Naswar: Tainted love

Published: September 22, 2013
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Never get high on your own supply. PHOTO: EXPRESS/FILE

Never get high on your own supply. PHOTO: EXPRESS/FILE

Never get high on your own supply. PHOTO: EXPRESS/FILE At Namus Khan’s shop in Keamari, Karachi they make about 300kg a day of naswar. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS

The funny thing is that most people who use it think that Naswar is a safe drug. They are perhaps not aware that the WHO found this smokeless form of tobacco has a minimum of 28 cancer-causing agents. They include compounds such as arsenic and nickel, plus radio-elements such as polonium, uranium, beryllium.

Naswar is a mixture of sun-dried, sometimes only partially cured, powdered local tobacco, ash, oil, flavouring agents (eg cardamom, menthol), colouring agents (indigo or yellow) and lime or calcium carbonate, water and guar gum. Ammonium chloride is added as a preservative and to give it bite. It is usually sold in round or square plastic packets held with a rubber band to keep it from exposure to the air. A single packet costs Rs10 and can yield up 20 pinches. Unlike chewing tobacco, naswar is taken as a pinch and packed into the jowl. It used to come in special steel snuff boxes but those are rare these days. The tins would come fixed with a vanity mirror men used if they wanted to fix their comb-over.

The sun-dried, sometimes only partially cured, powdered local tobacco is crushed between two big curved stones fixed to the floor

The Yousufzai dialect speakers of Pashto call it naswar and the people in the southern districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Waziristan refer to it as kap or nasor, however, in Karachi where the largest population of Pakhtuns are said to live, it is naswar no matter what size or shape it comes in. It is a common misperception that only the Pathan is addicted to naswar. It has not spared any ethno-linguistic group, from the Sindhi- to the Hindko-speaking populations.

Karachi is also among the biggest markets for naswar where tons of it are consumed daily. One of the best places to get some is Keamari but it is also sold in Banaras and old Sabzi Mandi.

Oil, flavouring agents (eg cardamom, menthol), colouring agents (indigo or yellow) are added to the tobacco and then water and guar gum

Namus Khan, originally from Bajaur Agency, has earned a bit of a name for his supply at Keamari’s Jackson Bazaar where he is assisted by his 20-year-old son Ayub Khan. Their naswar is said to reach almost every part of the city and their daily sale comes to about Rs20,000. One of the reasons for their popularity is experience. Khan is said to be the first man in the city to install a naswar-making machine around three decades ago. The entire street is now infamous as Naswari Street. But Khan even owns a ‘branch’ at Empress Market.

“Four people, including me, work from morning till night making and packing the packets of naswar,” says Khan. “We produce around 300 kilograms a day but this is still not enough to meet demand.”

Right at the end the and lime or calcium carbonate is added and it is left in the open to air a bit before it is packed

The tobacco and ash, particularly from the sheesham tree, comes from Swabi district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Jampur of Ranjanpur in Punjab. The other ingredients are available in Lea Market in Karachi. A supplier of the key ingredients to Karachi, Khalid Khan, says that he brings tobacco in a 50 kilogramme sack for Rs7,000 and the same quantity of Swabi ash costs Rs1,200.

The tobacco is crushed between two big curved stones fixed to the floor. A pair of wooden hammers run by an electric machine hit it for 10 minutes. “The hammer hits the tobacco so hard and fast that it burns and their colours turn black,” explains Lal Jahan, who has prepared naswar in Keamari for over 30 years. Then the ash and guar gum come next. The calcium carbonate, colour and ammonium chloride (locally called naushadar) are added right in the end. The more you crush the tobacco the stronger the naswar. It takes about two hours to make a batch.

This is all hard work, however. Namus Khan says the average man can’t do it. The constant smell of the tobacco makes you vomit, gives you headaches and leads to skin rashes or itchiness. “Those who make and pick it can’t be addicted to it because of their exposure to it all the day,” he says. “But for those who are hooked on naswar it is impossible to go a few minutes without having some or ensuring there is some in your hand or pocket.”

Naswar, much like smoking, has a disastrous first encounter. “Almost everyone vomits with the first intake and swears that they will never touch it again,” says Abdul Majid, a young man who came to buy some at Namus Khan’s at a half past midnight. “But if they take it again, they will be addicted. At least it is better than cigarettes.” His habit is so bad that he starts to feel anxious if he doesn’t have it in his pocket or somewhere close by. He warns that if your supply runs out you start to get irritated and angry and get a headache. That’s why he was there in the middle of the night to score some more.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 22nd, 2013.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • A. Khan
    Sep 22, 2013 - 7:02PM

    I could vomit just passing by the shop selling naswar, so bad is the smell emanating from it.

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  • ali sindhi
    Sep 22, 2013 - 9:31PM

    in Scandinavia its called snus and peoples also take it there but in most refine manner. i asked once a pathan there during my studies does it taste the same like in pk n he replayed that this one is strong. and the most amazing thing i noticed that the most beautiful Swedish girls also take it.

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  • Anonymmous
    Sep 22, 2013 - 10:50PM

    Take it twice and it is more addicting than anything else I can imagine…

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  • Sep 23, 2013 - 12:24AM

    Blasphemy!!

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  • Ibrar Ahmed
    Sep 23, 2013 - 12:51AM

    We call it Kap (kaip) in our area. Almost 80 percent of the men are addicted to Naswar. It is generally said that Naswar from Bannu (K-P) is the best it hits like a rocket. I remember when we were in college there was a Hawayi Jahaz (aeroplane) brand Naswar in the market. literally that was the strongest ever naswar i ever experienced. In Ramazan if you put a pinch under your upper lip and you lay down on your bed and close your eyes you feel a floating experience and for few minutes you will be motionless. Nice feature ET…I am thinking to quit smoking and start naswar again.

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  • Pakhtunkhwa
    Sep 27, 2013 - 12:19PM

    Naswar is a less harmful choice if you want to quit smoking. Studies show there is 50% higher probability you will be successful in quitting smoking by picking up the Swedish version of naswar. Maybe naswar is the reason we have far few smokers in Pakhtunkhwa than in Punjab. For a cleaner type in South Asia, try the Tara brand. It doesn’t have the same taste as the Pashtun naswar but it still gives the buzz. Once the body gets used to less nicotine, you can try and quit naswar too. Just be careful not get end up being both a naswari and smoker. Good luck.

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