Poor Yemenis seek nirvana with narcotic leaf [Archives:2004/721/Last Page]

March 18 2004
Photo from archived article: photos/721/lastpage1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/721/lastpage1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/721/lastpage1_2
Photo from archived article: photos/721/lastpage1_2
By Ghaida Ghantous
SANAA, March 14 (Reuters) – A group of young Yemenis throng outside a small market around midday to buy bushels of the mild narcotic qat for an afternoon of mastication and relaxation.
Mohamed Awadi, 20, spends nearly half his monthly salary to indulge in the long chewing sessions, a centuries-old tradition practiced by both ordinary people and top government officials in the poor Arab state.
“Qat is relaxing. It takes me out into space,” said Awadi who spends at least 15,000 rials ($83) each month on the branches of bitter green and reddish-brown leaves.
Qat lovers seek what they call “kaif”, a state of heightened perception and emotion achieved after hours of chewing.
After taking the plastic-wrapped branches from the market sellers, dressed in the traditional shirt and lungi with the jambiya dagger tied at their waists, the men head out for a hearty lunch to bolster themselves for the chewing sessions.
They take place in a small room or diwan, scented with incense and kept warm to enhance the effect of the drug. Often a hookah pipe is placed in the middle for those who want to smoke tobacco too.
Lounging on low mattresses with the bags of qat next to them, the men pluck the softest leaves and push them into one cheek, where they are ground into a growing wad the juices from which are absorbed into the bloodstream.
Bottles of water are placed on small tables to combat the dehydrating effects of qat, which contains chemicals similar in effect to amphetamines, which raise blood pressure and body temperature as well as releasing adrenaline.
Despite the bulging cheeks, conversation is lively as jokes are swapped and the pile of discarded leaves and twigs grows and adrenaline builds in the first few hours.
But when “kaif” arrives, the mood becomes introspective and this is the time to play soft, romantic music.
“You ponder life and plan your future and when you wake all you are left with is empty talk,” said 21-year-old Fouad, who is studying computer science at an American institute.
He chews qat daily and spends 20,000 riyals a month or two-thirds of his allowance on the habit. “It helps me study,” he said, as other students at the market nodded in agreement.
The gatherings, at which politics and business are discussed and contacts made, are growing in popularity among young people and women despite official efforts to reduce its consumption.

Lucrative trade
Qat is an expensive habit in a country where, according to a World Bank official, per capital income is $500, the poor account for 42 percent of the 18.5 million population, unemployment is around 11 percent and under-employment is 25 percent.
There are concerns that qat is reducing productivity with the vast majority of the workforce retreating for a four-hour qat break in the afternoon. There are also fears that the water-intensive crop is depleting scarce water resources.
There have been some efforts to curtail its usage. The state banned qat in government offices, the military and the national airline. In 1999, it was announced that President Ali Abdullah Saleh had given up the habit.
But the campaign to wean the population off qat has not been very successful. Not only is it a popular pastime, it is also a very lucrative trade.
Ali al-Jaradi, 43, said he makes between 40,000 and 50,000 rials a day from selling qat. The price ranges between 200 and 1,000 rials a bundle in markets in Sanaa, depending on the quality of the leaves and on rainfall.
Shawqi, a taxi driver, manages to bring in only 30,000 rials each month by working 12 hours a day.
The stimulant, which is also prized in the Horn of Africa, is also smuggled across the border into Saudi Arabia, where it is illegal.
“Qat is a major problem,” said Nadir Mohammed, senior economist at the World Bank office in Sanaa. “It is a water-intensive plant which is depleting water resources and national productivity.”
“They dig 700 metres (2,300 feet) for wells. They are not prepared to do that for any other crop, but qat pays money,” he added.
Yemen has only 130 cubic metres of water per person per year. According to government statistics, qat uses up as nearly 80 percent of the water supply in some parts of the country.
Experts say the problem requires a major reduction campaign offering farmers an alternative.
Officials are also concerned about the effect of qat on health, especially that of children in the absence of laws regulating the drug. Pesticides are used in cultivation and the side-effects include lack of appetite and insomnia.
Mohamed Hatta, like many, ignores the critics. “It brings you kaif,” he said.