A Canadian in Yemen: Hey, what happened to our qat market? [Archives:2002/42/Culture]

October 14 2002
Thomas Froese
After spending our summer in Canada, my wife Dr. Jean and I have returned to our adopted home in Sana’a to discover something missing from our neighborhood. Gone is the local qat market. What’s up with that? For the first time, I can see pavement on what was normally qat-alley.

We’re not big chewers ourselves, even though I’ve personally been asked to join chews on a regular basis. In fact, on my first visit to Yemen in 2001, I was not in the country a day when a taxi-driver kindly offered me some of his fresh leaves. “It will improve your writing,” he told me. I’m sure that’s true, sir, if I believed the Earth is flat.

Little did I know at the time, while qat is chewed in some other countries, Yemen is King of Qat. Little did I know what a powerful hold it has on so many people.

The few times I have chewed, I’ve just thirsty and a headache. Other effects are more problematic. I understand some Yemenis easily spend 30 per cent of their income on it.
Also, qat plants need water, a precious commodity that, according the World Bank, Yemen may run out of in 10 years. Consider also that one-third of Yemen’s GDP is related to qat, and it costs the country about US $6 million every day in lost productivity.

Still, look at the bright side. Compare it to tobacco. Qat kills virtually nobody: just a few hundred souls poisoned from pesticides not washed off. Compare that to the four million deaths caused by tobacco every year, 435,000 of which happen to be in Canada. Qat leaves no smell.

Some humour
There are other reasons why, even with the loss of our neighborhood qat market, a humorist might say qat will eventually overtake tobacco as the world’s top weed. Here’s a humorous look at the Top 10.

10. With their cheeks bulging, chewers look like a bunch of happy trumpet players.

9. Defending users of qat, a product illegal in some countries, is a lawyer’s dream. There is no proof of crime since the chemicals in freshly-cut leaves break down to nothing in 10 days.

8. In the West, qat socials would negate the need to learn the tedious game of golf for high-level business deals.

7. Qat has no confusing brands. No Lights or Slims. The product is straightforward. Its only suitable name is High-and-Dry. That has singularity of purpose that people really crave.

6. There is no anti-qat lobby. I understand a former Yemeni education minister tried to launch one years ago. It still hasn’t reached 100 members. And while the World Health Organization is trying to control tobacco worldwide, qat continues to fly under the radar.

5. Unlike grisly warnings on some cigarette packs, when qat is wrapped it looks like flowers for your wife. For about $12, a Yemeni can walk down the street with prestige while carrying a large qat bundle wrapped in pink or blue cellophane.

4. Qat sells without sex appeal. There is no need for Marlboro Girls, the gals in short skirts who, in some countries, go to public places and hand out free cigarettes. Qat is an equal-opportunity plant, easily marketed by any Yemeni qat mascot. I’d name him Qatman, fill his cheek to bulge like a tennis ball, get him to rock concerts and beauty pageants, and put his image on racing cars, t-shirts and lunch-buckets.

3. Qat sharpens the mind. Without having prior ability, qat chewers know how to fix computers and write poetry. They ask deep questions. For example, while observing a bottle, a chewer asked one day, “Just what is behind America?” Was his question socio-political? No, he was wondering what was behind America’s landmass.

2. Qat can balance East-West trade. Cigarette sales are down in places like Canada, but tobacco companies now make billions in profits by targeting the Developing Word, where 70 per of smoking deaths occur and where 10 million smoking-related deaths are expected annually by 2025. Sending qat in the other direction returns the favor.

The #1 humorous reason
1. Qat can, in fact, unite the world. Did tobacco beat communism? No. Qat did. Case in point: Marxists who used to run the former South Yemen restricted qat chewing to weekends. They felt it made people ‘lazy.’ But the masses threw off their shackles because they understand they were fed only half the truth. Sure hard work won’t kill you. But why take the chance? Millions of Yemenis now chew in perfect harmony, just like singing the Coke song. The rest of the world can now join in. Every dog, after all, deserves its season.
Thomas Froese ([email protected]) is an editor with the Yemen Times.