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 kippreport
Living like a sheikh
Another myth in need of debunking: Qat is an age-old Yemeni tradition. Yes, it’s been here for a while: Originating in Ethiopia, the plant is thought to have come to the peninsula in the 13th century by Sufis who used it as an aid in achieving a state of spiritual enlightenment. But until recent decades, it wasn’t commonly used. Farmers might have chewed a few leaves between prayers – after lunch, for instance, before going out into the field again, as many in the West might enjoy a cup of coffee – and tribal sheikhs chewed in the majlis, but it was hardly an everyday ritual that lasted hours, as it does today.
The qat craze seems to have kicked off in earnest in the 1970s. As the modern world crept in, a generation previously barred from the education system began getting university degrees. Qat became a study aid for them, rather than a postprandial pick-me-up. Returning migrant workers from the first Saudi oil boom, newly enriched and wanting to live like sheikhs, began hosting their own extended qat-chew sessions. And women began using qat for the first time.
“I call it the democratization of the qat session,” says Abdullah Azzalab, author of “Qat Culture in Yemen: A Sociological Approach” and the director of state radio and television. Qat has become the great equalizer of Yemeni society, he says. There’s an unwritten code: The door to the chew is always open. The butcher, in theory, can go to the house of a cabinet minister and discuss his concerns, calmly and at length, while chewing qat. The plant and its associated tafrita – a Sana’ani word for a female social gathering – also provide women with much-needed social space.
Azzalab is not a proponent of qat, but he argues that to reduce its centrality in Yemeni life, one first needs to understand the indispensible role it plays in binding Yemeni society together. “This habit, this phenomenon, is out of control,” he says. “Even those who chew qat say it’s bad. But we don’t have any alternatives.”
Other experts expressed a similar opinion: It’s not enough to discourage or ban qat. One has to come up with something to take its place, both economically and culturally.