Some folks chew gum. A lot of Israelis chew seeds: sunflower, pumpkin, watermelon seeds. Some people put a plug of tobacco into their cheek and chew away, only pausing to spit once in a while. And of course, we know all about chewing Goober Peas.
But another custom, enchanting-er than that - is wearing out your grinders -
Chewing on some Gat.
Catha edulis, also pronounced Khat. Chewing the fresh green leaves produces a mild euphoria, yet heightens awareness. The energy boost experienced is different from caffeine, in that one is more alert, yet relaxed. Or so the owners of this store say. They should know: they sell it.
Gat is legal here in Israel. I sometimes pass this store while running errands in town, stopping to pick up a bottle of mineral water or some camera batteries. Today I decided to ask about Gat.
The radio almost blasted me away as I walked in. I looked around, blinking. If you just stop on the sidewalk to buy mineral water or some fresh-squeezed juice, you don’t realize the significant thing about this shop. Focusing slowly, it struck me. What this shop deals with is magic. Products that change your mood and metabolism. There was every kind of stimulant on the neatly arranged shelves : tobacco, alcohol, coffee, soft drinks, energy drinks, all sorts of sugary candy and packaged junk snacks. The back shelf held several nargilot - water pipes. Of course the radio was on full volume – fast, loud music gets your heart pumping faster and makes your mind watery.
Two brothers run this store. The older looks tired, worn thin. He wears a sweaty T-shirt and his jaws move incessantly, working on the Gat in his mouth. The younger cultivates a hip look, with a blond streak in his gelled black hair, a sharp black shirt, and an impatient manner. Removing his sunglasses, he revealed blood-shot brown eyes. The owners didn’t mind my nosing around, asking questions and taking pictures; they were polite and willing to explain whatever I wanted to know.
I asked which ethnic groups buy Gat here in town.
“All kinds. Russians, Ethiopians, not only Yemenites. But the majority are Yemenites.”
Do women also chew Gat, or is an exclusively male pastime?
“Women also chew. They don’t send their husbands either, they come here themselves.”
“What’s the attraction in Gat?”
“It keeps you awake, but feeling relaxed. Your mouth feels parched, all the time, but you drink a lot of water and get used to it.”
“Does it have side effects besides thirst?”
“Nah. That’s nonsense. There are no side effects, just a good feeling. Some people say Gat’s addictive, but I don’t believe that.”
I gestured toward the neatly-tied bundle on the countertop. “How much Gat do you chew a day, yourself?”
“Half of that package is enough to keep me going for eight hours.”
The older brother added, “For some people, that’s not enough; even a whole package isn’t enough.”
“Can you tell me about the quality of the Gat you sell?”
“We sell two kinds: local stuff grown in people’s gardens, and stronger leaves flown in from Ethiopia. We keep the leaves moist and wrapped in cloth, and they last 5-7 days. The Israeli Gat, we have in stock every day. The Ethiopan comes in three times a week.”
“How much does it cost?”
“The local leaves are NIS 50 for a bundle. Ethiopian Gat costs NIS 80.” By today’s exchange rate, this is $14 and $22.26 respectively.
You can see that next to the sign depicting a nice fresh bundle of Heavenly Gat, there is an incongruous stand of Breslav psalm- and prayer-books.
I understand why it’s legal here: if were to be made illegal, thousands of people would immediately start breaking the law every day. A Gat mafia would spring up and there would be no end of tsuris. Chewing the herb for hours every day – it’s as commonplace in the Yemenite culture as Coke is in the American. But a Yemenite woman once said to me:
“Gat is the bane of Yemen. The husbands go out to the market and spend what little money they have on fresh leaves to chew, leaving desperate wives and hungry kids at home.”
I was curious to see if any of the people coming in were Gat customers, but they mostly bought cigarettes or soda. I’ll certainly stop in once in a while, but I don’t think I’ll be asking for magic.