Mention has been made albeit briefly, in my memoirs of qat, known to medical
specialists as Catha edulis. As I am certain that no book has been written about South
Arabia without some reference to the chewing habit of this narcotic leaf, about the size
of a mint leaf, my personal experiences and observations in the licensing of wholesale
and retail distributors, the collection of Customs import duty and the effects on the
consumer are recorded.
My first experience with qat and its effect on the consumer was in Berbera,
Somaliland, on the day after the cook, the houseboy and the gardener had each
received their pay packet. My meals were half-cooked, the houseboy was bleary-eyed
and incoherent and the gardener lay prostrate in a flower-bed for several hours.
Qat is grown principally in the highlands of Ethiopia, in the Yemen, Kenya,
Madagascar, South Africa and Israel. In each country it has a different name. Initially
the bulk of the qat consumed in Aden was imported by air from Ethiopia and only a
small percentage came overland from the Yemen. This situation changed on the 10th
June, 1964, when after a dispute between the Qat Exporting Company of Ethiopia and
the Qat Importing Company of Aden the importation of qat from Ethiopia was
suspended and the full quantity for consumption in the Federation of South Arabia
was imported from Yemen.
Before that date, each day at noon a DC3 aeroplane of Aden Airways - at times two aircraft - arrived
at Aden airport from Dira Dawa in the Harar region of Ethiopia laden with thousands
of bundles of qat leaf, weighing thousands of kilograms and valued at thousands of
pounds sterling. After the unloading, the qat was rushed in closed-in trucks, as a safety
precaution, to a distribution centre in Crater, the business centre of Aden. It was sheer
bedlam and chaos in and around this area as thousands of people thronged,
clamoured, pushed, shoved and fought to purchase a bundle or more of qat. It was
positively dangerous for anyone to be driving in this vicinity on any afternoon between
1 o'clock and 3 o'clock. Those addicts fortunate enough to have purchased their
requirement early sped off in their cars at breakneck speeds to their nooks, crannies
and hide-outs to settle down for the afternoon's chewing session. Almost all the work
performed by Arabs, Yeminis and Somalis either slowed down or came to a halt each
The Government of Aden, at the behest of the Commissioner of Police and other
departmental heads, decided to control the distribution by introducing a licensing
system. I was appointed the Qat Licensing Authority. It was undoubtedly the most
onerous, thankless and frustrating task I had ever undertaken. There were no
precedents and guidelines to follow. It was the bane of my life for two long years.
Hundreds of Arabs, Yemenis and Somalis applied for a licence, either wholesale or
retail. A committee was formed to scrutinise each applicant and to recommend those
applicants who met the criteria as outlined by the committee. Regrettably it soon
became obvious that each committee member, including an Arab Government
Minister, began to favour certain unworthy applicants, so I had no option but to
assume the role of sole arbiter - a foolhardy decision perhaps, but nevertheless a
necessary one under the circumstances.
At first the unsuccessful applicants literally pestered, not just me but my wife as well.
They would surround the office during official working hours and the flat, either early
in the morning or late in the evenings, and chant obscenities, curses, pleas and threats
in Arabic and in broken English. On a number of occasions I was mobbed and almost
mauled when walking from my car to the office, a distance of some 20 metres.
Fortunately within a few months reason and sanity prevailed when these dissidents
realised that every applicant could not succeed, and that those that did had fulfilled the
statutory requirements. There were, of course, the disgruntled ones who approached
the editors of Arabic newspapers to make or publish derogatory statements about my
judgment. I am pleased to record that my decisions were never abrogated.
Customs duty on qat was levied by weight, Shs. 1 / 30 per lb. The problem arose over
how the correct weight of the thousands of bundles of qat could be ascertained. It was
presumed that the most accurate weight would be recorded on the aircraft's manifest.
It was then discovered that the weight shown on the manifest was the one given to the
Aden Airways' agent in Dira Dawa by the representative of the Ethiopian Qat
Company. There was no way to determine whether or not Customs duty was being lost
due to the consignments being under weight. After discussions with the Qat Company
representative in Aden it was agreed that each day, for a trial period of two months,
10% of the bundles of qat, selected at random, would be weighed under the close
supervision of the Customs Officer and the appointed representative of the two qat
companies. Over the period it proved that the weight shown on the aircraft manifest
was more or less accurate, and was accepted.
