By Alfa · May 19, 2004 ·
  1. Alfa

    Trying to do business in Yemen without chewing qat would be like
    trying to do business in Washington or London without doing lunch,
    dinner, or drinks. This fact sank in around my fourth day in Sanaa
    when I was invited to my fourth qat session.

    Now, after four weeks here, I have met, through qat, government
    officials, ministers, politicians, business owners, journalists,
    poets, aid workers, a Hamas official, and an actress.

    Suffice it to say that without qat I would have neither friends nor

    One evening, on a day I had resolved to avoid qat--qat sessions, like
    endless rounds of dinner and drinks, can become exhausting--a man who I
    had been trying to interview summoned me to his mafraj, or sitting
    room, at 7 in the evening.

    He was chewing with his son and a circle of friends; I interviewed him
    amid piles of discarded branches.

    Qat is a bitter green leaf. You store it up in one side of your mouth
    until it forms a giant wad, distending your cheek like a golf ball, or
    if you keep masticating, a tennis ball. You never swallow the leaf
    itself, just the juices. It's a stimulant containing two active
    ingredients, cathinone and cathine, but beyond that there isn't much
    agreement about its effects: It's strong, it's weak, it's addictive,
    it's not, it makes you introspective or euphoric or chatty.

    It's banned in the United States but legal in Great

    Many Yemenis retire to chew in a mafraj, which has a very particular
    architecture: floor-level seating, with cushions and arm rests, along
    three or four sides of a room. Others, though, simply chew while
    getting on with their business day. When I go to my neighborhood
    vegetable vendor after lunch, I find him sitting on the floor of his
    stall, all but hidden by the cantaloupes. He has flecks of bright
    green on his lips and is cheerfully willing to give me a deal on tomatoes.

    Truck and taxi drivers chew on the road, and soldiers do it on the
    job, despite the ban on consuming in uniform. A qat session can last
    for four hours or eight, or from after lunch until after midnight.

    It's permissible to drop in and out of a chew. But really, once you're
    settled in, why would you want to leave?

    Some expats in Yemen try to resist. "In Sanaa I do all my business
    before 1 p.m.," said Randy Durst, an American who manages a travel
    company here. By 2, o
    ffices are shut, and the teetotaler's business
    day is shot. Many foreigners, though, simply go with the flow. Robert
    Burrowes, a political science professor from the University of
    Washington who resides part-time in Yemen, said that qat has
    facilitated much of his work over the years. "It would be hard to do
    research here and not chew qat, because it's during the qat sessions
    that people seem most relaxed, and most prepared to talk about
    politics. You can often talk in some depth and detail over a four-hour
    period." Kyle Foster, the country director for Mercy Corps, said
    partaking in qat is essential to aid work too. "Yemen has a
    dysfunctional ministry system in which officials are at work for maybe
    two hours a day. But if you can line up a qat chew with the official
    you need to talk to, then you're in." It's also a useful tool for
    managing personnel: "You can sit with your staff for six hours,
    strategizing and planning," Foster said. The difference between qat
    and after-work drinks in the Western world is that after a few beers,
    the worker bee starts to loose his coherence.

    Qat, on the other hand, is a sparkly upper, enhancing

    Some Yemenis call it Vitamin Q.

    While the guys at Hunt Oil, which operates in Yemen, probably resist,
    even officers at the U.S. Embassy unofficially partake.

    A foreigner in Sanaa who is familiar with embassy staff said that
    while Ambassador Edmund Hull came into his job dead-set against the
    drug, his political and economic staff, charged with taking the
    country's pulse, have effectively forced him to concede that they have
    to do it sometimes.

    For Yemenis, of course, the social and professional pressure is even
    more intense. In a story still talked about as a cautionary tale, the
    government fired a high-ranking official in the 1970s, taking him by
    complete surprise. Rumors of his termination had been making the
    rounds, but his German wife had forbidden him from chewing, so he was
    out of the loop. And last year, in a uniquely Yemeni twist on
    locker-room syndrome, Rahma Hujaira formed the Yemeni Female
    Journalists Forum after the Association of Yemeni Journalists excluded
    its female members from a chew. "That was an outrageous decision," she
    told the Yemen Observer.

    Part of the charm of qat is that no one, at least in Yemen, has ever
    tried to distill it or speed up its effects.

    Qat can be strong stuff, but it takes a long time to take effect, and
    while you are waiting you must sit and pick at the little stack of
    shrubbery you have brought, painstakingly stuffing bad-tasting foliage
    into you mouth, and washing it down with water or soda pop. This will
    frustrate anyone chasing a quick high, but it preserves the social
    ritual, which is a major part of qat's appeal.

    If I'm in the right mood, I love the hours of ebbing and flowing chat
    that segue seamlessly from one-on-one confidences to group discussions
    to solo speechmaking and back, about politics and culture and love and
    war. It makes me wonder how often, back home, I really took the time
    to listen and talk.

    The drawbacks are serious and numerous.

    To name a few: Qat cultivation uses up scarce water resources, and
    consumption uses up even scanter incomes. Little children run wild in
    the streets while their parents indulge--one afternoon I saw a group of
    them playing with a sizable fire they had built in the street.

    Fortunately Sanaa is mostly built of stone.

    I wonder, though, if qat doesn't have a positive political

    Despite Yemen's reputation in the West as a terrorist-infested
    no-man's land, I'm frankly impressed that it doesn't fly apart at the
    seams, considering the circumstances. A country of some 19 million
    souls, Yemen is impoverished, home to tribal groups barely under the
    control of the central government, and has spawned Islamist groups
    like the Aden Abyan Army. Yet the government enjoys more legitimacy
    than most Arab regimes, its close cooperation with the United States
    has produced no outpouring of violence, and even the powerful
    religious party, Islah, works closely with President Ali Abdullah
    Saleh's secular government. Could this tenuous stability have to do
    with the fact that for five or more hours every afternoon, the nation
    is seriously chilled out?

    A fitful modernizer, President Saleh announced in 1999 that he was
    taking up exercise and giving up qat. Yemenis don't really buy it, and
    Saleh is believed to have stuck to his resolution for only a few months.

    Still, he sent a signal that in order to join the modern world, the
    country needed to move away from the national addiction.

    Saleh's announcement makes me think of Russian President Vladimir
    Putin's fondness for posing in track suits and karate outfits in
    contrast to his binge-drinking predecessor Boris Yeltsin; it also puts
    me in mind of Mexico, which under Vicente Fox, its gung-ho ex-CEO of a
    president, is slowly abandoning the afternoon siesta.

    A Yemeni abandonment of qat is as inconceivable as a Russian
    abandonment of vodka. Sadly, though, there is probably something
    fundamentally incompatible between the efficient modern business world
    and old ways that involve boozing, napping, and getting high. To the
    list of globalization's impacts, add abstemiousness and an inability
    to relax.

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