise account of khat in European literature was that of the Swedish physician and botanist Peter Forsskal (1736-63), who was a member of a Danish expedition led by the German geographer Karsten Niebuhr that visited Yemen in 1763. Khat, given the name Catha edulis, was among the plants collected in Yemen. Niebuhr, the only survivor of the five members of the expedition, published Forsskal’s botanical papers in 1775, and in memory of his friend extended the name Catha edulis to “Catha edulis Forsskal” (Revri 1983: 3).
Religious Role of Khat
In most of the legends and early historical accounts of khat, a common theme has been its capacity to enhance wakefulness and, therefore, the ability of the user to carry out religious observance and worship (Trimingham 1952: 228).A frequently heard comment in praise of khat by Muslim users is that it enables them to pray without becoming drowsy even throughout the nights of Ramadan (Brooke 1960: 53). In Ethiopia and in Yemen, stories are told of divine guidance in the discovery of khat and the high regard in which the drug was held by Muslim saints.
A well-known legend tells of Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Zarbay (Zerbin), one of 44 Muslim saints who came from the Hadhramaut (eastern Yemen) to Ethiopia in about A.D. 1430 on a proselytizing mission. He traveled to Harer, converted many to Islam, and is said to have introduced khat to Yemen upon his return (Burton 1910: 66-7).
Khat has long been known in predominantly Christian northern Ethiopia, although it was consumed there almost exclusively by the Muslim minority. Frederick Simoons (1960: 115-16) found that nearly all adult Muslims in the town of Gondar chewed khat, but that among the Wayto of Lake Tana only Muslim holy men did so. In Begemder and Semyen, Christians who are supposedly possessed by Muslim evil spirits use it to appease those spirits and to encourage them to leave (Simoons 1960: 115-16).
In the course of some 400 years (thirteenth to seventeenth centuries) of protracted struggle for territory between Christian and Muslim states in Ethiopia, the Christians came to identify the eating of khat as a distinguishing characteristic of the Muslims and disdained its use. However, in Yemen where Moslems and Jews have regularly used the drug, khat did not become an object of religious identification.
Yemeni Jews have used khat since at least the seventeenth century. Sholem bin Joseph al-Shibezi (1619-86) is the author of a poetic play in which a dialogue between coffee and khat is presented (Krikorian 1984: 151-2, citing J. Kafih 1963: 224-5). The play is still performed in Arabic by Yemeni Jews in Israel (Weir 1985: 75).
Within Islam, khat is at the center of controversy. Richard Burton observed during his visit to Harer, Ethiopia, in 1855 that khat produced “a manner of dreamy enjoyment and the Ulema [authorities in Muslim law and religion] as in Arabia, held the drug to be ‘Akl el Salikim,’ or the Food of the Pious.” Burton also wrote that the literati thought khat had “singular properties of enlivening the imagination, clearing the ideas, cheering the heart, diminishing sleep, and taking the place of food” (1910: 232).
Such an expression of esteem for khat, however, represents a minority view in the Islamic world, and for centuries, its consumption has been the subject of debate by doctors of Islamic law. Khat is not mentioned in the Koran, and the persistent question is: Does the use of khat contravene the Koran’s general injunction against the use of intoxicants? Although not of one mind on the question, Muslim religious leaders in most of the Islamic countries have taken the position that it does.
The following resolution was adopted by the World Islamic Conference for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drugs that met at Medina, Saudi Arabia, in May, 1983:
After reviewing reports submitted to the Conference on the health, psychological, ethical, behavioral, social and economic damages resulting from khat, the Conference judges khat to be a drug prohibited by religion and accordingly the Conference recommends to Islamic states to apply punishment of the basis of Islamic Shari’ah [canon law] against any person who plants this tree and markets or consumes khat (Al-Hammad 1983: 228).
Earlier, in 1971, the government of Saudi Arabia had banned the importation or use of khat in the kingdom and prescribed severe penalties for violations.
In the Muslim countries where khat is legal, there is an ambivalent attitude toward its use, and opposition to the drug is not necessarily based on religion. Many intellectuals in these countries deprecate the use of khat on the grounds that it is a deterrent to economic and social progress (Weir 1985: 66).
Although, traditionally, khat has appealed more to Muslims than non-Muslims, its use in the Islamic world is and has been minute. As A. D. Krikorian (1984: 163) has pointed out, the Turks in Ottoman-occupied Yemen never adopted the practice, nor did the 60,000 Egyptian soldiers stationed in Yemen from 1962 to 1967. In fact, less than half of one percent of the world’s Muslims use the drug.
Geographical Perspective of Khat
Yemen. Khat is the paramount crop of Yemen, where it is widely consumed and its use is legal. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (1994-5: 47-8): “It is hard to overestimate the social and economic importance of the stimulant shrub, qat. The majority of Yemenis, women less than men, chew the drug most days from early afternoon to evening. The habit is less prevalent in the southern governates and is rare in the eastern regions.”
