Every new day in Yemen people chew away at their political, economic and social aspirations for the future. They chew on disappointment from the failings of their society and government, and on sorrow for friends lost and injured to violence in the country. With all of that though, and especially since the revolution, they also chew on hope. But above all else, Yemenis chew qat — a green, leafy plant that produces a mild amphetamine-type buzz.
It is a social habit and one to which many are addicted. It is everywhere, as ubiquitous as hookah pipes in Beirut and McDonalds in the West. Almost everyone does it — young and old, men and women, religious figures, politicians, technocrats — and at almost any occasion — funerals, weddings, social gatherings, during war and negotiations, whenever — for around six hours daily. After 1pm government agencies begin to close as employees head directly to the qat souk, even before going to lunch.
In most countries it is classified as an illegal narcotic, (in late 2012 a Yemeni citizen was sentenced to five years in prison in Lebanon for trying to smuggle five kilograms of qat through the Beirut airport). It is the cause of many serious diseases — especially when combined with the rampant overuse of pesticide — consumes an astronomical 40 percent of Yemen’s annual water resources (in a country that is critically water scarce), occupies hundreds of thousands of hectares of arable land, costs the economy tens of millions of dollars in lost hours of productivity and almost nothing is being done to stop its continued spread.
No one in Yemen will argue whether or not qat is bad — they all think it is a catastrophe; but they chew it anyway, and will discuss ways to ban qat while chewing qat.
While being a complex social, anthropological and environmental problem, Yemen’s qat obsession is not completely universal. Before unification in 1990 when South Yemen was under Marxist rule, it had a very practical policy toward qat, allowing it only on Thursdays (think of it as ‘Black Thursday’), and the policy was strictly applied.
In the southern governorate of Hadhrmout qat is actually widely despised. It is commonly understood that Yemen’s best businessmen and hardest workers are from Hadhrmout. In seeking a woman’s hand in marriage, the first thing a man in Hadhrmout must say to her parents to prove he is decent and responsible is, “I don’t chew qat.”
Recently, a young man made waves in Sanaa when he announced he would marry his wife at a ceremony where there was no qat allowed. It was the first time in decades this had happened. People swarmed to the event — the invited and uninvited, qat haters and addicts alike. It was like a bazar; everyone wanted to witness it and be inspired. Other young couples followed in their footsteps with qat-free weddings; including one in one of the most qat consuming and tribal governorates: Ammran.
These weddings were another sign of how Yemeni youth are attempting to creatively address societal ills that their elders have never given thought to. But, as is the danger with most progressive movements that upset the status quo, the established elites and old guard will resist.
Late last year some members of Parliament tried to broach a long-term plan to eliminate qat, but were attacked by other MPs who accused them of breaking the national consensus against even raising the idea of a ban. Needless to say the plan failed, just like every one preceding it. For obvious reasons, it was the MPs whose constituencies produce the most qat who fought most strongly against the ban, as it is a major source of revenue for their powerful local stakeholders.
As is fitting of the foreign meddling in Yemeni politics, this nascent anti-qat movement in government then sent a delegation to Al Azhar in Egypt, — the foremost institution of Islamic study in the world — asking for a fatwa (religious ruling) to say qat is haram (sinful).
There are many ways that could be taken to address qat in Yemen, from regulation to taxation to simple education. Recognizing the need to do something, young couples seem to have tried to take the first step. One can only hope that in striving to weed qat from the garden of Yemen they are not biting off more than they can chew.
Farea al-Muslimi is a Yemeni activist and commentator