Activists battle with Yemen’s qat chewers

It was a wedding like few others in Yemen, thanks to the banning of an evergreen shrub with juicy oval leaves. Guests who would normally have spent hours draped on couches enjoying the mild euphoric high offered by chewing the narcotic qat plant found their wedding mojo instead.

“It was strange, it was fun – people were dancing, lots of things were going on,” recalled Alaa Jarban, a student who does not use qat and was delighted by its absence. “For the first time, I didn’t feel like an outsider.”

The wedding last year was part of a small but increasingly active drive by Yemeni campaigners against what they see as the pernicious impact of the ubiquitous qat on the country’s social life, citing the damage it causes to health, working habits and the arid land's scant water resources.

Activists enthused by Yemen’s post-revolutionary spirit are even due to take to the streets again on April 13 to press, against the wishes of a good number of their compatriots, for the government to adopt a 20-year plan to root qat out of the country.

“If they don’t solve this problem, I don’t know where Yemen is going to go,” said Hind Aleryani, a Beirut-based journalist and campaigner, one of the organisers of next week’s event. “They are not doing anything about it because it’s too big, and they don’t know how to solve it.”

The trope of Yemen as a country that shuts down every afternoon for marathon qat-chewing sessions has become a cliché, but it is striking how much truth there is in it.

Each lunchtime in the capital Sana’a, some taxis refuse fares as their drivers join the rush to the market to arm themselves with plastic bags filled with bushels of qat stalks. The plant is munched in elite salons of politicians and business people, as well as in down-at-heel cafés, each eater carefully sifting his haul for the most desirable smaller leaves.

While some people restrict their qat intake to an early evening session of an hour or two, for others it becomes a focus of the day – and even an obsession. When the Financial Times asked a man by a roadside in rural south Yemen how life was, he replied: “The qat is very cheap. Go and buy it.”

Although the World Health Organisation does not classify qat’s amphetamine-like active ingredient as a “seriously addictive drug”, it warns that it can disrupt sleep, harm productivity and cause a mood-lowering hangover particularly damaging to people prone to depression.

Abdo Seif, head of the advisory and oversight team at the UN Development Programme in Sana’a, said that while his agency did not classify qat as “good” or “bad”, he was worried about the health impact of chemicals such as fertilisers used on the crop.

He also points to estimates that purchases of the plant consume up to 10 per cent of poorer families’ income, in a country where the economy has been badly hit by the 2011 uprising that eventually forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office.

“Whenever the unemployment pool grows, the consumption grows,” Mr Seif said, noting that the qat economy is estimated to be worth at least $10m a day, or 40 cents per person in a nation where the average income is less than $6 a day. “Because people have nothing else to do other than chew.”

Apart from the slew of qat-free weddings, campaigners have adopted tactics including silent protests in qat shops, painting murals around Sana’a showing qat leaves crossed out, and funding the replacement of a handful of qat plantations with cash crops such as coffee.

They know they are fighting against both a cultural tide and a history of similar failed efforts. Ms Aleryani, the Beirut-based campaigner, said one parliamentarian she lobbied told her that, far from being a destructive force, qat was in fact “green gold”.

The campaign has also provoked a wider backlash. Some users see it as a class-tinged initiative launched by what one inveterate chewer dismisses as “fancy activists and couch revolutionaries”, happy to issue distasteful lectures to poor people for spending money on one of the few pleasures available to them.

As with antismoking campaigns in western countries, the signs are that the renewed post-revolutionary effort to drive qat out of Yemen may end up polarising people rather than reconciling them.

Mr Jarban recalled how some people brought their own qat to the wedding he attended, even though it was prohibited. “But they felt so embarrassed because nobody was chewing,” he said. “So they left early.”

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