Khat is a green narcotic leaf chewed by most Yemenis in Yemen. As a Yemeni woman growing up I was always taken aback by how many people chewed Khat in Yemen.
Teachers, doctors, taxi-drives, students and children as young as 7….they all chewed it like it was an elixir.
This wasn’t the occassional Khat chewing session either that I was accustomed to seeing in Chicago, and I could barely tolerate that given that khat sessions last from mid-afternoon to the early hours of the morning.
So what has changed and given me hope that Khat, chewed in its current fashion since the 1960s, may be coming to an end?
It was noon time when I arrived in Yemen last month, the time most shops, banks and business close to chew Khat – think of it as a Spanish siesta with a dash of meth. I walked up the flight of stairs to their apartment expecting to find the living room floor scattered with Khat sticks.
Instead my cousins, who last year were crouched against each other chewing Khat, were sprawled across the floor with controllers in their hand and the faces glued to the screen. What was wrong with this picture? The first thing I checked was their cheeks. No Khat. There lying under the TV was a Playstation 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2 playing on the screen. They could see the surprised look on my face and explained how video games replaced Khat.
It all began when one day they saw a PS4 for sale at the mall. After saving up enough money to buy it they played on it once or twice before it started to gather dust because they just couldn’t chew Khat and play video games for some reason (something about the effects of Khat makes one more subdued).
Also, the hand eye co-ordination and using a mouse and controller for time-sensitive moves do not mix well with chewing Khat, pausing the game during multiplayer sessions or solo campaigns disrupts your immersion in the game.
In fact, some say they chew less when playing as they forget to chew a stick while they’re absorbed in the game. So it was with my cousins. During a hike in Khat prices the only Khat they could was the dry variant which they didn’t find too appealing.
To relieve their boredom they inserted their RDR2 disc and started playing the game. Before they knew it was 5pm and the hours they would chew Khat the most had passed but they realised something: they had more fun playing the video game than chewing khat.
Since then they have played other video games including PC games and have invited friends over with one condition: no Khat chewing.
I was amazed to find out that among the youth who lived in the area (three blocks) had quit Khat and were on various consoles, some even found playing simple flash games and the ancient PS one games were more enjoyable than chewing khat.
Consoles that we no consider as being relevant in the west and take for granted such as the PS2 and even the PS One along with the Nintendo 64 still hold up quite well.
It’s quite endearing to see Yemeni kids excited at the prospect of playing Crash Bandicoot, Tekken 1 (late 90s!) and having that same wonder we all had when first playing these, it really is a portal to the past and anyone who is thinking of trading in their old console or recycling them should consider donating them to developing countries, especially in countries where drug addiction and crime is rampant.
If anything else it should give children a brief respite from the harsh realities of every day life and a distraction from drugs. While their parents continue to chew Khat it’s encouraging to see this trend. Of course, some will argue that video gaming can also be addictive, but it’s a step in the right direction and doesn’t impact their health as much.
No video games gives you yellow teeth, deprives you of sleep, causes mouth cancer, depletes water supplies and takes half your pay cheque.