Archive | June, 2011

Among waves of change in Yemen, a daily ritual remains: qat

26 Jun
Sunday, June 26, 2011
By Malak Shaher, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Yemeni anti-government protesters chew qat, a  mild natural narcotic, in April as they take a rest inside a tent after having a long day of protesting. Photo by Carl Conradi

If you have come across pictures of demonstrators in Yemen and noticed a  swollen cheek or two, it’s not because there is a rash of toothaches. It’s qat,  stuck under cheeks in a wad like chewing tobacco.

The leaves of qat, a tropical evergreen plant, are used as a stimulant.  Yemenis grow it, and chew it, mostly in the afternoon, gathered with friends and  family.

When the demonstrations started in Yemen Feb. 3, the square in front of the  Sana’a University entrance (now known as “Change Square”) was packed with  protesters calling on the president to step down — until early afternoon. By 2  p.m. that day, it was empty. The crowds had moved to the qat markets nearby.

Every day since, the protesters have brought their qat and chewed it while  protesting. They say it gives them energy to carry on, shouting with bulging  cheeks.

Custom in the country

Qat has found its way into almost every Yemeni household. More than 70  percent of people in Yemen chew qat. They chew it everywhere — in their homes,  in the streets, at weddings and during social gatherings. At 12 or sometimes  even younger, boys are given qat leaves by their fathers to help them feel grown  up. Women chew it less frequently, and it’s considered unladylike, but at  weddings groups of women separate from the men chew.

One occasional user, Anas Shahari, 24, described the effect of qat:

“In the beginning, nothing changes. [You feel] normal. Hours later, the  substance starts to take effect,” he said in an e-mail from Yemen. The  imagination soars and anything seems possible.

He said the qat slowly takes its full effect, which often occurs around  sunset. At some point in the evening, he said, “the chewer feels he had enough  of it” and throws the chewed leaves away.

Depending on the type of qat, it can cause different feelings.

Mr. Shahari said while someone is chewing qat, “they will have more interest  and power to converse till the end,” or chant slogans as the protesters did. He  said qat gives chewers energy and blunts feelings of exhaustion.

“Some kinds cause the chewer to feel very relaxed,” Mr. Shahari said. “Some  other kinds cause them to feel very worried or troubled. This is why some  chewers vow not to take it again the next day, but their addiction to it makes  them break the vow.”

Qat can make you fly with imagination to far away. Cartoon by Nabil Al-Qanes.


Yemeni politicians are no exception. They may discuss state issues in  informal qat sessions in their homes. On the Yemen Times newspaper website,  readers answered a question about whether they believe qat has a direct effect  on the political process in Yemen. About 73 percent answered yes.

High school and university students chew qat to help them study.

“I do not chew qat all the time. However, qat helps me sit for long hours to  just study until I finish everything,” said Mahmoud Al.-Matary, 20, a student at  Sana’a University.

“Nevertheless, I do not chew qat the day before the exams because I would not  be able to focus on the questions.”

Health problems

Chewing qat has long-term effects on health. Cavities and gum problems are  probably the most common. Qat can cause headaches, insomnia and loss of  appetite, leading to poor nutrition.

Qat is not illegal in Yemen, but it is elsewhere. Many countries, such as  Saudi Arabia, do not allow qat to be brought across their borders. Qat is also  grown in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia.

The cultivation of qat is behind a pair of the most serious problems facing  Yemen: A shortage of water and food insecurity. Qat sucks up to 30 percent of  the water used for irrigation in Yemen, and about 90 percent of Yemen’s water is  used for irrigation. Qat is also planted at the expense of other food crops —  it is the leading cash crop in Yemen.

According to a report published in June 2010 by the Yemeni Ministry of  Planning and the International Food Policy Research Institute, Yemen should  sharply reduce its qat consumption to maintain its current level of food  production.

The institute said that in 2008, qat was the primary cash crop in Yemen,  grown in 11 percent of land under cultivation — far ahead of other cash crops  (coffee, cotton, sesame and tobacco), which together totaled 6 percent.

Growing qat is lucrative. Some affluent users may spend as much as $30 a day  on qat — an average person, making about $200 a month, might spend $4 a  day.

Awareness campaigns

Officials in Yemen have begun to try to reduce the use of qat.

The Yemeni government encourages farmers to stop growing qat and offers  financial support to farmers of other crops. Ministries and non-governmental  organizations in Yemen have also urged qat farmers to stop growing the  plant.

Last summer six non-governmental organizations received funding from the  World Bank to raise public awareness of the disadvantages of qat. Yemeni youth  have been very active in this campaign, especially on Facebook. There are more  than 20 groups named “Yemen Without Qat” — planning activities in their  communities to persuade people to stop chewing qat.