Data on khat are largely unrecorded in Yemen’s official statistics, and quantitative assessments are estimates. Some aspects, however, are palpable. According to Tutwiler and Caprisco (1981: 52): “Compared to other perishable crops khat has the highest market value, the lowest water requirements, and demands the least output of heavy labor.” Beyond all question, khat is the preeminent cash crop of the country.
In fact, a 1992 report of the Yemen Times suggested that the value added by the khat sector of Yemen’s economy is equivalent to approximately a quarter of the recorded gross national product and about twice the value resulting from cultivation of all other crops (The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 1994-95: 56). The khat industry of Yemen involves landowners and growers, pickers, packers, transporters, wholesalers, and retailers – some 500,000 people, equivalent to about 20 percent of the working population (The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 1994-95: 56). A substantial part of government revenue is derived from taxes on khat, although there is little doubt that a large part of the crop escapes levy (The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 1994-95:56).
Until the 1970s, khat was too costly to be used frequently by most of the population. But concurrent with the Gulf oil boom that began in 1973-4, an unprecedented number of workers (more than a third of the potential male labor force in North Yemen) migrated for temporary employment to Saudi Arabia and other petroleum-producing countries in the Gulf (Varisco 1986: 2). Remittances sent home by the migrants (annually about 600 to 800 million dollars in the 1980s) created new wealth and a vastly increased demand for khat at home (Varisco 1986).
The early 1980s were exceptionally profitable years for khat farmers. A survey by Shelagh Weir (1983: 67) of a khat-growing community of 4,000 people in Razih Province, North Yemen, near the Saudi Arabian border, found that the market value for land yielding two harvests of khat per year was the equivalent of 90,000 U.S. dollars per hectare. Terraced land, on which two to three harvests of khat per year are common, sold for the equivalent of 200,000 to 600,000 dollars per hectare (Weir 1983: 67). Most holdings range between 0.15 and 0.5 hectares. In 1980, in the district of Rada, a major area of khat production, the estimated net profit of a khat farmer in the second year after the crop matured was the equivalent of about 37,000 dollars per hectare (Varisco 1986: 4).
Critics of the institutionalized use of khat have argued that the transcendent position of C. edulis in agriculture has depressed the production of other crops, including the staple grains, and that the large expenditure for khat drains family income that would better be spent on food. Indeed, since the 1970s, importation of foodstuffs has greatly increased in Yemen, and highly processed imported foods have brought changes to the traditional diet (Nyrop 1985: 108). Cereal imports increased 133 percent between 1987 and 1990 and accounted for 16 percent of total imports, compared with 11 percent in 1987 (The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 1992: 39).
The economy suffered a severe blow, however, when in late 1990, the government of Saudi Arabia expelled all Yemeni migrant workers, terminating Yemen’s main source of foreign exchange. The sudden return of some 850,000 Yemenis to their homeland, and the additional loss of about 1 billion dollars annually in foreign aid from the Arab oil-producing states, had drastic effects on the economy. In mid-1994, unemployment was about 25 percent, and the rate of inflation was about 100 percent annually (The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 1994-95:48-9).
Although export of khat from Yemen had ceased in 1974, there are unofficial reports that the depressed economy has prompted efforts in Yemen to increase its export of khat by air to markets in Africa and Europe.
North Yemen (the former Yemen Arab Republic). According to Kennedy, who directed an extensive program of team research on the sociomedical aspects of khat in Yemen during the mid-1970s,”No other society is so influenced by the use of a drug as is North Yemen by the use of qat” (1987: 78). He added that from 80 to 90 percent of adult men and 30 to 60 percent of adult women chew khat more than once each week.
About 70 percent of the country’s khat is produced in three areas of the western highlands: the district of San’a; the province of Ibb, Yemen’s overall leading agricultural region; and Jabel Sabr (elevation 3,005 meters), the terraced mountain that overlooks the town of Ta’izz and is the oldest and most famous khat-growing area in Arabia (Revri 1983: 16). The greater part of Yemen’s khat is consumed in the western interior mountains and plateaus where the majority of the population is located, but freshly harvested leaves are trucked daily from the high elevations, where it is grown, to settlements in the hot, dry coastal plain bordering the Red Sea.
Chewing during the long afternoons in gatherings of friends and acquaintances is a ritual in Yemeni culture that provides a focal point for social contact, informal business dealings, discussion of current events, mediation of disputes, and the free exchange of ideas in a friendly, relaxed milieu. In general, the ubiquitous afternoon “khat party” is a social ritual that underscores the institutionalized role of khat in Yemeni culture and accounts for the major part of the consumption of the drug in the country. Most such parties take place in private residences. They are “open house” affairs, and anyone may participate.
