Posts Tagged ‘gat’

Jerusalem is so contradictory. For all its deep, tangled historical roots and self-conscious cosmopolitan air,  it’s still a small town. Sometimes, climbing onto a crowded bus during rush hour, squeezing past old folks laden with bulging shopping bags and tired soldiers talking into cellphones, hoping you’ll find at least a standing space with some elbow room, you feel like Jerusalem is just a dinky little Middle Eastern backwater.

Then again, sometimes the overwhelming sense of history rising out of every stone grabs you by the throat and obliges you to acknowledge that Jerusalem is indeed the navel of the world.  Nowhere else do you feel so aware of your place in time. Aware that your personal life story pulses and flows with a million, million other stories – lives played out on this ground even before King David conquered it, up till this moment, as you cross the street.

A mundane errand took me to the navel of the world recently. Once it was done, I met a girlfriend for lunch on Agrippas Street, near Shuk Machaneh Yehudah.

We stopped in at a little place serving an Italian menu. My ravioli looked wonderful, and so did my friend’s -

but the chef must have been in a bad mood that day because the pasta was stodgy and heavy as bricks. Mine, stuffed with artichoke purée and bathed in lemon juice, was too sour for pleasure. I sent it back. The replacement wasn’t much better.  Our stomachs protested and we didn’t order dessert.

On our way out, kvetching under our breaths, my friend remembered something.

“Let’s go to the etrog guy,” she said.

I had read an interview with Uzi-Eli Chezi about his medicinal juices based on etrogim – citron fruit. My curiosity was already piqued, so I was glad to walk up to the shuk and find the small juice stand on (where else?) Etrog Street.

The owner wasn’t there, but all the juices were. The salesman offered a variety of fresh fruit juices and refreshers: a goat’s milk yogurt flavored with passiflora; something called “Rambam’s Drink”; ginger and apple juice;

and citron juice mixed with other fruit and with wheatgrass. Even with Gat.

A sign claimed astonishing cures for every kind of ailment – from ringing of the ears to detoxication of vital organs and from increased virility to (logically) recovery after birth.

Prices are low, but I particularly liked the offer of a subscription for frequent customers.

On sale were also Yemenite Zchug, and Etrog Soap.

The salesman offered us a taste of a cool, sweet, dark green, citrusy juice. One sip wasn’t enough. It was so good, we each ordered a large glass. We felt refreshed and oddly energized almost immediately.  My friend said that her stomach felt lighter. I noticed that too.

“Thank you,” I said as I paid the salesman. “What was in that juice?”

“Citron,” said he,

“and Gat.”


Well, I had to laugh. Never thought I’d take Gat in any form, but I did that day.

We stepped out of the shuk and decided to meander around the 19th-century neighborhood of Nachlaot.  Crossing Agrippas street again, a shop window reminded me what it’s all about:

There are some lovely streets and courtyards in Nachlaot.

Here is the place where a well once existed. I imagined  children hauling on a rope to bring up a sloshing bucket for their mother before running off to school-  housewives pausing to exchange a word there in the afternoon – and maybe, towards evening, a 19th-century Rachel shyly accepting help from a dark-eyed youth who just happened to be hanging around there…

Then my eye fell on this little piece of graffitti.

Back to the 21st century, with a thud.

One last glimpse of the old, romantic neighborhood before turning on to King George Street and taking the bus home…

The house next to the well, all possible openings painted blue to avert the Evil Eye.

Jerusalem of Gold…till the next time.

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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.

Here are some dreamy descriptions of the effects Gat has on those who chew it. And here is a site describing side effects.

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.

Ethiopian Gat

Ethiopian Gat

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I had meant to post about things needing lots of photos, but there seems to be a problem with uploading media tonight. Meantime, I offer this poem. A word of explanation: gat means an ancient winepress.

Highway 6 slid away under our wheels and

Night dropped down.

We drove on to Beit Shemesh;

Ahead a storm gathered.

Fat drops spattered on the windshield.

From the passenger seat I watched

Long white legs of lightning stalking the sky

Between the rising Judean hills.

Thunder clapped: Attention!

The incandescent hills replied: Behold us.

My companion said:

“My hi-tech job is killing me.

I want to sell the house,

Give up the job,

Plant a vineyard in Emek Jezreel

And grow old there with my wife.”

The windshield wipers swished.

I sat silent. I too have my dreams.

In a parking lot:

Six bearded men in kippot

Standing around a grape crusher.

Their wives in apartments upstairs

Putting the children to bed

Me, standing to one side.

“She makes wine,” someone explained.

They shrugged .

In flat boxes lie the dusty black clusters;

Succulent round berries

Packed tightly on their stems.

Heft a whole one in your hand before you

Hoist a box-full and dump them

Into the metal rectangle

Where inside, a lathe starts turning.

Crushed fruit, seeds exposed

Bleeding purple juice

Streams forth richly, spilling;

Fills our blue plastic barrels.

From out there in the Judean hills,

A gust of cool, wet wind

Carries sharp odors of wild herbs.

It makes me turn away from

The business of the crush,

Turn my eyes towards those dark hills.

The men haul more boxes forward

Tumble grapes into the crusher

Under the electric light.

The Judean hills press in a little closer.

I know that

Lightning walks their dark terraces.

Over there, great white flickers suddenly part the night,

Reveal pines and brush swaying obedient,

Impartially reveal the ancient winepress.

Two basins carved into the living white rock,

A narrow carved channel between. Gat.

Who imagines now

The joyful harvests of ancient times?

They must have walked singing

Straight from vineyard to gat

In late afternoon, in September:

Men and women with tanned arms

Bearing baskets woven of green olive twigs

Baskets full of black fruit.

In the upper basin, our fathers crushed their grapes

Trampling, they must have shouted and laughed.

The rich juice flowed down its stone channel –

Those waiting by the lower basin

Rushed to fill up clay jugs.

Later, tired and quiet,

They must have walked home in the dark;

Stashed their jugs away inside a cool cave.

Nothing but cold water pours down the stone basins tonight.

The white rock, once stained purple

Sleeps another thousand years.

All the same, we still make wine.

“There you are, Rebbetzin, your lot is done.”

We pack our barrels into the car,

Turn around in the parking lot and start heading home.

I look back. In the circle of light,

The bearded men by the crusher

Are still pouring grapes in.

Parking-lot gat.

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