Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Qitty litter

In comparison with some of this government’s other activities of late, the classification of qat as a Class C illegal drug ranks fairly low in the scale of timewasting, racism and moral/intellectual bankruptcy. Nevertheless, it’s pissed me off, probably because of the combination of hypocrisy (banning qat within just days of letting tobacco and alcohol companies off the hook? Those qat traders need to start learning where to send their brown envelopes) and the sheer pointlessness of criminalising lots of people who aren’t doing anything wrong and who are pretty marginalised by our society anyway. I’d done most of my fulminating on this subject quietly to myself, as I’ve been rather busy on other things and blogging has rather fallen by the wayside. But the other day I found this amusingly tetchy passage in Paul Dresch’s otherwise sober tome, Tribes, Government and History in Yemen (Oxford University Press, 1989; bolded type mine):

Among the things on which money was, and still is, being spent is qat. This is a mildly stimulant shrub whose leaves are chewed usually at gatherings in the afternoon, where general conversation goes on until a torpid quiet sets in around sundown. It is a pleasantly sociable habit. The Yemenis are no doubt tired of foreigners harping on it, and foreign writers have produced a tradition of mildly pompous condemnation, of which Hugh Scott provides a typical example: ‘Altogether it is sad to see so much of the best land, above all land that might yield first rate coffee, devoted to this baneful little tree’. Except that coffee has an accepted place – and a price on the exchanges – in London, it is hard to see what sense underlies this. The leaves produce no more desperate effect on the user than does coffee or strong tobacco, and the institution of the maqil or ‘conversational gathering’ where one chews qat is a thoroughly civilized one: it is here that, according to company, crops are discussed, disputes mediated, poems composed and exchanged, or the fate of the country pondered.

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