The houses of wealthy urban families have a special room for khat parties called al Mafraj, “a place for joyful gatherings” (Weir 1985: 110-11). As a paradigm, it is located with a pleasing overlook on the highest floor of the house, and a large window, extending almost to floor level, provides a good view for the seated guests. Yet, it is the custom that the door and the windows of the mufraj be closed during a khat party. During even ordinary sessions, the room is usually crowded with participants who exult in the oppressive heat and humidity and the smoke from cigarettes and the waterpipe. Users believe that the use of tobacco is essential to the enjoyment of khat chewing (Kennedy 1987: 86). Because khat inhibits urination and defecation by the constriction of muscular vessels, chewers have the ability to remain seated throughout the session for the customary 4 or 5 hours (Kennedy 1987: 115).
The societies of the khat-chewing countries are segregated by sex, and although men are the main users of the drug, women constitute a significant minority of users. The widespread popularity of khat with women is a fairly recent phenomenon. During the 1970s and 1980s, a period of unprecedented prosperity in Yemen, the domestic chores of both urban and rural women were greatly reduced by technological innovations, such as powered flour mills, piped water supply, and the availability of motor transport. The time available to women for social gatherings was substantially increased, and at a growing proportion of these gatherings, khat was consumed (Weir 1985: 90-1).
South Yemen (the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen). The strong market for khat in South Yemen is only to a small extent supplied by local production, and (despite some interruptions) for more than a century and a half, the farmed land near Ibb in North Yemen has been the main source of South Yemen’s khat. From this major center of production, the drug is transported to markets in the port of Aden (population about 420,000), Yemen’s commercial capital.
Until about the time of World War II, khat was transported from Ibb to Lahej by camel caravans, which were subject to pillage en route. Armed raiders pulled the camel loads to pieces in order to “extract a few choice bundles [of khat], with the result that the loads arrived in Aden dried up and unfit for human consumption” (Ingrams 1966: 106).
The government adopted an anti-khat policy, and in 1977, the use and sale of the leaf were limited by law to one day per week (Friday). This restriction, however, ended in 1990 when the two Yemens united.
Saudi Arabia. The small province of Jizan in the southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia is the only part of that country in which consumption of khat is of consequence. The mountain tribes people in Jizan, settled in rugged highland terrain and in relative isolation, have historically maintained a large measure of autonomy in their internal affairs.The growing and usage of C. edulis is centuries old in the uplands of the province, but at present, because of the government’s determination to abolish the plant and its use, cultivation of khat exists chiefly, if at all, covertly in the Fayfa area of Jizan. Schopen (1978: 65) identified Jebel Fayfa as the northern limit of khat cultivation in Arabia.
Israel. In the nineteenth century, khat growing was introduced by Yemenite Jews to the region of Ottoman-ruled Palestine that later became the modern state of Israel (Erich Isaac 1995, personal communication). Large-scale migration of Jews from Yemen began in 1882. By 1948, when Israel was established, about a third of the Jewish population of Yemen had emigrated. The exodus of almost all Jews remaining in Yemen (about 50,000) was accomplished by air transport to Israel, beginning with “Operation on Eagles’ Wings” in 1949 (Jerusalem Post September 19-25, International Edition 1982: 20).
It was a common practice of Yemeni migrant families to bring shoots of “gat” (C. edulis) with them to be planted in home gardens of their new settlements, and in Israel, the cultivation and consumption of khat remain almost exclusively the practices of Yemenite Jews. Immigrant Ethiopian Jews are reported to chew the leaf, as do some young Ashkenazis, who are attracted by the exotic nature of the drug (High on gat 1996: 16). Most khat is consumed by its growers, but the fresh leaves can be found for sale (legally) in some of the open-air “oriental markets” (Arnon Soffer, 1995, personal communication; D. Hemo, 1995, personal communication). A khat-based frozen concentrate, “Pisgat,” is made and sold in Israel as a health food. Its maker is reported to claim that the psychotropic effect of two tablespoons of Pisgat (mixed with water or soya milk, or added to ice cream) is equivalent to that achieved by several hours of chewing fresh khat (High on gat 1996: 17). In 1952, the ministry of health reported to the Knesset that although C. edulis was a stimulant, there was no reason to ban the leaf; since then, this official view has prevailed.
Afghanistan and Turkestan. In scientific literature, there are a few brief uncorroborated references to the occurrence of the khat plant in Afghanistan and “Turkestan,” that is, southcentral Asia. One reference, the most credible, is a two-paragraph communication titled “Catha Edulis,” by F. J. Owen, published early this century in a British chemical journal. Owen, an analytical chemist employed by the government of Afghanistan, reported his observations of the use of khat as a beverage by Afghans in Kabul:
The plant is found in the south of Turkestan and certain parts of Afghanistan to the east of Kabul … After inspecting a specimen brought to me for analysis I recognized it as the Catha edulis plant.The natives say that men by its aid can do long marches at night without feeling the least fatigue, also that among the wrestling fraternity here it is used on a large scale, as it greatly increases the muscular powers of the men …. It is drunk by many Afghans as a substitute for tea (1910: 1091).
Although more than 80 years have passed since the publication of Owen’s communication, however, the existence of khat in Afghanistan (or in any other country in southcentral Asia) is still unconfirmed.
