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.”

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