Americans chew tobacco. Indians chew paan. Yemenis chew khat.
Ethiopians, Somalis, and a host of other East African peoples also chew the leafy substance. But, Yemenis are the most hooked – two-thirds are said to be khat consumers.
Khat is a mild stimulant stronger than caffeine but less potent than cocaine. Users feel a buzz that decreases appetite, increases sexual stamina, and hones concentration. It was carelessly enjoyed during wedding parties and holiday celebrations among Yemeni immigrants to the U.S. - from Dearborn, Mich. to New York City.
But that all changed, when federal drug authorities began treating khat users, growers, and dealers as criminals on the opposing side of the drug war. The subculture has been under siege by zero tolerance policies, but the Yemeni community is eager to appear unbothered by changes in law enforcement.
"We don't do that around here. We have come to this country to work 12 hours a day, and there is no time for that. Only back in Yemen, it’s different there," said Mohammed Abdu, 21, who manages an East Harlem deli at East 117th Street and Madison Avenue.
"We used to chew in Michigan, but I haven't chewed khat since 2005. It's hard to get and too expensive," said Abdu. "Plus, it's not even worth chewing if it's dried. In Cali and Detroit, you can't even grow it anymore," Abdu added, mentioning a friend in Michigan jailed for growing.
“If we Yemenis didn't have khat, we'd have other drugs. Better khat than something worse," he said.
The five to six hour khat-chewing cycle is typically enjoyed in the afternoon. The drug induces a comfortable and relaxed buzz. "If you bad in the morning, then you good by the afternoon," said Abdu.
Khat is against the law in the U.S., and a crackdown by authorities makes consumption of the drug exceedingly difficult. But, the many Yemeni immigrants surveyed for this article were loath to suggest that they enjoyed consumption of the drug, for fear of legal repercussions.
Prior to the stricter enforcement, khat was sold freely, in bodegas and cafes from East Harlem to Boerum Hill. Immigrant communities continue to chew, albeit behind closed doors. And peddling the drug has been driven deep underground, conducted by dealers who risk significant jail time.
The drug has disappeared from places such as the Yemen Cafe on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, where construction workers, travel agents, and shopkeepers mingle over chicken loubia and lamb zorbian. Pictures of Yemeni villages and ceremonial daggers on the wall remind patrons of the old country. But, none of the two dozen customers were chewing khat on a recent Monday afternoon.
The manager, who would not give his real name, said that even chewers know their mild addiction is a waste of time. He added that the subject was very sensitive because neighborhood residents were afraid of being arrested.
In 2000, seizures of the product and arrests of the khat dealers in Cobble Hill began hampering consumption.
A rough year for khat importers was 2003, when U.S. drug authorities seized over 45 tons of khat in the New York metro area. According to Erin Mulvey, spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Agency, the seizures have continued, leading to Somalia Express, the biggest New York anti-khat operation in 2006, which netted 44 arrests.
"The khat crackdown has resulted in a decrease in consumption, especially in New York, which is a hub of khat distribution. Due to law enforcement efforts, a majority of users now understand the drug's illegality," Mulvey said.
Eradication efforts have driven khat prices higher, resulting in a market price that has more than doubled since 2000.
A bundle of fresh leaves includes about a dozen stems and costs about $50. But fresh leaves are hard to find in the U.S. The dried leaves, of inferior quality, are much more common.
Mahmoud, 48, is a Yemeni immigrant from the city of Ibb who works at the same East Harlem bodega as Abdu. He said that khat makes people loquacious but forgetful. Mahmoud also said that abstainers in his hometown are stigmatized as too shy or too poor to afford the daily chewing session.
“I used to chew khat to take tests better and retain information. It's like coffee but stronger," said Mahmoud. "Here in New York, people don't mind the government crackdown. Some people even move to the U.S. to get away from khat, but the last time I chewed, I was 16. When I go back, I'd rather buy toys for my kids or take trips to the mountains than buy khat."
Sitting on a 36-pack of Coors Light, Mahmoud demonstrated how Yemenis relax to the drug and discuss poetry and politics. "If I chew here, I gonna be crazy. You need time to rest afterwards. Working 12 hours a day here, you can't do that," Mahmoud said.
The drug is legal in much of Europe, including the United Kingdom, which has a vibrant khat-chewing community in London. But, it is considered a Schedule 2 controlled substance in the United States, as illegal as oxycontin and hydrocodone.
Many critics believe that khat is a waste of time and money. Khat is often associated with chronic underemployment. While it is only mildly addictive, it can cause gum disease.
The debate over khat in East Africa and the Middle East focuses on both the economic and social costs of the drug. Opponents argue that agricultural resources would be better utilized growing other plants.
Khat cultivation uses an estimated 40% of Yemen’s country’s water supply, but one can hardly blame farmers, who yield up to five times more from khat cultivation than from any other crop.
“Nowadays, khat is just something that you do while watching TV. You do it with your friends at home instead of going to a bar. It’s just like eating these chips,” said Ahmed Jahm, 37, a Yemeni immigrant who works at Wahidah restaurant in Boerum Hill, who was munching on vegetable root chips from the Trader Joe’s on the other side of Court Street.
“People just talk about their store’s problems and whose kids are going to this or that college. But, I don’t chew, ‘cause I have a 14-year-old son, and I have to be a good role model.”