Each year, Yemen marks April 29 as the Day of Qat — not to celebrate qat,  but to remind people of its disadvantages.

This year on that day, Shatha Al-Harazi, a 26-year-old Yemeni journalist,  tried to convince protesters in the Sana’a square to donate the money they would  have spent that day on qat leaves to help poor people.

Although the political situation in Yemen was intense and focused on other  matters she said that the reaction from people was positive.

“The situation did not help me do the initiative because there was a rumor  that the presidential palace would be attacked,” she said. “But people  responded, which means there is still hope.”


UNHCR worried about refugees and displaced people in strife-torn Yemen

9 Jun

GENEVA, June 3 (UNHCR) — Two refugees are among those killed in recent clashes in Yemen that have displaced thousands of Yemenis and refugees alike. The UN refugee agency has expressed alarm at the deteriorating situation, which is affecting its ability to help these vulnerable groups.

“In Al-Hasaba, north of [Yemen’s capital] Sana’a city, two Somali refugees were killed in the fighting last week,” said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards at a news briefing in Geneva on Friday. “They were a 14-year-old boy and a young woman who had fled the violence in Somalia to seek refuge in Yemen.”

The escalating violence between security forces and armed tribesmen has forced dozens of refugee families to flee Al-Hasaba for the surrounding areas. Where possible, they are staying with relatives or friends. Those with no support network could be offered other shelter possibilities. For example, the non-governmental organization, Interaction in Development Foundation (IDF), is considering renting a building to provide temporary accommodation. UNHCR and its partners are supporting the refugees’ relocation by offering emergency funds, water and relief supplies. Some 150 refugee families have so far received emergency assistance.

The clashes in Al-Hasaba are also affecting Yemenis already displaced by years of conflict in Sa’ada in the north. Among these internally displaced people (IDPs) living in Al-Hasaba, more than 80 families have fled the current fighting and returned to Sa’ada city and the surrounding areas. UNHCR has managed to locate 43 IDP families and is providing aid in the form of shelter and basic supplies.

In Yemen, the UN refugee agency cares for nearly 200,000 refugees and over 300,000 internally displaced Yemenis from the north. “The escalating conflict is affecting UNHCR’s ability to protect and assist these vulnerable people,” warned Edwards.

Meanwhile, an estimated 20,000 new IDPs have emerged in southern Yemen as people flee the fighting between government forces and militiamen in Abyan governorate’s Zunjubar city.

“Hundreds of Yemeni families have fled the city of Zunjubar to the surrounding areas,” said Edwards. “The majority of IDPs are being hosted in small villages near Zunjubar.”

He added that UNHCR is working with its partners and local authorities to help 982 IDP families hosted in seven schools in Aden city to the west. Aid agencies are also working with the local authorities to assess the situation and provide urgent assistance to these newly displaced people.

Revolution sidelined as counter-terrorism leads international attention

9 Jun

Here I am in Pittsburgh, as my homeland veers toward war

6 Jun
Sunday, June 05, 2011
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Yemeni boys collect water for their families in  the capital city of Sanaa. It now costs 12 times as much to buy water as it did  when the political turmoil in Yemen began back in March.
Photo by: Saif Abduallah/Associated Press


My name is Malak. I am a journalist from Yemen who is spending five months in  Pittsburgh as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at the Post-Gazette. I was very  happy when I was told that I would be given the chance to work at a newspaper in  the United States. And of course I would come to know the American culture, as  well.

When I left Yemen, where people had been calling for the president to step  down, the situation was not very serious. There were occasional standoffs  between protesters and security forces, and some people were killed or hurt, but  only those demonstrating were at risk. Other civilians were not touched.

When I arrived in the United States in late March, Americans asked me about  what was happening in my country. “Yemen is not like Tunisia and Egypt,” I used  to say. “It is only dangerous for those who go out in the streets, and it is not  all the time, and my family is safe.”

Being part of a fellowship program, I have duties here. I have to learn how  the American press works by writing stories and gaining new skills that I can  take back to my newspaper in Yemen, the Yemen Times.

I really love Pittsburgh. The city is so beautiful that I sometimes forget  everything about Yemen. I spent almost a month without really worrying about  Yemen. Whenever I called my family they told me they were safe, which made me  feel as though nothing serious was going on back home.

However, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, and now, two  months into my time in Pittsburgh, the situation in Yemen has deteriorated. The  demonstrations, which had been confined to a small area, spread like air to  everywhere, and military units have begun fighting one another.

I started freaking out and called my family. They said they were fine, but  they were lying because they did not want me to feel anxious while I am away and  supposed to be learning. Maybe they forgot that I am a curious journalist and  that they are not the only people I know in Yemen.

