Sunday, 28 August 2011

Yemen - Coffee and Qat

It wasn't until I was blogging about the Netherlands that I learned that coffee originally came from Yemen.  Well, as with a lot of Yemeni things, it probably originated in Ethiopia but, I guess, Yemen was the first place that coffee was cultivated and turned into something palatable.  Whilst Yemen had been exporting coffee beans for quite a while, it was the Dutch who stole the young coffee plants and replanted them in their colonies in (what is now) Sri Lanka and Indonesia.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Coffee plantation by
Coffee, from the Arabic word قهوة‎ (qahwah) came to Europe in two directions; exported as beans through the Ottoman Empire to Istanbul and Vienna - it later took Amsterdam, Paris and London by storm, resulting in a proliferation of coffee houses or cafes in 17th century Europe.  Looking at the top coffee-growing countries today, it's hard to believe that Yemen was ever at the centre of the trade in coffee beans.  Brazil is, by far, the biggest coffee-growing country, followed by Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia.  Ethiopia has also reclaimed its tradition of coffee-growing and is currently the world's 5th largest coffee producer.

In terms of coffee consumption (per head of population), it might surprise you to know that people from Finland, Norway and Iceland consume more coffee than anywhere else.  In Ireland we also consume a lot of coffee, 3.5 kilos per person annually, according to 2007 figures from the World Research Institute.  In Britain, it's a lot less (2.8) and in the United States a bit more (4.2).  The global average in 2007 was 1.3 kilos per person annually.  Interestingly, Yemen's coffee consumption per person is almost zero!

Coffee Art by
Whether coffee is beneficial or harmful is debatable - I'm sure the major coffee producing companies would point out the benefits of drinking coffee and it certainly helps increase concentration and stimulates the brain.  My rule-of-thumb is that most things are good for you in moderation.  I usually have one cup of coffee per day, first thing in the morning or as soon as I get to work.  I didn't drink coffee until I was in my early 20's, but I'd find it hard to give up now, so I guess it's pretty addictive!  I drank all kinds of coffee for years but then something changed and I can no longer stand instant coffee.  I didn't use to be such a coffee snob but I've come to the conclusion that instant coffee is vile, just like drinking coffee-flavoured hot water!  I prefer ground coffee in a French press (or сafetière). 

Qat plant by A Davey
It's interesting to compare the fate of coffee to that other (in)famous Yemeni plant, Qat.  They're similar in many ways - both plants increase concentration and can be addictive.  Both are important in social situations and mostly consumed by adults.  Qat is chewed rather than drunk.  It isn't consumed by nearly as many people every day as coffee is and, if you're wondering why you've never heard of it, that's probably because it's banned in most of the Western world.

Qat contains cathin and cathinone, which are like amphetamines that stimulate the brain, suppress appetite and cause a mild euphoria.  In Yemen, qat is consumed mostly (but not exclusively) by men, especially in the hour or so before sunset, when men gather to socialise, talk and listen to devotional music.  In his book, Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land Tim Mackintosh-Smith rather poetically describes the importance of qat to Yemeni culture.  He calls this time the Hour of Solomon and says the songs that are sung then are 'as perilous as they are beautiful'.

Qat at an Ethiopian market by A Davey
Categorised as a drug in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf states, the consumption of qat is strictly forbidden throughout the rest of Arabia.  It's also banned in Scandinavia, France, Germany, Ireland, Canada and the United States.  Interestingly, the use of qat in the UK is legal.  I don't imagine it's available at every corner store and I'm pretty sure its use is mostly restricted to immigrants of Yemeni, Somali and Ethiopian origin.  Still, it would be interesting to find out how widespread the use of qat is here in the UK.  I reckon it's only a matter of time before the new coalition government redefines qat as a controlled substance, in line with the laws of other European countries.

I guess if caffeine hadn't taken off in Europe in the way that it has, it could well have been classified as a drug.  It's interesting to think that one man's socially acceptable stimulant is another man's controlled substance!  I'm going to leave you with a song by the popular Yemeni singer, Mohamad al-Harithi which is typical of the songs sung during the Hour of Solomon.

Image credits:

The coffee images are by flickruser INeedCoffee/Coffee Hero aka Michael Allen Smith, a coffee enthusiast from Seattle.  Michael has a very amusing and interesting website which is well worth a visit. 

The images of qat and the at the market in Ethiopia was taken by flickruser A Davey who is from the Pacific northwest.  You can see more of his photos on flickr

Thanks to Michael and A Davey for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license
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