Africa: General Distribution
C. edulis occurs wild and as a cultivated plant in eastern and eastcentral Africa. Wild stands grow sporadically in highlands from the northeastern Horn of Africa to the Sneeuberge Range in the far south of the continent.The plant is reported to be found in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and the Republic of South Africa.
Ethiopia. Khat is grown in at least 9 (of the 14) administrative areas (provinces) of Ethiopia (Revri 1983: 5).The plant is a prominently cultivated crop in the plow- and grain-farming complex of Harerge and eastern Arsi provinces and is frequently part of the planting complex of the Kefa and the Galla (Oromo) ethnic groups in the Kefa Province where khat ranks second to coffee as a cash crop (Westphal 1975).
The main area of khat cultivation is the Harer Plateau – in the eastern section of Ethiopia’s Central Highlands – with commercial centers of production in the administrative subdistricts of Harer, Webera, Garamulata, Chercher, and Dire Dawa (Assefa 1983: 73).All of these are within a radius of 100 kilometers (km) from the city of Harer, where according to local tradition, khat was first domesticated. In any case, its cultivation and use at Harer is older and economically more significant than in other areas in Ethiopia.
Small farm villages are scattered throughout these highlands of Harer, and at elevations between 1,500 and 2,100 meters, climate and soils are favorable for the production of a wide variety of field, garden, and tree crops. Rotation and terracing are practiced, as is irrigation where possible. Durra grain sorghum (Sorghum vulgare) is the predominant food crop, and khat is the most valuable cash crop (Brooke 1958: 192) – replacing coffee, which held that position until the middle of the twentieth century. Coffee fell from favor with Hareri farmers after World War II, chiefly because of low prices fixed by the government.
In 1949, Ethiopian Airlines introduced commercial air transportation of freshly cut khat from Ethiopia to Djibouti (French Somaliland) and to the British Crown Colony of Aden (now South Yemen). Transport of the perishable leaves by air was a commercial success from the start. However, the military junta that deposed the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, and held power during the years 1975 to 1991, sought to suppress its cultivation. Strong measures were employed to achieve that goal (Rushby 1995: 17), but since the end of civil war and the inauguration of a new coalition government in 1991, khat production has resumed without interference.
The export of khat officially earned 16 million U.S. dollars in 1993-4, establishing the drug as Ethiopia’s fifth-largest source of revenue (Rushby 1995: 17). Illicit trade in the leaf (smuggling and by other means avoiding excise) probably generates at least as much revenue as the official figures.
Khat is airfreighted twice weekly from Dire Dawa to London and Frankfurt, where it is sold to Ethiopian, Somali, and Yemeni expatriate communities. A small bundle of the leaves, sufficient for two or three hours of chewing, sells in Germany and the United Kingdom for the equivalent of between 6 and 7.50 U.S. dollars (Rusby 1995: 16-17). Ethiopian exports of khat to Europe compete with those from Kenya and Yemen.
Djibouti. The Republic of Djibouti (population about 400,000) is a major consumer of khat. Almost all of the drug is airfreighted from Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, where international cargo flights with freshly cut khat were inaugurated in 1949.The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (1989: 56) has estimated that as much as 12 tons of khat, valued at about 40 million U.S. dollars, enter Djibouti daily.
Somalia. Indigenous production of C. edulis in Somalia is small, and most of the khat consumed in this country is imported from Kenya and Ethiopia. Prior to the creation of the Somali Republic by the merger in 1960 of the (British) Somaliland Protectorate and Italian Somaliland, khat, on a small scale, was mainly used in the city of Hargeysa, the administrative center of the British dependency. After World War II, khat use in the protectorate increased considerably in spite of an official ban on the drug. Severe measures were taken by the colonial government to suppress the khat trade – drivers of trucks used for its transport were jailed and their vehicles destroyed (Elmi 1983: 166). But prohibition proved futile and, in 1957, the protectorate replaced the ban on khat with an import tax on the leaf (Brooke 1960: 57).
After the two Somalilands joined as a republic in 1960, the use of khat rapidly gained popularity in the “Southern Regions” (the former Italian Somaliland), coinciding with increased urbanization and the improvement of surface and air transportation. For two decades the government attempted simply to discourage the practice and finally proscribed it in 1983.
Enforcement efforts, however, were not effective, and as a consequence of the civil war that began in 1991 and the continuing political turmoil, there are no legal restrictions on khat in Somalia at the present time. In fact, it is believed that strife in the capital, Mogadishu, is fueled by the struggle among clan leaders for control of lucrative khat imports and distribution. The value of khat, it is reported, far exceeds that of any other commodity that Somalia imports, including food and weapons (Randall 1993: 15).
In the northern administrative regions of Somalia, the chief market for khat is the city of Hargeysa. A small amount of khat is locally cultivated, but most is imported by trucks from the Harer area in Ethiopia.
Kenya. The preeminent khat-growing area of Kenya is the Nyambeni Hills of the Meru District, extending northeast from the foot of Mt. Kenya for about 120 km. Khat that is cultivated and sold under license by farmers of the Meru ethnic group is the main source of the leaf for consumers in Kenya and for export to Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania, Zaire, and Zambia (Matai 1983: 88).