The exact weight could have been determined by weighing the full consignment
prior to its release from the Customs area. There was, however, a reason for not
adopting this obvious procedure. For the qat to have its full narcotic effectiveness it
had to be consumed as soon as possible after the leaves had been plucked from the tree,
and as a considerable period elapsed from the time the leaves were plucked in the
highlands of Ethiopia to their arrival in the distribution centre in Aden, every moment
was significant. Had the consignment been weighed each day, a further delay of an
hour or more would inevitably have led to confrontation, disorder and even riots; so
the alternative system of an average weight was adopted and accepted. A loss of
revenue was preferred to loss of life and limb!
The Customs duty collected on the importation of qat was quite considerable.
During the fiscal year, 1963-1964, the duty amounted to 456,714 pounds sterling. One has to relate
the value to determine the actual amount spent on this narcotic leaf; in this particular
year it would have been over two million pounds sterling.
Qat-chewing sessions took on two very different forms. The working classes
retreated to their lairs in the caves in the hill-side, to shelters provided by old packing cases and in the half-shut boots of motor cars. The affluent retired to special "qat
parlours" in private homes. These "parlours" were adorned with carpets, cushions and
spittoons. The qat and the thirst-quenching drinks were served by minions.
The chewing of qat, which induced a state of dreamy contentment, continued for as
long as the purchased quantity lasted, at times until late at night. After masticating the
leaves the juice would be swallowed but the residue retained for long periods in the
cheeks which bulged and resembled a monkey's Jowl when stuffed with food.
Arab, Yemeni and Somali taxi-drivers were a menace on the roads after their
chewing sessions. They drove recklessly and with their cheeks still bulging would,
without warning, project the equivalent of 500 grams or more of the crude remains of
the qat like a missile out of the car window. Pedestrians were often showered with the
vile stuff; on two occasions a mouthful landed on the bonnet and windscreen of my
The chewing of qat also induced an enormous thirst and this explained the reason
for the high consumption of beer in Aden. It was to these addicts that the person
responsible for promoting the West Australian beer had turned his attention. He
assured them that this particular brand would not just quench their thirst but would
also increase their sexual appetite.
There were a number of government enquiries about the ill-effects, social and
medical, of the consumption of qat. I was once asked to supply details to the United
Nations Narcotic Commission of the quantity of qat imported, the number of licences
issued and the amount of Customs duty collected.
The review on qat and its ramifications is concluded by the reproduction of a ditty,
based on facts, by an anonymous author.
A Chief Minister's letter came out of the blue
To tell Customs Officers just what to do,
To search all the aircraft and rummage around
to find out how much contraband qat could be found.
Down on the airport descended Pat Sweeney,
Never suspecting there was keeni meeni
And as sure as there's rocks on the top of Shamsan
He found all the qat of Khudabux Khan.
And then having found it he took it and burnt it.
And great was the rage of the Khan when he learnt it.
And although t'would be reckless for you or for me
Pat Sweeney did it, not one day, but three.
And now for the moral it's high time we came to:-
There's one man in the office whom we can't put a name to
Who'd not had his share: so he thought as he sat
And let loose the cat on the Khudabux qat.
Which all goes to show if you must import qat
Make quite sure your underlings all get their part
Because if you don't. I'll swear by the Koran
That you will get caught like Khudabux Khan.
Keeni Meeni is Swahili for jiggery pokery, intrigue.
The very thought of any legitimate Customs revenue being lost or defrauded by
nefarious activities or unscrupulous persons flaunting the law went against the grain.
Hence my attention, as in Somaliland, was now focused on the Armed Forces
personnel stationed in Aden, about 20,000 in all, and to the possible abuse of the
concessions afforded to them by which they obtained NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air
Force Institute) goods, especially alcoholic beverages and tobacco, free of Customs
Discreet investigations convinced me that Customs revenue was being lost by the
very fact that many civilians, not entitled to NAAFI concessions, were permitted to
become temporary members of the Armed Forces' Clubs. These civilians not only
consumed duty-free liquor and cigarettes on the club premises but also took supplies
home. Further, Armed Service personnel were supplying their civlian friends with
duty-free liquor and cigarettes. There was no way by which one could determine the
exact sum of Customs revenue lost. There was also a principle involved and this, too,
had to be redressed. A memorandum to the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of
Finance, outlined every aspect of the concessions and the ways and means by which
these concessions were being abused. As a result of the memorandum many meetings
were convened and it was now my responsibility to substantiate the statements that
legitimate Customs revenue was being lost. The facts were supported by figures and
this convinced the Permanent Secretary and the Federal Advocate-General that the
Supreme Council must be informed of the situation. The memorandum included the
reasons for the granting of the concessions in the first instance and it also
recommended drastic action. As I was involved in drafting the memorandum and in
the events that followed, a few of the salient and cogent points are recorded.
