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An Explorer Learning Arabic; Chewing kat – the national past time of Yemen

Published October 10th, 2011

“You see, it shouldn´t be called chewing kat” , my new good friend Kyle said, “It should be called storing kat, which is the Arabic meaning of the word.”



The chewing, or storing, of kat is a controversial issue not only in Yemen, but also in the surrounding countries. There´s a loud opposition against kat (read about kat on wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khat) because it is said to have a big negative effect on Yemen’s economy. It is not an exportable product, it uses an considerable amount of the countries natural resources, lots of manpower and most of all, apparently almost 40% of the countries water resources. It is also said that it creates a lot of problems within the family, like for example alcohol, since it strains the family economy (a small bag of a one session chew is 750 rials, which is a lot of money for the locals, about 3.5 dollars) and it damages family bonds since the men are always gone chewing kat with male friends. All this is of course the same effects that any consumption of alcohol and such stimulants that we humans seem to need worldwide.



Anyway, chewing kat is after all the national past time in Yemen, and has the same social consequences as vodka in Russia, that it is through a kat session or a vodka party that you get the real insights into the country and its workings. It is said. So I joined Bob Burrowes , political expert of Yemen from the University of Washington, who´s spent more than 7 years all together in this diverse country that he visited the first time 1976.



“I hope you will find that there are some very positive aspects of the kat sessions” , this veteran of thousands of kat sessions told me whilst we walked through the spectacular old city of Sanaa heading first for lunch together with another big Yemeni ex-pat personality, Kyle, “Whatever one´s position regarding kat, its presence is undeniably and impossible to ignore.”



These two veterans are two of the major personalities I have come across during my visit here.In Yemen, even the white people are interesting, which says a lot about the country. Kyle for example, has lived here for many years, speaks fluent Arabic and have been married to three Yemeni ladies and is a storyteller of sorts. One of these jagged personalities, dented by life, driven by curiosity and good humor, that one has the privileged to come across on and off on the global arena as a traveller. He first took us to a great restaurant, then we ended up at the kat session with a mix of expats and Yemenis. We spent almost 8 hours storing kat. Because that is what you do, store kat in one of the cheeks until it would like to bust. But you don´t spit this green substance out until the session is over. So in this case, we are talking almost 8 hours of storing. I have to say it is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable moments I have had in a long time, sitting in a group talking about the most amazing things of life. And you do learn a lot of Yemen during such a expanded session.



“We Yemenis are not an aggressive people, we like to talk, see how it is here, a kat session is an important way to socialize and solve problems” , Kamal told me in perfect english, “Therefore as you see on the streets of Sanaa, people take life is easy, even though the reputation of instability is racing across the country. But I don not feel worried. We will talk ourselves out of this problem and I think a federal initiative, to give all regions more autonomy is the solution. The only problem as I see it is the terrible corruption in the country.”



Since my days in Siberia , I have long ago realized some basic facts about the human mind and its quest to be a being. There´s no doubt that we are a homo conversencis, a being who needs to continuously communicate and socialize to feel content with life. Some of the happiest people I have come across during 23 years of traveling are people who continuously communicate with each other. And a kat session is very much like that. It is a very important social function and we humans need this gatherings, even though they put a heavy toll on other things in society. Life is a about finding an equilibrium, not just painting life in white or black. So far, my first kat session wasn´t only a success when it came to getting profound insights into the Yemeni life, hearing some amazing stories from Mali by a true story teller or a perspective of being Yemeni in Finland, it was a very basic way for human beings to interact and talk leading to a much less aggressive approach to life. Everything has a backside to it, it is just that things take time to understand and develop so if demanding and slightly negative people went to a kat session instead of moaning about the negative aspect of life, we would have a better and more fair understanding of the world. Especially the Yemeni one.

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