From local market towns, khat is transported to Nairobi – a fast four-hour drive – or by air from Isiolo to northern market towns. The khat trade is highly seasonal. Shortages and high prices prevail at markets during the months from June to October, when new growth of leaves and shoots is at a minimum (Hjort 1974: 29).
Somalia is the main export market. Every day at dawn, some 15 to 20 airplanes, each with about a ton of khat stuffed in burlap bags, take off for Somalia from Nairobi International Airport. Other flights leave from the town of Meru to smaller markets for khat in Tanzania and Uganda (Lorch 1994: A8). Khat is also flown as cargo from Nairobi to Britain, where it is a legal import. London and Cardiff, where many of the dockworkers are Somalis, are major markets.
The Western Indian Ocean Region
Madagascar. The cultivation, sale, and consumption of khat are legal in Madagascar, where the drug is grown and consumed chiefly by members of the Antakarana ethnic group in the northern extremity of the island. Local names for the plant are “katy” and “gat” (Thomas Herlehy and Daniel Randiriamanalina, 1995, personal communication).
The introduction and early history of khat in Madagascar is obscure. It is possible that C. edulis was first brought to the island by Arab traders and immigrants several hundred years ago. Louis Molet (1967: 25) postulated that khat was introduced and spread by Yemeni Arabs and later by Muslims from the Comoro Archipelago. Traders from Kilwa and from Zanzibar may also have played a role in the introduction of khat to Madagascar. In any case, for generations, immigrants from Yemen and the Comoro Islands have settled among the Antakarana and Sakalava ethnic groups in northern Madagascar.
A minority of the population, commonly referred to as “Arabs,” are of mixed Yemeni, Comoran, and Malagasy ancestry. They profess Islam, affect Arab (Yemeni) dress, and are said to be foremost in the commercial production of khat (Sharp 1995, personal communication).
It is mostly men that use khat, but the number of women users is said to be increasing. The retail price of a bundle of khat is about 5,000 Malagasy francs (approximately $1.25), which is expensive for most consumers (Sharp 1995, personal communication). As in Yemen, saliva and the juice of the leaves are swallowed, and the residue of chewed leaves is expectorated.
Methods of Khat Consumption
Khat as a Beverage
The practice of drinking water infusions and decoctions of khat is very old but today accounts for a smaller part of khat consumption than in the past. Fresh leaves for chewing, now widely available, provide users with much more psychostimulation than desiccated, boiled leaves. Nevertheless, khat prepared as a beverage is mildly stimulating, and some writers have extolled it as “an excellent beverage plant and worthy of exploitation” (Hill 1952: 481). “The leaf [has] a slightly bitter flavor with a strong, sweet taste of liquorice and has been regarded as nourishing” (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962: 179).
Catha edulis is one of many plants in Africa used to make “bush tea.” In the Cape Province of South Africa, bush teas are popular as tonics and as treatments for urinary and digestive problems. J. M. Watt and M. G. Breyer-Brandwijk (1962: 590) have described two methods of preparing bush tea from young twigs and leaves of the khat tree. In one, flowering shoots are first fermented by being piled in a heap and then allowed to dry. In the other, the leaves are “sweated” in an oven before they are dried in the sun. According to Watt, well-prepared bush tea has a sweet aroma (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk 1962: 590).
W. Cornwallis Harris, who traveled widely in Ethiopia during the years 1841 and 1842, reported that leaves of khat, well dried in the sun, were either chewed, boiled in milk, or infused in water. “By the addition of honey,” wrote Harris,” a pleasant beverage is produced, which being bitter and stimulative, dispels sleep if used to excess” (1844: 423-4). In the region of Ifat (Welo Province), he found that the fresh leaves were chewed as an astringent medicine or taken to dispel sleep, “a decoction in water or milk being drunk as a beverage, which tastes bitter enough” (Harris 1844: 407). According to Simoons (1960: 115), Christians in Debra Tabor (Gondar Province, Ethiopia) use khat leaves to flavor mead (tedj). The addition of tedj to a water infusion of khat yields a brown, bitter, mildly intoxicating beverage (Schopen 1978: 85).
Khat as a Masticatory
The chewing of fresh leaves and stem tips is the most common way of using khat as a psychostimulant. Everywhere the technique is much the same. Derek Peters (1952: 36) describes how khat is used as a masticatory in Somaliland. From the user’s supply of fresh khat, tender leaves and shoots are carefully selected and stripped from a few branches, compressed into a small mass, placed in the mouth, and chewed. Saliva and plant juices are swallowed. Copious amounts of cold water or other cold beverages are drunk. After 10 to 15 minutes of chewing, most of the juices are extracted from the wad.The process is repeated until – after 3 or 4 hours – the user’s supply of khat is exhausted. According to Weir (1985: 97), most consumers chew about 100 to 150 grams of picked leaves in one session; some chew as few as 50 grams, and a minority chew more than 200 grams.
