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Asharq Al-Awsat Investigates: Tackling Yemen’s Qat Epidemic | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat- A large segment of Yemeni society has come to the realization that chewing Qat has become a major domestic problem. Qat- whose leaves are taken from shrubs planted everywhere- gives its user a sense of euphoria for several hours followed by nervousness, distress and depression.

This realization that Qat has become a problem is not limited to those who use it but has also become the main topic of discussions by politicians and legal experts in what looks likely to be a long way for eliminating a habit for the Yemenis that has been widespread for over 300 years.

Abdullah is a doctor and we were brought together in a “storing room.” Such rooms are found in most Yemeni houses. It is one room in the house or an extension to it where friends and acquaintances meet, in the afternoon. Each one brings his share of Qat and the session of chewing, relaxing, telling stories, watching television, reading newspapers, or surfing the internet are pursued with a clear and trouble-free minds and imaginations that sometimes get mixed up with the reality and reach the point of fantasia. Ethiopia in Africa is regarded as the origin country of the Qat plant and many Yemenis believe that Abrahah brought it to the Arabian Peninsula when he was unable to demolish the Kabah so as to drug the peninsula people and make them “feel cheerful” and thus achieve his purpose. Centuries passed and Abrahah disappeared leaving behind him one of his most important weapons, “the Qat.”

Sitting in a large room dedicated to storing during the second half of the day, the owner of a Qat farm in the Imran area called Abdul-Wadud says the habit of chewing Qat and storing it inside the side of the mouth surprises everyone who visits Yemen for the first time. He added that until 200 years ago, this habit was confined to those who were known in Yemen until recently the ruling and rich classes due to its high prices which were beyond the ability of the ordinary people to buy or chew. But today, every Yemeni can plant his house garden with the Qat shrubs, use part and sell apart.”

Abdul-Wadud planted over almost 20 years around 1,000 trees out of more than 300 million planted all over Yemen.

Other tales do not stop with that of “Abrahah” but add to them another one going back to the Ottoman rule and the Imamate one in the 19th Century and the first half of the last century. One of the tales says that the Ottoman rulers imposed heavy taxes on Yemeni coffee planters which prompted many of them to replace the coffee with Qat trees and that the unfair tax policies of the Yemeni Imamate rule after the departure of the Ottomans made the Yemenis expand more and more in planting Qat at the expense of coffee plantations. One of the studies prepared by specialized Yemeni centers on Qat points out that chewing this shrub’s leaves, storing them inside the mouth, and holding private storing sessions that bring friends together have become one of the popular traditions at the start of the last quarter of the 19th Century “and since the start of the 20th Century, the poorest sectors joined the users of Qat, including women and students.”

The feeling you have after 40 minutes of chewing the Qat at Abdul-Wadud’s session is a sense of light numbness that gives you rapture close to that obtained after smoking drugs (hashish). But the farm owner objects and says: “It is not like hashish because Qat does not harm the body. It makes you forget your worries, relaxes the nerves, and calms your mind.” Defending the shrubs planted in his house’s courtyard and which are also planted on the mountain ridges opposite it, he adds: “Storing the Qat removes whatever is preoccupying your mind.”

Qat shrubs are not planted in the vast countryside farms only but are found around cities and in houses` gardens. Qat farms are next to vineyards. Kamal, a truck driver with a lean face and body who was present at a Qat session in Abdul -Wadud’s house says: “You take the Qat that has a strong effect on the mind, Al-Hamadani Qat or Al-Arhabi Qat.”

The price of a bundle of Qat of the same size as a bundle of watercress starts at 1000 riyals (around $5) and the price drops according to the quality and extent of its effect to around 250 riyals of the “Yemeni honey” variety and to 150 riyals for ordinary Qat.

This truck driver stores it all the time he is awake, that is, he is a “Qat addict” according to him: “I start the engine and put my hand inside the bag. With the first gear move, I start to store. I sometimes store without food all day long. I store while I am on the road, at home, and with my friends.”