I called one of my journalist colleagues. She told me that, as the  demonstrations spread in Yemen, the Republican Guards loyal to the president and  men from the most influential tribe in Yemen, the Hashid, had started exchanging  fire. Many of the people living near the battleground fled their homes.

The head of the largest opposition party, Islah, is from the Al-Ahmar family,  which belongs to the Hashid tribal confederation. Islah had incited the protests  against the president in the first place after watching the Arab Spring take  down leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. Three times the president agreed to step down  but backed out. Now, the death toll is rising.

Fighting between the Republican Guards and the Hashid in the capital of Sanaa  began when both sides accused the other of taking over a strategically located  school near government ministries and the house of tribal leader Sadeq  al-Ahmar.

When my friend explained, it sank in — the situation had turned critical. So  I called my mother.

“Hi, Mom,” I said.

“How are you, dear?”

“I am fine. Tell me about you. Is everything OK in Yemen?”

“Yes. Yes. Do not worry. There is nothing here. Everything is great.”

“So you do not have any problems?” I asked. “You have access to water, food,  electricity?”

“Yes, dear, everything is OK,” my mother said.

Then I changed my tone. “Mom, I just called a friend and she told me  everything. She said there are clashes between the Republican Guards and Hashid  in Hasaba. Mom, you better tell the truth.”

“OK, dear. Well, to some extent we are fine, but, yes, there are now clashes  between the Republican Guards and Hashid. Your cousin, Amal, left her house  because, as you know, she lives nearby and it is not safe to be near the  fighting. She might get a bullet or two in her house.”

“Oh, that’s sad,” I said.

“Yeah, she went with her husband and their four children to live in her  husband’s family’s house. She was scared of a possible war.”

I called Amal. She told me that, just before the fighting began in her  neighborhood, residents were warned to leave their homes at once. Her husband  was not at home at the time, so she alone had to escape with their young  children, ages 8, 6, 5 and 2. They had to walk 5 kilometers to find a taxi. She  is not poor, but neither she nor others from the neighborhood could find enough  food and for a while had only one meal a day.

My aunt and her two daughters also live in the Hasaba neighborhood. She went  to stay with my father’s family on the outskirts of Sanaa.

My mother told me the price for 400 liters of water — a little more than 100  gallons — had risen to $60 from $5. In Yemen, the average monthly salary is  $200. She told me the generating plant responsible for providing the capital  with electricity had exploded, cutting the power supply to only three to four  hours a day.

“No more TV, no more computer,” Mom said.

“God be with you, Mom, and all the people.”

With all of this happening in my country, I am trying my best to focus on my  work here in Pittsburgh and to learn. The other day, when I was trying hard to  concentrate, the phone rang.

“Yes, Malak Shaher, Post-Gazette,” I said.

“How are you, dear? This is your mother.”

“Aaaah, mama, how are you?”

“We are fine. They said there might be reconciliation between the president  and the tribe. I just wanted to call and share the good news with you. I want  you to enjoy your time. Today, we had a tranquil day. So do not worry.”

A few days later, everything started getting worse again. The people in  Hasaba were told to evacuate. Fighting began at key positions around the  capital. Government forces killed dozens of protesters in Taiz. Government  planes attacked al-Qaida members in the south, where they were reported to have  gained control of a province. On Friday, mortar rounds hit the presidential  compound, slighly injuring the president.

My family is safe now, but Yemen is not only my family. It is my childhood,  my friends, my good and bad days. It is the streets and the people. It is  home.

God, I ask thee to protect Yemen.

I wonder where these people are now. ( Earning a living in Yemen)

2 Jun

A San'anai woman serving tea at the Cultural House in Sana'a, Yemen.

earning a living by selling names carved on wooden pieces
Earning a living by selling fake agates in the old city of Sana’a
Women selling legume. Each makes 3$ or less. It depends…

A man selling teeth cleanser sticks. A small stick is $.25 or even less.

selling corns
I took these photos last year.  I wonder where these people are now and I wonder how each one of them is managing earning a living now in the hard conditions Yemen is going through these days. I wish every Yemeni citizen is safe. War is not nice at all.
Photos credit: Malak Shaher.
.  .  .


2 Jun

A hut in Kamaran Island, Yemen. Time: Sunset.... Kamaran in Arabic means two moons. It was the colonies from Holand who gave the island this name. They gave it to the island because they saw the reflection of the moon in the night on the sea. Strange ! I thought all the seas reflect the moon.

The Mangrove forests in Kamaran Island, Yemen



2 Jun

I took this photo in October last year. I hope I can go to Aden and take a photo like this. I hope the crises ends soon.