Published first at BIKYAMASR
“Qat, the cursed plant in Yemen,” was the headline in a five-part series published by the Yemen Times in 2010, documenting extensively the social problems associated with qat chewing in the country.
The practice goes back thousands of years, was widespread in the region long before the arrival of coffee, and it was first documented by Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a Persian scientist, who offered a description of it in his medical treatise “Kitab al-Saidala fi al-Tibb” in the 11th century.
It is thought that the plant was brought from Ethiopia because the works of Yemeni writer Hamdani, who documented extensively many aspects of his country in the 10th century, makes no mention of it.
Western images of Yemen never miss a reference to it, often charged with Romanticism, even though there is very little romantic about it and in modern times, it has become a major obstacle for social development in the impoverished nation.
Every travel guide informs travelers about the practice and one of them even offers an encouraging generalization:
“While not a food per se, something else to put in one’s mouth is the qat leaf. This is the Yemeni social drug and is chewed by almost all of the population from after lunch until roughly dinner time. The plant is cultivated all over the country, and most Yemenis are more than happy to offer visitors a branch or two. Actually chewing qat is something of an art, but the general idea is to chew the small, soft leaves, the soft branches and to build up a large ball of the stuff in a cheek”.
There exists a whole culture around qat-chewing and is embodied in the Yemeni institution of the “mafresh” or qat houses, that exist all over Yemen, some open to the public while some others operate as private clubs with membership fees. While the “mafresh” is a male, urban middle class institution, it is not exclusive, and is also used by many at home.
Qat is also part of the local business culture and Yemeni women do it as well during the “tafrika” or afternoon visit that begins following afternoon prayers. During the “tafrika”, held in private homes, they take off their veils, share snacks and many of them also chew qat.
But the reality is that qat-chewing has been for so long associated with health hazards, drains on the household budget, disincentive to the local production of food crops and an obstacle in economic development. Chronic consumption of qat leads to great social and economic damage to individual and community, great loss of working time, overspending and malnutrition.
Qat induces mild euphoria and a state of excitement, makes people become talkative and more relaxed. However, the cathine contained in qat leaves, has been classified by researchers as an amphetamine-like substance that can induce manic behaviors, hyperactivity, dilated pupils and constipation, together with increased heart rate and blood pressure.
There might be also withdrawal symptoms, including mild depression, irritability and nightmares, among others. Long-term use is associated with liver failure, tooth darkening, ulcers and sexual impotence. Following from all of the above, it was classified in 1980 by the World Health Organization as a drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence.
The strain caused by qat is not only social but also agricultural: In a country with reduced food production and little water available, the cultivation of qat – the most cultivated plant in Yemen – consumes much of the country’s agricultural resources. It is estimated that close to half of the country’s water supply is used irrigating qat and that one “daily bag”- that can be consumed by one person in one day – requires over 500 liters of waters to produce.
Even though scholars everywhere – including the West – have declared the use of qat against Islamic law, it would be worthwhile remembering that in Yemen as early as the 16th century, Zaydi and Shafi scholars ruled that consumption of qat was permissible to Muslims. Yemeni Jews are also known to consume it.
The attitude of the government was generally negative and as early as the 1930’s there were a variety of initiatives sponsored by the authorities to clamp down qat consumption, however the state received very substantial income from taxing crops and sales of qat, at the same time that it produced higher income to farmers than vegetables or fruits. Inside Yemen’s tribal order, many tribal farmers turned to qat cultivation that they considered of higher status than vegetables and fruits, often cultivated by people of lesser status.
The degree to which qat is part of the tissue of Yemeni society can be seen in the United Kingdom and Israel, with Yemeni exiles: Substantial quantities of qat are imported into the UK and in Israel, it is not only that the old generation of Yemeni Jews still chew locally-grown qat but also that the young generation consume it in the form of a drug nicknamed “Hagiga” in Hebrew (party) that is a cocaine-resembling stimulant, considered illegal and that is well known in Tel Aviv night life, together with other recreational drugs, now used also by non-Yemenis too.
According to members of the Yemenite and Ethiopian communities in Israel, the habit is harmless and ordinary, but yet in an interview with an environmental magazine in 2010, a Yemeni woman in Israel is reported to have said: “Qat is the bane of Yemen. The husbands go to the souk and spend all their money on it, while their wives and kids go hungry at home”.
As early as 1972, a Yemeni writer, Hussain Abdallah al-Dhamari, wrote that “qat is anti-revolutionary and a major factor in the long isolation of the country”.
In 2007, long before any indication of a revolution, an organization named “Generations without Qat” was set up in Yemen, authorized by the Ministry of Social Affairs, with the purpose to educate people about the tragic fate of qat consumption. In line with the great protest art to be found in Yemen since the 1960’s, many cartoons and posters have been produced to raise awareness about this problem.
It has been reported recently for example that in 2009, Yemeni soldiers used qat while battling Houthi rebels in the north of the country, and in 2011, in spite of the country having increase qat taxes by 200% and placed a ban on public consumption, the practice is still as widespread as always and as normalcy begins to return, farmers turn to qat cultivation once again.
On an interesting note, Shelagh Weir, a noted British anthropologist and expert in Yemen, who wrote the first academic study on qat in the early 1980’s, has pointed out in a recent book from 2007, “A tribal order: politics and law in the mountains of Yemen” – perhaps the best modern study on Yemen – that there is a tendency in Yemeni society that as prosperity and wealth increases, so does consumption of qat, rather than the other way around.
That being said, qat poses a terrible threat to the future of a post-revolutionary Yemen, and even though there are many bent on its continued use, a very large number of Yemenis have protested the tradition of qat for a long time now.
The argument that because it is a cultural tradition it should be maintained, can no longer hold in a world in which under the rubric of tradition, entire nations have justified xenophobia, violence against women, homophobia, theft, corruption and the like. The widespread cultivation is extraordinarily non-sustainable for a country that needs to be fed, grow its own food sources and all of that with very limited water resources, even though it is a very fertile land in which the possibilities for agricultural development and autonomy depend on stopping the dependence on qat.
Western analysts in previous decades have pointed out for example that qat is the building block of the Yemeni identity or that qat chewing acts as the replacement of the public sphere in Yemen. These studies, however interesting, must be dismissed now that it has been proven how art and deliberation are practiced in Yemen in the public space and that identity has become a concept by all means contested. Priorities should be placed on the social and economic sustainability of a practice now very well known to affect negatively the life of many.
On January 12, through social media, Yemenis are organizing an event called “I want Yemen to change – I will not store Qat”. This event, organized by Hind Aleryani, a Yemeni activist based in Beirut and who made headlines with the “Shame Reuters” campaign, is a call for all Yemenis, wherever they are, to say no to qat, to not store any qat and to protest the cultivation and consumption of qat. International organizations should watch for this event and support the people of Yemen in making a transition that is much more difficult than any political process: That of building a new country in which the widespread cultivation and consumption of qat can be eventually replaced.
To be sure, it would be naïve to assume that this will happen overnight and that a large amount of financial resources will not be needed to make it possible, but it is important to raise awareness in all segments of civil society in Yemen and abroad, for the continued use of qat in Yemen will only slow the process of the revolution infinitely. Yemenis have proven to be capable of many things, and even though qat might be one of the greatest stumbling blocks in the social structure, the stakes for long-term change are very high.