In Yemen, the residue of chewed leaves in the mouth is not swallowed but compressed into a wad and stowed in one cheek (Kennedy 1987: 88). At the end of the chewing session it is expelled into a spit-toon. In Ethiopia and East Africa, the chewed parts of the leaves are swallowed with the juice and saliva. Amare Getahun and A. D. Krikorian (1973: 371-2) have suggested that ingested residue may be an important part of the daily intake of food, especially in the case of heavy users of the drug. Other investigators suspect that tannin in the residue may be responsible for the gastrointestinal discomfort that is common among khat chewers.
Khat as a Paste
In Ethiopia, water and honey are added to crushed, dried leaves of khat, and the ingredients are worked into a paste. In Somalia, a paste is made of finely ground dried khat, water, sugar, cardamom, and cloves. Khat paste is commonly eaten by the elderly and by travelers, according to Schopen (1978: 84-5).
Other Modes of Use
Not uncommonly, elderly persons, if unable to chew effectively, pound fresh leaves of khat in a small mortar (which they carry on their person) and drink the juice (Brooke 1960: 53; Kennedy 1987: 88). In eighteenth-century Yemen, travelers and old persons used madquq, which is simply khat that is pressed and left to dry in a darkened room for seven days and then pulverized by mortar and pestle. A portion of the dry, granular khat is placed in the mouth, mixed with saliva, and swallowed (Schopen 1978: 86).
There are also brief references in the literature to the practice of smoking khat. For example,”The dried leaves [in Africa] are also sometimes smoked” (Margetts 1967: 358), and “In Arabia the leaves may be dried and smoked like tobacco” (Greenway 1947: 99). Y. Z. Hes mentions that in the towns of Yemen, there are places where one may go in order to make and smoke khat cigarettes (1970: 283-4). But today, with the widespread availability of the freshly cut product, this method of consumption appears to be little used.
Food and Nutritional Characteristics
Karsten Niebuhr, in his book on travels in Arabia published in 1792, ascribed to khat “the virtues of assisting digestion and fortifying the constitution against infectious diseases. Yet its insipid taste gives no indication of its extraordinary virtues” (Niebuhr 1792,Vol. 2: 353-4, cited by Krikorian 1984: 119).
The astringent effect of khat induces intense thirst, and in addition to water, such beverages as tea, coffee, and commercial colas are consumed during the chew. Beer, both commercial and homemade, is a popular thirst quencher with chewers in Kenya and Somalia. Sometimes the host of a khat party in Yemen provides sherbet for the guests during a chewing session.
The nutritional value of khat is important because, to some unknown extent, the leaf is a substitute for conventional foods that would be eaten by the majority of users who chew khat regularly. Solid food is avoided during the chewing session, and for some hours after. Indeed, a well-known effect of khat is the temporary loss of appetite. “The laborers and shopkeepers take khat and regard it as the best substitute for food,” write Mulugeta Assefa (1983: 74).
In a 1952 analysis of samples of miscellaneous tropical and subtropical plants and plant products by Margaret Mustard (1952: 31), khat was found to contain “exceptionally large amounts” of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in leaves and branch tips, and “the ancient custom of qat chewing in Arabia may be inadvertently supplying the people of that country with some of their daily requirement of ascorbic acid” (1952: 34). It is interesting to note that ascorbic acid has been reported to act as an antidote to amphetamine-like substances, such as khat (Krikorian 1984: 154).
The Ethiopian Nutrition Survey (Khat [or chat] 1959: 169), in a nutritional analysis of samples of fresh khat leaves and tender stems, reported that in addition to its vitamin C content, “khat can contribute important amounts of niacin, beta-carotine [sic], calcium and iron to the user’s diet.”
According to Weir (1985: 42-3), the diet of khat chewers conforms to traditional Greco-Arab medical doctrine about the functioning of the human body. A healthy body is thought to be one in which an equilibrium is maintained among the four constituent humors – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Each humor has qualities drawn from the categories wet/dry and hot/cold. Blood is moist and hot, phlegm is damp and cold, yellow bile is dry and hot, and black bile is dry and cold.All substances that are taken internally, including khat, food, and medicines, are capable of upsetting the balance among the four humors by causing an excess or a diminution of their qualities when ingested. Khat is cooling and drying:
In order to achieve the most enjoyable results from an afternoon’s qat party, and to offset the “cooling” effects of qat, a man should make himself as hot as possible by eating beforehand a good lunch composed of “hot” foods, and avoiding those classified as “cold.” Hot foods are boiled mutton, mutton broth, fenugreek (hilbah) broth, chili pepper, white radish, wheat bread and sorghum porridge…. The cooling effects of qat are also counteracted during the qat party by closing all the windows of the room and generating a warm and stuffy atmosphere (Weir 1985: 43).
