The drug that helps Yemenis pray on the holy nights of Ramadan

Sana’a, May 12 (EFE).- Chewing khat is widespread in Yemen, but during Ramadan the mild stimulant helps Yemenis stay awake at night while they break their fast, pray and read from the Koran, and try to find some escape from the harsh realities of life in the war-ravaged country.

“When I chew khat, I feel the desire to worship and read the Koran. It makes me able to do so for many hours,” Tawfiq al-Saafani, a 42- year-old calligrapher and billboard maker, tells Efe.

“It helps you keep going and not get bored,” he said. “When I chew, I can worship for 7-9 hours.”

The shrub’s stimulating effects can boost concentration, alertness and energy and give people a heightened sense of awareness, like a milder, less intense version of cocaine or methamphetamines.

Some 90% of men and 73% of women in Yemen consume khat on a daily basis, according to the World Health Organisation.

Most Yemenis don’t see chewing khat as drug abuse. For them, it is a deep-rooted tradition at the heart of social life, despite it being illegal in most countries.

“Khat sessions are still considered the heart and soul of Yemeni social life,” says Muhammad al-Zawm, a member of the Shura Council, the upper chamber of parliament.

“People won’t gather to celebrate occasions such as marriages or funerals without chewing,” he tells Efe. “But when I don’t chew, I feel lazy,” he admits.

However, these long-held khat habits change during Ramadan, as practicing Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking or having sex during the day-time fast that begins at sunrise and ends at sunset.

Until the 1960s, chewing was an occasional pastime, mainly for the rich, but nowadays it is enjoyed by Yemenis of all social classes.

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