The Etrog Man foisted another bunch of qat leaves upon me and entreated me to shove them into my mouth. My cheek was already bursting with a wad of masticated green pulp comprised of cardamom pods, clove, almonds, and raisins, along with qat, the leaves of a psychostimulant plant banned in the US and much of Europe.
Here in Israel, however, qat is legal and prolific. Uzi-Eli, a 72-year-old white-bearded, jowly Yemeni known as the Etrog Man for his citron-based juices and remedies, purveys not only the plant but juices spiked with it.
Qat, known locally as gat, has been blamed for stoking the flames of conflict in Somalia and desiccating Yemen to the point of catastrophe. It was introduced to Israel by Yemenite Jews who immigrated en masse in 1949 and 1950 and brought the tradition of chewing the leaves as a stimulant from southern Arabia. Two main varieties, red and white, are available on the market in Israel, the former being significantly more potent ("crazy," Uzi-Eli called it).
The alkaloids present in qat, cathinone and cathine, are chemically similar to ephedrine and amphetamines. Its effects are similar to a strong cup of coffee, or a small hit of Adderall. A Knesset research document explaining the effects of the narcotic to Israeli lawmakers listed euphoria, vigor, reduced fatigue, increased focus, suppressed appetite, excessive self-confidence, and increased libido.
"Choose the young leaves. That's where the active substance is," Uzi-Eli instructs me as we sit in his store in a frenetic corner of Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market. The taste is earthy and bitter, perhaps reminiscent of a giraffe's lunch.
The tender green leaves and shoots are easy to chew and pack into a wad against the cheek like chewing tobacco, which one keeps there for at least a half hour for the drug to take effect. A German study in 2003 demonstrated that much of the active components in qat are absorbed through the buccal lining.
"It's a social drug," he said. "You sit around in a group, chewing, talking, learning, telling stories."
Among Yemenite Jews, qat is traditionally chewed communally in an evening gathering called a tahzina. Sitting in a circle, users (predominantly elderly men) pack a wad, smoke nargila, and sip arak while studying Jewish literature.
In recent years, however, the drug has found a broader appeal among non-Yemenite Israelis, who prefer qat juice for its quick kick that doesn't require a mouthful of chaw. Figures of how many Israelis consume qat are hard to come by, but qat sellers speculate it's around 100,000.
As I chew the green pulp, Uzi-Eli tosses a bundle of qat branches into a blender with a lemon and some ice, before straining the seafoam-hued concoction into a small glass. The citric acid balances the alkaline taste, lending the murky drink fruity overtones. Having chewed the leaves for a nearly a half hour, a tingle had already started creeping along my scalp and down my spine. Tossing back the shot of qat juice quickly brought my surroundings into sharper focus.
"Too much of it is terrible," he said, warning against dosing above 100 grams of raw leaves, which induces a strung-out, jittery sensation.
Among the juices sold at his shop, the citron and qat juice is by far the most popular, Uzi-Eli insisted. A 16-ounce cup costs the equivalent of about $4, and is enough to do the trick. He also sells plain qat juice and a brewed qat concentrate, the latter a concoction of qat leaves, cinnamon, and cardamom that has an astringent taste.
A spokesperson for Israel's Anti-Drug Authority clarified that while growing and chewing qat leaves is legal, anything manufactured from the plant, in theory, isn't. Israel banned hagigat, an ecstasy-like party drug that includes synthesized cathinone, in 2009. Qat juices that became all the rage in Israel a few years ago, he said, "were not exactly qat" because they had been fortified with synthesized cathinone and cathine.
This legal grey zone makes many qat growers reticent to talk to the press about their business for fear of prosecution. Several contacted by MUNCHIES declined requests for interviews because of unspecified legal embroilments resulting from their qat business.
Although higher altitudes purportedly produce more potent qat leaves, most of the production in Israel is limited to the lowlands. Saplings are readily purchased at garden shops in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. A gardener at Rosen Herbs, a nursery outside Haifa that grows and distributes young qat plants, said that unlike Kenya or Yemen, qat production in Israel is limited to small-scale patches dotting central Israel's fertile coastal plain. Yemenite families in towns such as Rosh Ha'ayin and Gadera tend massive bushes of it in their gardens, or in the forecourts of synagogues.
Because the cathinone in qat leaves starts to break down a little more than a day after being picked, a growing number of companies in the Tel Aviv area offer same-day home delivery.
Idan Sharabi started growing qat about ten years ago in the predominantly Yemenite Tel Aviv suburb of Rosh Ha'ayin. On a 1.2-acre plot he farms a dense thicket of about 4,000 qat bushes. Qat bushes, he said, are spoiled, requiring plenty of sun and water to thrive properly.
Sharabi first started selling bundles of qat at corner stores and kiosks around Tel Aviv, but a few years back he launched a website offering qat home delivery, charging about $12 for a kilogram of the more potent red variety. Today he said he has about 200 regular customers each month and a growing number of others trying the juice out.
He first caught onto qat as an alternative to conventional pharmaceutical drugs for ADHD. After trying the leaves, he opted to switch to a more "natural" option.
"People use it like Ritalin," said Sharabi, especially partygoers in Israel's city that never sleeps. "In recent years, the juice has become really trendy with everything connected to parties, events, weddings, and bars."
Despite crackdowns by Israeli authorities on cranked-up qat juices, freshly blended qat juice remains available on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Just last month Uzi-Eli opened a second shop hawking qat and citron products in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market.
A generation ago, qat was mostly consumed by Yemenites, Sharabi said, but "today it's something that crosses ethnic lines."