Weir (1985: 172) mentions that fenugreek is, next to mutton, the most important component of the midday meal, which is the main Yemeni meal. In Kennedy’s opinion, there is traditional wisdom in the belief that fenugreek soup and a meat sauce gravy are essential components of a “greasy carbohydrate meal [that] nullifies at least some of the potentially negative side effects of the qat” (1987: 82).
Kennedy (1987: 81-2) also points out that it is essential that spicy and well-salted foods be eaten in order to heighten the thirst of the khat user during the chewing session. Pleasure in drinking cool water during the session is an important part of the chewing experience.
Medicinal Uses of Khat
Khat is included in only a few of the many Arab pharmacopoeias and has been very little used in formal medicine. As might be supposed, however, it has a place in folk medicine and traditional remedies. For example, according to Peter Merab, among the dervishes and other Muslim holy orders, chewed khat is spat upon patients as a preliminary step in treatment of the sick. He also mentions that infusions of khat are drunk to treat illness (1921: 176).
In Somalia, khat is believed to have curative properties in treating urinary problems and gonorrhea (Peters 1952: 36). In Tanzania, coughing, asthma, and other respiratory problems are dealt with by drinking khat infusions, and pieces of the tree root are eaten to relieve abdominal pains (Greenway 1947: 99).
In the eighteenth century, Yemenis believed that the use of khat prevented epidemics and that, wherever the khat plant grew, pestilence would not appear (Schopen 1978: 87-8). Khat is used as an analgesic in Madagascar, where “teas” of many different plants are consumed for medicinal purposes. Tea from khat is used by elderly persons to relieve rheumatic ache and by women to ease the pain of menstrual cramps (Sharp 1995, personal communication).
The Psychophysiological Effects of Khat
The psychotropic effects of khat first drew international attention in 1935, when two technical papers on the plant were discussed in the League of Nations’ Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs (Bulletin on Narcotics 1980: 1).
For many years, it was believed that the alkaloid cathine, d -norpseudoephedrine, was the main stimulant in khat. But in 1975, a laboratory study – using samples of fresh khat (instead of dried leaves as had been used in previous work) – resulted in the detection and isolation of cathinone, a phenylalkylamine characterized as (-)a-aminopropiophenone (Szendrei 1980: 5). Cathinone, 8 to 10 times stronger than cathine in its effect, is the predominant psychotropic agent in khat (Kalix 1994: 71), which is the only plant known to produce cathinone (LeBelle 1993: 54).
The transformation of cathinone into other less-potent products, such as cathine, begins shortly after the leaves and shoots are removed from the tree (Kalix 1994: 72). With a plasma half-life of only 1.5 hours, cathinone’s potency is lost within 48 to 72 hours after harvesting (Kalix 1994: 72), which is the reason khat users prefer to chew only fresh leaves and shoots of the plant. However, deep-freezing prolongs its potency for months (Drake 1988: 532-3).
Alkaloids from khat, used in patent medicines manufactured in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, were derived only from dried leaf material and, therefore, contained little or no cathinone.
The Khat Experience
A subjective account of khat-induced psychophysio-logical effects is given by Kennedy. The account is derived from his own experimentation with the drug and from interviews with 803 Yemeni users of khat:
The first experiential effects of qat are a gradually developing mild euphoria, i.e., alertness, feelings of contentment, confidence, gregariousness, and the flowing of ideas, called the kayf. [“Kayf” is a general term in Arabic for a state of pleasurable well-being]. Under certain variable conditions such as amount of the drug, food intake, personality and physical condition, this kayf phase occasionally develops into confusion. Ordinarily however, the experience gradually transforms into an “introvert phase” of quiet contemplation in which the stimulation of thought processes continues at a rapid pace while physical and vocal activities diminish. Since this is often accompanied by fatigue, previous problems or pessimistic personality characteristics may transform this phase into a mild temporary lowering of mood.
The postsession effects of qat continue for several hours, and, again depending upon the same variable conditions, many of them are rather negative. Sleep is inhibited, hunger is diminished, sexual desire and performance may positively or negatively be affected, and irritability may occur. However, often people experience positive aftermaths, such as feeling closer to Allah, more understanding, and a desire to work. When we look at our interview data pertaining to the experiential aspects of qat-use we find consistent male-female differences, with more males generally reporting the experiences. In the eyes of the average chewer the rewarding experiences associated with qat chewing outweigh the unrewarding ones; they are much more regular and predictable (Kennedy 1987: 130-1).
Adverse Effects of Khat
An apocryphal account of khat’s introduction into Yemen from Ethiopia is given by the historian and traveler, Ibn Fadl Allah al’Umari in his work, Masalik al-Absar, written between A.D. 1342 and 1349. The king of Yemen, curious about khat, asked an advisor, an Ethiopian familiar with the drug, to describe the effects of chewing the leaf:
Upon learning that it virtually eliminated the desire to eat, to drink [alcohol?], and to have sexual intercourse, [the king] told him: “And what other pleasures are there in this base world besides those? By God, I will not eat it at all; I only spend my efforts on those three things; how am I going to use such a thing which will deprive me of the pleasures that I get from them?” (Krikorian 1984: 26-7).
