Selling qât in Yemen. Photo by Pascal Maréchaux

Much has been written, pro and con, about the chewing of qât leaves in Yemen. In addition to the economic and social problems over qat, there is a historical puzzle. When and how did the plant Catha edulis come from Ethiopia, its botanical origin, to Yemen? Yemeni legend and folkore suggest that the stimulant qualities of qat leaves were first discovered by a goatherd who noticed the effect on goats who browsed on the plant. A variant of this goat legend, told to me in 1979 by a poet from Husn al-‘Arus, suggests that an Ethiopian came along to explain to the goatherd what was happening. The goat is one of the few animals that can be seen occasionally eating qât leaves, but the story is surely apocryphal. Sometimes it is told for the origin of coffee, another stimulant brought from East Africa.

A legend seemingly more based in history is recounted by the Yemeni historian Yahyâ ibn al-Husayn, who claims that in the year 1543 CE the Zaydi Imam Sharaf al-Dîn banned the use of qât in Yemen. But clearly the plant had to be cultivated earlier in order to be banned. How much earlier? The historical and linguistic evidence for the appearance of qât in Yemen is meager and contradictory. The earliest reference in a historical text is by the non-Yemeni historian Ibn Fadlallâh al-‘Umarî (died 1349), who said the choicest leaves are “eaten” in order to increase mental alertness (dhakâ’), improve memory, relax, and lessen the need for food, sleep and sex. Because this plant allows one to endure sleeplessness, it was used in traveling. This historian further describes the plant as having both large and small varieties with its leaves resembling those of the orange tree. There is no doubt he is describing Catha edulis.

Al-‘Umarî records a story related to him about Ethiopian Muslims who went to the court of the Rasulid sultan al-Malik al-Mu’ayyad (ruled 1296-1332). They brought qât plants with them to Yemen. As they were picking the leaves, the sultan inquired about the benefit. After it was explained that the leaves lessened desire for food, sleep and sex, al-Malik al-Mu’ayyad responded in alarm, “What delight in the world is the equal of these. By God, I will not eat it. I do not spend for anything but these three things. So how can I use what comes between me and my delight for those things?” If this encounter really happened, it is strange that there is no mention of qât in any of the Yemeni chronicles for the period; nor is there any reference to qât in the rather extensive Rasulid corpus on Yemeni plants and agriculture.

It is worth noting that al-‘Umarî’s anecdote about Yemen occurs in a discussion of the cultivated plants in the Ethiopian region of Ifat. There is a documented reference in Amharic for the year 1329 to an Ethiopian Muslim king who boasted that he would plant qât in the capital town of the Christian king Amda Seyon. While more historiographic research on the recognition of qât in Ethiopia is needed, it is probable that the stimulant properties were known by Muslims in Ethiopia by the first quarter of the 14th century before the plant was cultivated in Yemen.

The plant name qât is unknown in the Arabic lexicons. Despite attempts by some linguists to derive the term from an Arabic root concerned with strength, there is reason to suspect the plant name is not originally Arabic. In Yemeni sources the term qât is not recorded with a direct link to Catha edulis until the mid-16th century legal text of Ibn Hajar al-Haytamî (died 1565 or 1587), who quotes earlier sources including a reference to its use in Ta‘izz during the reign of the Tahirid sultan ‘Amîr ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhâb (reigned 1489-1517). The earliest mention in Yemeni poetry appears to come from Muhammad ibn Sa‘îd ibn Kabbân (died 1438).

It would make sense that a plant imported from Ethiopia into Yemen would have the name given it in Ethiopia. This is clearly what happened with Ethiopian teff, a grain which became tahaf in Arabic. But here arises a linguistic problem. The Amharic term for qât is tchat, with cognates in all the Ethio-Semitic languages, Oromo and the Highland East Cushitic languages. Unfortunately, a direct transference from Amharic tch to Arabic q is not linguistically viable. Several scholars have been seduced into looking for scenarios to explain an Arabic origin despite the absence of textual evidence. Thus, linguist Chaim Rabin long ago assumed ancient Yemenis took the name to Ethiopia, since in the local Yemeni Azd dialect the q can become j or “tsh.”

I believe I have now solved the linguistic puzzle. Everyone, Arab and Western scholars alike, has been looking in the wrong place, written lexicons, rather than considering the ways in which plant names are communicated orally. The clues have been there all along. In the Egyptian text by Ibn Fadlallâh al-‘Umarî, coped later by the famed historian al-Maqrîzî, the reference is not to qât but to jât. Indeed, the earlier author specifically says that the first letter in his transcription is pronounced between the Arabic jîm and the Arabic shîm.

So how did jât become qât? In Egyptian dialect the letter j is often pronounced as a hard g, a linguistic shift also found in contemporary southern dialects of Yemeni Arabic. I propose that the Arabized Amharic plant name arrived in Yemen in oral form as gât. We simply do not have any textual evidence about its arrival, nor is this unusual in the history of plant name diffusion. The earliest written record in Yemen is from the Zaydi north, where it is the letter q which is pronounced as a hard g and not the letter j. Legal scholars in the north wrote about a newly introduced plant called gât, which they would have rendered as qât in formal written Arabic. Hence the etymological trajectory of the term is Amharic tchat to Arabic jât, pronounced as gât and later written down as qât.

The most likely vector for introducing Catha edulis into Yemen is the same as that for coffee. The Yemeni poet ‘Abdallâh al-Barradûnî speaks for most Yemeni scholars in attributing the origin to Sufi mystics who used the plant for its stimulant qualities. A number of specific candidates have been suggested, including Shaykh ‘Alî ibn ‘Umar al-Shâdhilî (died 1418), who is said to have preferred drinking coffee to a concoction made from the qât leaves. Archaeological evidence from Zabîd in the Yemeni coastal system indicates that individual drinking cups for coffee were being manufactured by the start of the 16th century, suggesting that coffee drinking was then becoming a social habit. Unfortunately, there is no comparable archaeological evidence for the earliest qât chewing.

The spread of qât into Yemen would have started in the southern highlands, since the shrub would not survive in the coastal heat of Aden. The Yemeni poet al-Baraddûnî suggests that Jabal Sabr, located just above the important southern town of Ta‘izz, would have been one of the earliest locations for major production, along with nearby al-‘Udayn and ‘Utuma. Jabal Sabr is recognized today as producing some of the best qât in Yemen and has been frequently noted as an important qât-growing region by poets and travelers.

How would the earliest Catha edulis have been planted in Yemen? None of the Rasulid texts mention qât. However, the introduction of both qât and coffee occurred in Yemen at a time when detailed knowledge of planting, pruning and caring for non-Yemeni tree crops was already available. I assume that those who brought the first seedlings to Yemen would have had prior knowledge of how the plant was grown in Ethiopia at the time. There was no need to propagate a domestic variety, as might have been the case with fruits trees or even coffee, since it was only the natural growth of leaves that was desired. I suggest that the earliest cultivation would have been in small irrigated gardens near to dwellings. Before the evolution of a large market beyond the needs of the original Sufi users, there would only have been limited plantation for local use. Thus, qât shrubs could have been planted during the latter part of the Rasulid period and may not have been noticed by those writing texts, either agricultural or medical. The earliest history of qât in Yemen was probably as a garden variety exotic which served a limited clientele with a personal devotional interest rather than a commercial one. Exactly when this happened is one of those mysteries yet to be revealed by diligent historical research.

Daniel Martin Varisco

[This article is based on a lecture presented at the 2004 Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Symposium in Washington, D.C. in May, 2004. The original article is published in the proceedings.]