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Qat’s out of the bag, Part II

Qat’s out of the bag, Part II

Yemen’s leafy stimulant is either destroying the country or saving it from disaster. Which is it? Part II of a series


October 26, 2008 8:40 by

The sword’s edge

“The economics of qat chewing, neither I, nor anyone else, nor the head of the Federal Reserve could ever figure out,” says Mackintosh-Smith, back at his rooftop mafraj (entertaining room). It’s a good point, but not one that would dissuade a Yemeni from trying. The country’s residents are a talkative bunch. Unlike many other Arab cultures, in theirs, people speak their minds freely. And there is little fear of the mukhbarat, the real or imagined secret police that seem to lurk around every corner in much of the Arab world.

The topics discussed during a typical qat chew range from the serious to the mundane to the utterly ridiculous. I ask Mackintosh-Smith to describe the things he talked about during his last chew session. He thinks for a moment. “I have a friend who’s building a house, so we talk a lot about building houses,” he finally replies. “We talked about money, ideas for making it; we talked about the solar system, and worked out things like how long it would take to walk to the sun.”

Quoting a ninth-century poet, Mackintosh-Smith writes in his book on Yemen that in a qat session one walks “the sword edge that separates the serious from the frivolous.” That sword edge is part of Yemen’s national character. Conditions here are anything but a frivolous matter, yet the nature of its inhabitants remains almost unassailably upbeat. Qat is perhaps the ultimate national paradox: It holds the country together while it tears the country apart.

One wonders if Yemenis will continue to banter away in earnest – masticating, ruminating, tossing around jokes and ideas and building bricks in their heads while the plant leads their country to ruin.

First published in Trends magazine.

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