October 06, 2007

Qat: words, things, and men

The spring 2006 issue of Verbatim (which arrived a few weeks ago; things are a bit behind schedule) leads off (pp. 1-6) with an evocative piece by Gregory Johnson on chewing qat (the psychoactive leaves of the plant Catha edulis) in Yemen.  I found two aspects of the article notable, one small but striking, the other subtler.

Item 1.  On page 3, Johnson tells us

Now qat has taken over society to such a degree that most outsiders and even some Yemeni view it as a self-inflicted curse that is the root of all modern evils: underdevelopment, poverty, and lack of water.  The rest of us, however, are too busy chewing to pay much attention.  Those who refuse to chew have never experienced kayf, that elusive, nearly untranslatable word, which allows one to melt into the background, becoming perfectly at ease with one's surroundings and oneself.

Whoa!  You experience a WORD?  The WORD allows you to become one with your surroundings and yourself?  I don't think so.  It's like saying

I finally experienced nirvana, a three-syllable word for a kind of transcendant state.

I nearly died from necrotizing fasciitis, the name of an affliction known commonly as "flesh-eating bacteria".

This is a kind of use-mention pun, treating the word and the thing it refers to as the same.  In Johnson's sentence, what's elusive is the CONCEPT; what's nearly untranslatable is the WORD -- untranslatable because the concept is elusive, with no easy counterpart in our outsiders' modes of thinking.  The confusion might be promoted in Johnson's case by two different uses that italicization can be put to in English: for using a non-English word ("the pleasure of Schadenfreude"), and for mentioning words ("polysyllabic is polysyllabic").

The easy solution is to refer to the thing: the state (called khayf) that results from chewing qat is hard to describe; I nearly died from necrotizing fasciitis (whose common name is "flesh-eating bacteria"; etc.

Item 2.  Very close to the beginning, Johnson says

In Yemen, qat chews provide a popular and important forum for debate and dialogue.  Nearly everyone chews ...

And later (p. 5):

Nearly every occasion in Yemen is an occasion to chew.

(Looking ahead: the issue is going to be about "nearly everyone" and "nearly every occasion").

The tale goes on, with stories of long chews involving recitations of poetry, disputations, the complexity of obtaining qat, and so on.  There are hints along the way:

... even old age and toothlessness fail to stop some, as old men use a mahtana 'grinder,' to ...  (p. 1)

But really, wherever you go the scene is the same: men are cursing, jostling, and invoking God's name ... (p. 3)

I've watched men sample nearly half a bag before they purchased it.  (p. 4)

Eventually, we get (on p. 6, right before the end) to:

Men wrestle with their internal jinn in silence until the silence is broken and the music ceases, as someone mumbles a quick goodbye and slips on their sandals.  The chew comes to a rather hurried and untidy end as everyone prepares to leave.  Most men tend to go home to a quiet evening with their families, relaxed and at ease with the world.

Ah.  EVERYONE doesn't chew qatMEN chew qat.  The whole business is part of the "men's world" of Arab culture, the public world, which takes place outside the domestic sphere, the private world.

Now I'm NOT saying that this sort of public/private, male/female split is something peculiar to Arab culture.  It occurs all over the world, has been much commented on in the West in the literature on women's history, and still crops up in places like Harvey Mansfield's troglodyte On Manliness (2006).

Instead, what's surprising is that Johnson is so absorbed in the culture he's talking about that he fails to translate for his readers.  He supposes we share the assumptions of the world he's describing, in which only men would gather for affiliation, competition, and verbal displays, in places away from their homes. 

Yes, I know: women have other lives, with their own social configurations, in "private" places.  That's not the point.  The point is that the women are erased in "nearly everyone", and domestic occasions in "nearly every occasion", and a reader from outside the culture could easily fail to appreciate that.

[Full disclosure: I'm a Verbatim board member, but I had no hand in preparing this issue.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 6, 2007 03:05 PM