"THE STIMULANT effect does not seem to be produced in everyone who uses it, and the initial effects for new users can be quite unpleasant, in the form of dizziness and stomach pains."

Such was the advice that the Independent on Sunday's travel doctor gave to a reader who wrote last summer to inquire if the chewing of qat leaves, as practised in certain parts of the Middle East and Africa, is harmful to health. The words certainly gave me food for thought as I headed off to sample the pleasures of qat for myself last week, though I'm not sure which worried me most: the dizziness and stomach pains or the possibility that nothing would happen.

My guide on this maiden voyage into the seas of narcosis was to be Kevin Rushby, whose new book, Eating the Flowers of Paradise, is published this week. Subtitled "A journey through the drug fields of Ethiopia and Yemen", it's a fascinating and occasionally very funny travelogue in which the qat tree has a central role. Rushby begins his journey in Harer, the highlands of Ethiopia, where the qat tree is said to have originated, and follows the ancient trade route to Djibouti and then across the Red Sea to Yemen.

Rushby, who is 37, taught English in Yemen for four years and during that time he came to understand the way in which qat is far more than just an alcohol substitute and, in fact, dominates the culture. As he says in his book, the drug has a pivotal role in society, dictating when restaurants open and close, where roads go to and even whether couples have sex and how long it lasts. It's estimated that qat accounts for a third of Yemen's gross national product and growers are among the country's highest earners.

While not actually proselytising on qat's behalf, Rushby is an eloquent spokesman for its beneficial effects, and he's keen to let people try it for themselves. He was a guest on Radio 4's Midweek programme last week and offered his fellow-guests a nibble. Ned Sherrin gave it a go, but American chat-show host Jerry Springer declined and was keen to stress to any Americans listening that he hadn't tried it. No doubt he was mindful of the fact that while qat is legal in this country, it's banned in the States.

We'd arranged to meet in the East End, in order to purchase our qat from a Yemeni supplier, but when we got there the shop was shut, so there followed a taxi ride over to west London. We arrived at a small newsagent's, where the Ethiopian shopkeeper greeted Rushby warmly. After a brief chat he went over to the soft-drinks cabinet and took out a green bin bag from the bottom shelf. Inside were several bundles of qat, wrapped neatly in banana leaves and tied with raffia. We bought two, at pounds 5 a piece.

Only later, in the safe haven of Rushby's sister's flat in north London, did I get a close look at what we had bought. Each bundle contained about 12 sprigs. I'd expected it to look like privet, but the serrated leaves were more reminiscent of mint. This was Ethiopian qat, which had been flown in from Harer. It was also a special variety which keeps its potency for several days - most qat loses its effect within 24 hours of being picked. The active ingredient is cathinone and its effects have been variously described. Some say it's a mild amphetamine, others describe it as more of a relaxant. Anyway, I was about to find out for myself.

As I crunched on my first couple of leaves the first problem was to avoid swallowing, as we were following the Yemeni tradition of keeping the chewed qat in a wad inside the cheek, to be spat out at the end of the session. The taste was very bitter, although as time passed it became more bearable, if not exactly pleasant, and frequent liberal sips of Fanta certainly helped. I'm not sure exactly when I first began to feel something, but after three-quarters of an hour I became aware of a vague sense of well- being.

We chewed on and we talked, although I can't remember much of what we said. After a while a pleasing torpor came over both of us and the conversation became less frequent. Visits to the bathroom, however, became somewhat more frequent. Qat is known for putting the bladder into overdrive, and in my case it seemed to have given my bowels an unwelcome kick-start as well. However, this was the only adverse effect I experienced at the time, apart from the urge to smoke considerably more than I normally would. Later that night I found it difficult to sleep.

Overall it was a very pleasurable experience, and considerably more enjoyable than a few drinks in a pub. So would I do it again? I've pondered this long and hard and I think I might just say yes.

LAST weeek, you may recall, I reported on the contortions the French had got themselves into with their attempt at translating The Full Monty (Le Grand Jeu), and how the locals were still calling it by its original title anyway. It's a problem every non-English speaking country faces, of course, and I am indebted to Janet Gyford of Witham in Essex for alerting me to the Estonian version, as passed on to her by her daughter Sue. Puskid Maha is what they're all queuing up to see in Tallinn - for which the literal translation is "Trousers to the Floor"! Keep me posted with any other versions of note from overseas.

Not brief enough for a boffin

I don't think any of us now need feel quite so bad about not finishing Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. The most-bought-least-read volume of our time has claimed an unlikely victim - Prof Neil Turok, chair of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, with whom Prof Hawking has worked closely on the Big Bang theory. When a colleague of mine boasted to Prof Turok last week that he had actually got to the end of it, he was told, "You've done better than I have, then!"

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