Kicking Yemen's qat habit

By Expat98 · Aug 16, 2008 · ·
  1. Expat98
    Kicking Yemen's qat habit

    Chewing qat leaves is bad for Yemen's economy and public health, says its government. But, as Stephanie Hancock found, curbing this national pastime is an uphill task.

    Saturday, 2 August 2008
    by Stephanie Hancock, BBC correspondent

    Qat chewing is a national pastime
    for the people of Yemen

    I had only been in the country a few minutes when I noticed a man with a gigantic growth bulging out of his cheek. The swelling was enormous, it was so bulbous it practically had its own heartbeat.

    Now I have been brought up not to stare but, feeling slightly guilty, I kept sneaking glances at this unfortunate fellow.

    What an awful disease, I thought to myself and how nice that other people are not staring at him, unlike me.

    I wondered whether the growth might be a tumour, or perhaps some sort of thyroid problem.

    I did not want to seem rude but I quietly asked my guide, Ahmed, if perhaps this man was ill.

    Ahmed, in his nonchalant manner, turned to look at the man, and gave a small laugh that suggested I was very stupid.

    "Ha! That's qat," he said.

    And so it was that I discovered the substance that makes Yemen tick.

    Qat is a flowering plant that grows all over the Arabian peninsula, and when you chew the leaves it acts as a mild stimulant. The habit is known as qat chewing, but this is a misnomer as the teeth are not actually really involved.

    The aim appears to be to stuff as many leaves as you can possibly fit into one cheek, until you resemble a lop-sided hamster, and then sort of suck on the juices.

    After a while a green foamy paste forms at your lips, and at this point, conversation is now impossible. Any important information must be communicated via grunting and pointing.

    To say qat is popular in Yemen would be a massive under-statement, practically everybody in this country chews qat, two thirds of men and a third of women.

    It is not elitist either, everyone from businessmen to street urchins like to indulge. Apart from a few hard-core fans, most people seem to start up after lunch, and the chewing will often go on late into the night.

    Relaxation aid

    Some people chew to give them energy to work others use it for relaxation. It is a common sight here to see men flaked out on pavements, gazing absent mindedly into the distance, giving total concentration to the chewing task at hand.

    Qat is an integral part of life here in Yemen, but these days the government is becoming concerned about its effects and this week sounded alarm bells about qat's grip on the country.

    The man behind the warning is Yemen's planning minister Abdulkarim al-Arhabi. I went to meet him in his office, where he patiently explained all the many ills qat is responsible for.

    For starters, there are the health effects such as mouth cancer, he said, which is on the rise because farmers are using more insecticide.

    Farmers are also now choosing to grow water-thirsty qat instead of food crops, he said, because it consistently fetches high prices.

    Economic drain

    The result is a major drain on water in a country suffering drought and a growing reliance on foreign food imports at a time when staple goods are more expensive than ever.

    Then there is the effect on productivity, he added, with all those young people sitting around chewing qat when they could be working.

    Critics of the government point out that one in three Yemenis is unemployed and chewing qat is a simple way to pass the day and keeps them away from alcohol and harder drugs.

    Later I went for a look round Sanaa's lively qat market, and it is amazing to see how much money changes hands, especially for the high quality blends which can cost up to £10 a bag, and that will only last you one afternoon.

    It made me realise that qat is a big part of the economy here.

    My guide Ahmed, whose mood was always intimately linked to the size of the bulge in his cheek, is suspicious of the government's fighting talk over qat. "The government needs qat," he told me with a mouthful of green leaves. "It says it wants to stop it, but it earns lots of money from all the taxes farmers pay.

    "Besides," he added, his voice dropping to a gurgled whisper, "when people are chewing qat, they don't ask awkward questions about where Yemen's oil revenues are going."

    And with this he hit the nail firmly on the head. Yemen has recently suffered from riots, when angry young men, unable to find work, rose up against the government.

    Poverty and corruption, a faltering economy and unemployment all linked and all related in some way back to qat.

    It might be causing problems for this country, but nobody is quite sure what would happen if you took qat away.

    As one trader told me as he hawked his goods for sale in the market: "Qat is the key to peace in Yemen. Nobody would be stupid enough to meddle with that."


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  1. Bajeda
    Nope. It only grows in select parts of it, sometimes with a great deal of effort necessary, despite Catha Edulis being a rather hardy plant.

    Yes and no.

    The teeth are involved, but chewing is only a small part of the process. In Arabic "Qat chewing" is called 'storing', as in: you store the leaves in your mouth. You do need to chew them first, or your mouth won't feel so good, not to mention that you couldn't fit much in there.

    Maybe if she actually spoke Arabic that wouldn't be the case!

    People get quite loquacious whilst chewing Qat, to the extent that a good number of the studies on the plant's use actually mention 'loquacity' as an effect!

    It can be a bit more difficult to understand people, but it really isn't that hard to communicate.

    She left out, "on a daily basis". The numbers would be higher if you counted occasional use, and essentially everyone in the country chews at least once a year really, considering you are pretty much forced to at wedding and funerals, whether you want to or not!

    Its important to note that lunch is typically at 1400 (2PM) in Yemen, so 1500-1600 are the most popular times to start chewing.

    If the government was effective at all, they would have educated people on the importance of washing their Qat long ago.

    A great many people in Yemen smoke while chewing Qat, so I wonder if that also plays a role in the higher incidence of mouth cancer attributed to Qat (this isn't clear cut either).

    This is the REAL problem, and a very worrying one at that. An entire article on this alone would have been far more useful, though probably not from this writer.

    The riots were former members of the army from the South who lost their jobs due to the government's paranoia (even though North and South are united now, the trust is lacking). True about the lack of other suitable work though.

    Wow, you've got to be kidding me. They are all related, but you really need to provide some elucidation after that point. Its not like Qat is the sole, or even primary cause of Yemen's numerous woes, and its unethical to insinuiate that in such a sneaky manner.

    This guy is correct.

    Whatever several of Yemen's whopping 36 ministers may say, Qat is there to stay for the time being. The Houthi insurrection in the North was just quelled in the past month or so, and the government is on too shaky a foundation to do something so stupid as make Qat illegal when nearly the entire country uses it, not to mention when the still very powerful tribal groups depend on it as a major source of income and still hold a good deal of firepower.

    Really lazily researched article.
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