Breaking ‘evil traditions’ is possible [Archives:2004/767/Viewpoint]

August 26 2004

In Yemen, just as in many other Arab and developing countries, we have a huge number of traditions. Those traditions have existed for many years, and emerged due to many reasons.
Among the traditions that we have in Yemen is chewing qat. This tradition has been a source of pride and wealth for many 'qat businessmen', as some call them. Even though it is widely perceived as something compulsory among vast numbers of the Yemeni community, in reality, almost all Yemenis agree that it is a hazard.
Yet, we continue to allow this tradition to continue.
Among other traditions that are widely applied throughout the country is the habit of blocking streets during wedding ceremonies. Some believe that such actions are in accordance with dignified and proper conduct.
Then there is the tradition of holding religious 'singing ceremonies' during condolence sessions, with free qat for all those coming to morn the death of a loved one. It is a fact of Yemeni life, that you have to jump over thousands of branches of qat, littering the floor, to arrive at the person to offer condolences. You see everyone gathering around and sitting for hours, doing nothing but chewing and listening to the religious rhymes.
The list goes on and on, and one can see no end to it.
For years, common opinion was that it is inappropriate to say 'no' to such traditions. For so long, people here described such traditions as heritage from the past that MUST be preserved. However, things are slowly but steadily changing.
Nowadays, more people are seriously considering abandoning traditions that result in such unnecessary economic burden and wasted time. Some are courageous enough to openly reject some of the strong traditions, despite the uproar and criticism of many.
A friend had recently held a condolence session and refused to allow qat chewing in the hall. He didn't even bring a religious singer, but rather used his stereo player to play verses from the Quran. He was attacked and criticized by people, who insisted that this would drive away condolers. But in fact, it wasn't the case. Indeed, many people came to pay their condolences and found the place so clean and neat, that qat chewers after sitting for a time with their qat bags hidden behind their backs, left to find another place to practice their daily 'habit'.
When asked why he did what he did, the friend simply referred to the day when the Yemen Times bade farewell to its founder, Prof. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf (who was a vicious fighter against qat), in a qat-free condolence session, which set an example for many throughout the country. At the beginning it also received some protests, but later when people thought about it, many realized that when paying tribute to dead people, it is better to not chew qat at all.
What I intended to say is that some traditions can be broken, and should be broken. The evil traditions of the past had implications and continue to have them until today. There is small consensus that those traditions must be `abandoned, but there is a growing belief that breaking such traditions is not impossible. More young Yemenis are realizing the dangers of chewing qat and are quitting it. Others are realizing the bad habit of blocking streets for marriage ceremonies. There is something going on in the background. However, seeing that change is coming is not enough, we also need to act and encourage change to happen more rapidly.
I am doing it through this column.
I am sure that many Yemenis can formulate other ways to encourage change and sponsor the belief that breaking such evil traditions is possible. And moreover, if Yemen is to progress, getting rid of such traditions is as necessary as it is inevitable.