Storing requires one to drink much water and therefore you see in the main cities` streets many children selling water bottles to Qat users among drivers of private cars, taxis, and other mode of transports. A single bottle costs between 100 and 50 riyals and the truck driver consumes around five bottles a day even though his average wage is 60,000 riyals (around $300). He says: “Thursdays and Fridays are the time when I store most and it costs me around 3,000 riyals a day. I store Qat worth like around 1,000 to 2,000 riyals on other days. I started working as a driver when I was 18 years old and at first I used to store after work. I could not drive while storing. But it became normal later after getting used to it. The best Qat are Al-Hamadani, Al-Arhabi, and Al-Ashshi and there is Al-Hudaydah Qat and Al-Shami Qat which comes from the Hajjah Governorate”, which is next to Imran Governorate northwest of Yemen.

According to various and semi-official estimates, the Yemenis daily spend on Qat an average of 800 million riyals (around $4 million). The feelings vocalized by someone about the suffering he had from storing Qat look true to a large extent. After spending nearly five or six hours or more inside the storing room you look as if you sitting in a cell with several inmates and then you feel warmth flowing through your limbs so much so that you do not wish to move or take any action. Just sitting like that leaning on pillows laid on the floor before and behind you believing that you are like the Turkish aga who ruled a Greek village, in one of novelist Kazantakis novels. Thus you feel you own everything but are content to be in a child’s swaddle, smiling in satisfaction while sitting in these Qat sessions` prison. Yes, “the tip of my stem, what a taste” and “the last of my stem, what madness.”

The next day, that is the morning after, you wake up with bones that feel broken, a tired body, absentminded, and nerves that are irritated by the merest provocation. The first thing you wish as you wake up is for noon to come, the time for lunch in Yemen, so as to treat your body and spirit with more Qat until late into the night.

People from all walks of life gather in the storing room. Here is a farm owner in his house and with him are two of his farm workers, a university teacher of eastern literature, a correspondent of one of the foreign radio stations, a fifth who is a retired officer, a sixth who is an internet programmer, and others. Talks flow smoothly from politics to economics, from jurisprudence to metaphysics, from Yemen’s future to the Arab countries` past, and from the Somalia problem to the Arabs` past in Andalusia.

“Do you want to write an article for the newspaper that attracts admiration? Then write about Qat, and not just any Qat”, said by someone to prove the success of Qat in performing a very good job and its benefits for creativity in literature and music. They list the names of known and unknown persons saying the Qat was the reason for their excellence to which no one had preceded them. But the university teacher raises his hand to say with his mouth full of Qat leaves: “I do not advise anyone to try it. It is a curse; a calamity that we must get rid ourselves of it. We are addicts. This Qat is an opiate, like drugs, hated, cursed, and even forbidden. It eats a lot of money and time.” He pointed out that President Ali Abdullah Saleh had given up this habit.

The divided opinions over Qat has also reached the state’s higher circles and storing rooms where officials, officials` wives, or people close to ones occupying posts in the state take part. Some consider it a hated habit like smoking “and the number of those having it should be reduced” as the Sanaa governor believes while others believe the issue needs more than that, not only for protecting the Yemenis but also the agricultural lands and the scarce water resources in this country. Thus while some governorates do not take action against the Qat which 12 million of Yemen’s 23 million are using for fear of upsetting the citizens, some other governorates have started to take practical measures. Municipalities in several cities have taken preliminary steps to move the Qat markets outside residential areas on the basis that they “are hated markets” in addition to Qat being a bad habit whose planting requires large quantities of water in a country suffering from scarcity of water resources, grains, and other agricultural products that are necessary for food.

