International Conference Chews Out the Qat Plant

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 25(1989):13

The issue of qat, khatmiraa or whatever the variant has stimulated more interest than any other botanical specimen in the Middle East and East Africa. While it is obviously an important element in the social and economic framework of Yemen, the cultivation and use of this plant is also common in a number of parts of the African continent, especially Ethiopia. It is not surprising, then, that the first international conference on qat was held on the continent in Antananarivo, Madagascar in late January, 1983. This conference was attended by a number of scholars who have studied qat and its use. Participants came from Saudi Arabia, the Y.A.R., the U.A.E., Egypt, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, and Madagascar, as well as from non-chewing countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, France, Hungary, Italy, Canada and the U.S.A. The World Health Organization was also represented.

The proceedings of the conference recently appeared in Arabic (and perhaps elsewhere in English?) in a volume entitled Al-Qat (Jedda, Tihama Publications, 1407-1987, 330 pp., no index, list of participants, no English summary). This was edited by two Saudi scholars, Dr. Humad/Hamd al-Marzuqi and Dr. Ahmad Nabil Abu Khatwa; they have Ph.D.s from the University of Michigan and Purdue respectively. While all the papers are in Arabic, references are left in the original language, as are the notes in most of illustrations. Indeed, much of the information has been published elsewhere in professional journals.

The focus of the papers is on the chemistry of qat and the medical effects on the human body. An excellent bibliography is included with the paper by K. Szendrei, whose research is available in Western languages. However, there is an interesting paper by several Saudi authors from the College of Pharmacy at King Saud University in Riyad. It is worth noting that they examined qat grown in Saudi Arabia (for scientific purposes, of course).

While information is found for the region as a whole, most of it is concerned with research conducted in the African context. There has long been interest in research in Ethiopia, for example one of the new leaders in the study of qat in the Ethiopian context is Dr. Abraham Krikorian, in the Department of Biochemistry at SUNY, Stony Brook. His initial paper provides a historical survey of research and discovery with an extended bibliography.

The only paper by a trained social scientist is the discussion of qat marketing and use in northern Kenya by the anthropologist A. Hjort. For an English version of this information, see the journal Ethnos 39 (1974): 1-2:27-43 and his monograph published by the University of Stockholm in 1979. There are a number of short (mercifully so) "conference" papers by government representatives. One of these is by a member of the Dept. of Defense at the U.A.E. in Abu Dhabi (Does this mean a new twist for chemical warfare?) He claims to have interviewed 112 qat users (including 26 women) in Aden and lists their responses without even a modicum of analysis. There is also a sermon by a Saudi on the evils of qat in the form of the litany oft repeated for popular consumption.

Two Yemeni officials from the Ministry of the Interior provided a paper on qat in the Yemeni context. While not apologizing for the use, the paper points out how it is possible to have a different view on the subject. Unlike the other papers, the authors refer to a number of benefits for the use of qat.

As for the publication, it will have limited circulation out of Saudi Arabia and it contains little that cannot be found in previous Western sources. There are a number of printing errors in both the Arabic and English. TheBulûgh al-maram of Qadi al-‘Arash‘ is attributed to a certain al-Qarshi [sic] on p. 40. Most of the English errors are in the spelling.

No conference would be complete without its recommendations. This one came up with eight conclusions which are briefly and dutifully noted at the end of the volume. These are rather predictable and perfunctory, such as the need for more study and the need for a second conference. The idea for a second conference has merit, but certainly not on the same pedestrian level as the first. The need is to sift through the quite considerable literature at this point and apply critical analysis to the issues of medical effects, addiction, social value, political dimensions and the economic impact of qat. While it is commendable to include scholars from the entire region, is it always necessary to have the embarrassing "conference" papers by uninformed officials? Sadly, while there is much to chew over the issue of qat, this conference is only a let-down without any preceding euphoria.

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