The Arab world's poorest country is hooked on Catha edulis, and its spread hasn't stopped at the border
Walk down any major street in Yemen after noon and you'll see men with bulging cheeks chewing qat. The leaves, which contain cathinone and cathine and produce a high, are also cultivated in the Horn of Africa. But Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, buffeted by government-tribal clashes in the north, secessionism in the south and dwindling oil revenues, is just about being held together by the Catha edulis shrub.
Qat is chewed almost everywhere in Yemen. Many private homes have a comfortable, well-ventilated room set aside for the purpose. But it is at street level that the pervasiveness and tempo of the activity is best appreciated – in the qat markets, or drifting amid those consuming it. It is a seamless ritual, like taking coffee after a meal for a Westerner.
Partaking of this natural amphetamine is not prohibited in the Koran, and the jury remains out on whether it is addictive or harmful. It is accepted in Yemen, but not in other Arab countries. And while legal in Britain and much of Europe, it is banned in France, Norway, Sweden, the United States and Canada.
It is a medium for male socialization, although women chew it as well, separately from men. Its proponents argue that it helps promulgate business deals, but there is an undeniable social pressure to join in its consumption. Its intake is each day's main boredom-busting activity.
The average Yemeni spends one-quarter to one-third of his income on qat. Three-quarters of the population devote four to six hours daily to buying and chewing the leaves, which are consumed in the later afternoon after the day's main meal.
Although qat has no nutritional value, a third of Yemen's agricultural land is devoted to it, double the acreage of a decade ago.
In the 1960s, Yemen was flooded with cheap foreign grain, rendering many traditional crops unprofitable. Qat is now Yemen's largest cash crop and employs hundreds of thousands of people, directly or indirectly. The trade is a major contributor to tax revenue, and the government supports it through customs exemptions, loans and diesel subsidies. But cultivation of the thirsty plant is exacerbating a grave water crisis and encouraging corruption at all levels. It is illegal to import the leaves, and the qat mafia's powerful growers have reportedly threatened to shoot down any planes flying in stocks from abroad.
Gaze across any Yemeni vista and you'll probably see the pale green trees of qat terraces. Whole communities pick the branches, generally led by women. Runners then haul most of the crop to the cities on trucks. There it might be sold directly or through muqawwat retailers, who unload it, sort it and wrap it.
There are many kinds of qat, and many levels of quality, with seasonal variations. Some regions are known for their green shoots with long succulent tips. So the haggling over price can be intense, although tea might be served to civilize the process. But quickly, since qat has a shelf life of just 24 to 48 hours.
Sanaa, the capital, has more qat markets than any other Yemeni city. There are at least three markets in the central souq, and there's a more formal set of dealers on the city's northern rim who operate from shops or small stalls. Anyone visiting there midday finds the atmosphere more easygoing than the souq, but tensions accumulate as the afternoon comes on, and fears mount among buyers that the best of the lot may have already been sold.
Like marijuana, qat initially amplifies emotions and conversations can run wild. There is a feeling of camaraderie and shared experience. Then a quieter, more mellow contentedness sets in. It dampens the appetite and can cause insomnia, leaving some users a bit unsteady on their feet.
Medical studies have shown that chewing is a risk factor for the development of oral cancers. Qat use has also been associated with gastrointestinal disturbances, risk of liver disease and cardiovascular effects, as well as making women vulnerable to pregnancy complications. There are reports of people becoming psychotic. Men may report experiencing either an increase, or a decrease, in libido.
Detractors say that qat is responsible for male alienation from family life and that it stresses family budgets. Proponents maintain that it increases energy levels, self-esteem and mental acuity.
There is no dispute that the trade has buttressed Yemen's economy. It has brought money to remote villages, made them more accessible and stabilized rural-to-urban migration. And the commerce doesn't stop at Yemen's borders. Recent surveys suggest that Yemenis (and Somalis and Ethiopians) living abroad consume it just as they would at home, if given the opportunity.
Although British government agencies have not been forthcoming with statistics, an interpretation of customs figures released several years ago suggests more than seven tonnes of qat are imported each week through Heathrow Airport, coming in twice a week in the cargo holds of passenger aircraft from Sanaa and Kenya.
Most of it is sold in London's qat cafés, although some is distributed to Birmingham and Manchester. But London is also a key transshipment point, and a substantial portion is redirected for illegal sale in the United States.
It remains unresolved whether qat is a cause or a symptom of social and economic problems. In Yemen, where unemployment is about 40 per cent, one can only hope that the export profits trickle down. Foreign governments will likely weigh any potential qat ban within their borders against its impact on Yemen's economy, and any geopolitical shift that could trigger.
December 29, 2009
Globe And Mail