The problem is that there are farmers, like Abdul-Wadud, who turn their faces when they hear such talk on television. He says planting Qat is not expensive because each shrub needs watering once or twice a week. In some fertile areas, the cost is less than other trees that can be planted. At the central level, there are the Yemeni president’s instructions that water should be used to irrigate beneficial agricultural products and not Qat. There are projects which will be actually implemented before the end of the year and they include a plan to enlighten the youths in schools and at public forums about the health, social, mental, and economic damages caused by chewing the Qat. Groups called “good citizenship” will undertake the task of distributing posters and booklets and organize seminars about “this habit which has become a danger to the Yemenis.” Representatives of the World Bank are taking part in this project which is adopted by the Union of Yemeni Women and financed by the Japanese Government. This coincided with the growing problem of water shortages in the country and the demands by many officials to farmers not to plant Qat but get rid of it raising the slogan of “water before Qat.” The first direct decision against Qat was when several districts issued at the beginning of this year instructions to farmers and owners of water-carrying trucks to stop irrigating the Qat plants due to the water crisis there. Nothing like this local initiative in the south of the country had happened before apart from a central project by the agriculture and irrigation ministry to ban the planting of Qat in low agricultural lands in several areas, among them the Dhammar area where the project there is moving steadily to become a reality by offering facilities to the farmers who uproot the Qat shrubs and replace them with grains and fruits. Pierre Gatter, the World Bank’s adviser in Yemen who is a specialist in Qat trees, says the World Bank is seeking to implement a project aimed at limiting the expansion of this kind of agriculture and an enlightenment project to limit the use of Qat among the next generations is being prepared at present. He made the remarks during a tour of Dhammar Governorate with several officials who back replacing Qat with other food crops. The majority of Yemeni farmers continue to rely on Qat as well as the traders in the markets known by its name in all cities. The volume of the trade in which around 750,000 Yemeni farmers and traders are involved is estimated at around 450 billion riyals annually.

Qat makes up around 42 percent of the crops in the lands where agriculture depends on irrigation against 26 for grains, 14 for coffee, 13 for grapes, and 5 percent for other crops. Around 35 percent make up the lands which depend on rains against 59 for grains, six for coffee, and 0.3 for grapes.

According to a study titled “Alternative Agriculture to Qat” by Dr. Ismail Abdullah Muharram, consumption of Qat increased in way that exceeded all expectations during the second half of the last century and pointed out that Qat’s contribution to the domestic agricultural product reached 33percent.

The raising of the “water or Qat” slogan by many senior officials comes at a time when the individual’s share of water is lessening. According to Dr. Muharram’s study, the annually renewable waters in Yemen are estimated at around 2.1 billion cubic meters and the individual’s share of it is only 130 cubic meters, that is, the equivalent of 10 percent for the individual in the Middle East and 2 percent of the individual in the world. The study expects this volume to drop to between 90 and 72 cubic meters between 2010 and 2025.

The Yemeni president instructed the agriculture ministry to supply the farmers with free seeds and seedlings of coffee and nuts trees to plant them instead of Qat. He demanded from the government to stop the haphazard drilling of water wells and also the drilling machinery except when it is necessary for potable water and not “for irrigating Qat shrubs”, saying in the speech he delivered in Ibb Governorate at the beginning of June that the local authority should not repeat the previous excesses of granting the drilling firms licenses to drill water wells randomly because this is depleting the water basins` supplies to irrigate non-food crops, foremost of them the Qat shrub, at the expense of food crops, fruit trees, and coffee.

No day passes in happy Yemen without an increase in the number of those opposed to Qat as a crop and usage. The anti-Qat campaign is adopted by youth gatherings and legal societies as well as some officials who are eager to talk with a low voice for fear of angering the majority which continues to insist on living under one rood with the Qat. Songs of the Qat’s virtues were the most prevalent at one time but new stories have appeared about children, women, and families that have been split and impoverished because of this habit. School teachers and officials at the culture and human rights ministry are urging the students` guardians to buy pencils and books for their children instead of spending the money buying Qat and also to devote time to get close to them and learn about their problems instead of spending most of their time in the Qat storing sessions. Sanaa Governor Numan Duwayd who said Qat is not banned in Yemen explained that “Qat is not an opiate and has no effect on the individuals` behavior. On the contrary, we might view it negatively but it has also positive points for the farmer. It has not caused a major migration from the countryside to cities because people are planting Qat and living (on its profits). If at any time it is proved that Qat is forbidden or an opiate, then the Yemeni people will stop using it because they are more compliant with the teaching of religion. The Qat markets are everywhere and so are the agricultural lands. But there is awareness among the people to give up the Qat habit because they believe it is a bad one for Yemen, like smoking and like excessive drinking of tea or sitting too much with friends.”