Beyond question, a temporary loss of appetite is effected by khat chewing. In laboratory tests, cathi-none and cathine markedly inhibit the food intake of rats (Bulletin on Narcotics 1980: 84). In addition, nearly all users experience difficulty in sleep following the use of the drug. Only daily heavy chewers reported that their sleep was not inhibited by khat (Kennedy 1987: 128). There is also little doubt that sexual experience is affected by khat, but opinions vary as to whether sexual desire is heightened and ability to perform is enhanced, or whether there is a loss of libido. Examples of both effects are found in the literature: “While sex interest is heightened at first, depressed libido and potentia sexualiscome as the drug effect is maintained, and chronic users may develop impotence” (Margetts 1967: 359; see also Krikorian 1984: 151).
A negative view of the drug, based on its anaphrodisiac properties, is paradoxical, however, because relevant demographic characteristics of the chief khat-using countries suggest that “depressed libido” is hardly a problem. Yemen, for example, has a total fertility rate (the average number of children a woman will have throughout her childbearing years) of 7.7, which is the world’s highest, save for Gaza’s 8.1 (Population Reference Bureau 1995).
Perhaps the most common ailments related to the level of khat use are gastritis (acute and chronic) and constipation (Kennedy 1987: 218). Tannins in khat (chiefly flavenoids) have long been suspected of adversely affecting the gastric system. At the present time, it is known that tannin content is high, probably between 5 and 15 percent (Kennedy 1987: 185). Many of the most expensive kinds of khat have reddish tints to leaves and shoots, and these kinds are purported to have a lower content of tannins than the others (Drake 1988: 532).
Among women, there is a strong association of the level of khat use with liver and urinary problems. Khat chewing may also be a maternal practice harmful to the fetus. It has been found that healthy full-term infants have a significantly lower average birth weight if the mothers were either occasional or habitual khat chewers (Eriksson, Ghani, and Kristiansson 1991: 106-11).
Since the 1950s, khat has been on various agendas of meetings under the auspices of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs and of the World Health Organization. For many years, the attention of these organizations was directed to the question of agreeing upon a pharmacological definition of C. edulis. Eventually, in 1973, it was placed in a group of “dependence-producing drugs,” although there is a lack of evidence that khat chewing produces “dependence” in the usual sense of the word.
At the present time, 137 countries are parties to at least one of the three Conventions (1961, 1971, and 1980) of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme. Because khat contains the alkaloids cathinone and cathine, it is a scheduled drug on the 1971 Convention’s List of Psychotropic Substances. Parties to the Convention agreed to prohibit the entry of khat without an import permit. However, most parties to the U.N. conventions do not strictly enforce the control measures for khat as required by the treaties.
The Scandinavian countries are among the minority of European nations that strictly enforce a ban on the import and export of khat. Consumers in the United Kingdom and Germany may purchase khat legally, airborne from Ethiopia, Kenya, and, recently, Yemen (Rushby 1995: 16). In Rome, where use of the drug is popular among Somali expatriates, it is rumored that airport customs inspectors of flights arriving from Ethiopia, Kenya, Yemen, and Israel seldom inquire closely as to the nature of fresh bundles of stems and leaves identified on import declaration forms as “floral stuff” (Nencini et al. 1989: 257).
The United States
Under United States federal law, it is illegal to possess khat for personal use or to import, cultivate, dispense, or distribute it. The alkaloid cathinone is placed in Schedule I, subsection (f) Stimulants, of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA defines Schedule I drugs as “highly abusable substances … which have no currently accepted medical use in the United States” and which may be used lawfully only in research situations authorized by the Drug Enforcement Administration (U.S. Department of Justice 1988: 4).As provided by the CSA, the penalty for simple possession of khat is imprisonment of not more than one year and a minimum fine of $1,000, or both (Code of Federal Regulations, 21 1994: 1308.12, 841[a], 841[b], 844[a]).
It is believed that most khat enters the United States from Canada in small quantities concealed in luggage aboard aircraft or in private vehicles. Seizures of khat have been made at international airports in Champlain, N.Y., New York City, Newark, Chicago, Dallas, and St. Louis. A total of about 800 kilograms of khat was seized by the U.S. Customs Service between August 1991 and October 1992. In March 1993, the retail price of a kilogram of khat ranged from 30 to 60 dollars (U.S. Department of Justice 1993: 2).
Khat is currently classified as a “New Drug” in Canada, that is,”new” in the sense that “it has not been sold in Canada for sufficient time to establish the safety and effectiveness of the substance for use as a drug” (Langlois 1995, personal communication).As a New Drug, the sale of khat is prohibited, but not its possession import, export, or consumption. New legislation would place fresh leaves of khat in Schedule II and confine import, export, cultivation, sale, and possession to medical and scientific purposes. Importation would require an official permit. Violations would be subject to fines not to exceed 5,000 dollars and or imprisonment not exceeding three years (Langlois 1995, personal communication).