Files recovered from the archives in the Aden Secretariat revealed that Customs
duty on alcoholic beverages and tobacco was first imposed in 1878. From that date
until 1942 no exemption or concession was given to Service personnel. But in 1942, at the height of World War II, imports into Aden of non-essential items such as alcohol
and tobacco were severely restricted. This resulted in a serious loss of revenue which
was compensated by a sharp increase in the rate of duty. This provoked a strong
protest from the Service authorities on the grounds that an increase in prices would
seriously affect the morale of British forces in wartime. On that assertion it was
conceded that the NAAFI should be charged at the previous rate and exempted from
the increase. This situation continued from 1942 to 195I with the Services paying duty
at a lower rate than the general public. In 1951, however, the Air Officer Commanding
- Aden was principally an airforce base - approached the Governor and persuaded
him to exempt the Services through the NAAFI from all duties. The reason which he
cited was the low rate of wages of the Services compared with that of civilians. The
exemptions have remained in force since that date.
This argument used for the exemption of duty for the Services in 1951, the low rate
of wages, was no longer valid. If, however. Service salaries were lower than civilian
salaries there would be no justification for the Federal Government continuing to
subsidise Her Majesty's Forces by providing duty-free liquor and tobacco. The
responsibility would surely lie with Her Majesty's Government to increase salaries.
With the concession to the Armed Forces resultjng in a substantial loss of revenue -
approximately #40,000 a year - to the Federal Government, the memorandum
recommended to the Supreme Council that the concession, in its entirety, be
withdrawn as soon as possible. The members of the Supreme Council, no doubt with
much political pressure brought to bear, considered that the recommendation was too
harsh. Instead it was decided that the concessions to Service personnel be permitted to
continue but that the responsibility to curb the abuses be placed upon the Services'
Chiefs, who in turn were to warn their juniors of the seriousness of the misuse of
NAAFI duty-free alcoholic beverages and tobacco. One way would be to curtail
membership of civilians to Armed Services' Clubs and to ensure that civilian members
confine their consumption of alcohol and tobacco to the club premises. These
warnings and restrictions were to be put to the test by the integrity of the individuals
and the enforcement by superiors - all much easier said than done!
I was confident that the only remedial action the Services'authorities would attempt
for combating the misuse of the concessions would be to address circular letters to all
concerned! There would be no provisions for either occasional follow-up action or
surprise checks at the vulnerable sources, and remembering that old habits die hard,
the practice of civilians receiving duty-free liquor and tobacco would resume, resulting
in the loss of legitimate Customs duty.
I was certainly not prepared to have the Services' Chiefs be the guardians of
Customs revenue and made my feeling known to the appropriate authorities in the
Federal Government. They were informed of what action and methods would be
undertaken to reinforce the action, if any, promised by the Services' Chiefs. Letters
were addressed to the Commanding Officers of the three services, the Army, Navy and
Air Force, drawing attention to the penalties which could be enforced for noncompliance
of the provisions of the Ordinance. Letters to the Secretaries of the Armed
Services'Clubs requested the names and addresses of the civilians who were registered
as temporary members. The response was prompt and contained the required
information. Letters to these civilians informed them of their responsibilities and
obligations and drew attention to the penalties which could be enforced in the event of
their having possession of uncustomed goods. Letters were sent to the heads of
government departments and commercial firms seeking their co-operation by
circularising their subordinates, making them aware of their responsibility, and
advising them of the penalties which could be incurred for the possession of
uncustomed goods. In addition, a low-key MI5 type of organisation was set up within
All members of the staff, including the guards, were made aware of the
Department's determination to eliminate the consumption and possession of NAAFI
goods by unauthorised persons and to direct how each member could assist in this
campaign. The method adopted was by enlisting friends and relatives, Arabs, Indians
and Somalis, who were serving as stewards in the Armed Services' Clubs and as
houseboys in selected homes. They were instructed to pass on information if they
served liquor and tobacco marked "NAAFI" to the civilian temporary members when
they were leaving the clubs and if "NAAFI" liquor and cigarettes were served at parties
in homes. The scheme proved to be successful. I had no option but to telephone a
number of government and commercial executives and especially the single women
who had boyfriends in the services, and advise them to discontinue the habit of using
NAAFI supplies for their private parties. I warned them of the serious consequences if
they failed to heed this friendly and timely advice. They were amazed at how I was
aware of their activities. On occasions I had the embarrassment of having to telephone
the host of a cocktail or dinner party which I had attended. They were most apologetic,
pleaded ignorance of the law and promised faithfully never to offend again.
Over the years I was convinced that the malpractice had been contained. As there
was little else which I could do I felt relieved and satisfied that the Customs revenue
was not being defrauded to the extent that it would have been had no action been taken
by the Customs Department.