Qat culture permeates non-Yemeni youths in Sana’a [Archives:2008/1130/Reportage]

February 18 2008

Haitham Mohammed
For Yemen Times

For 23-year-old Mazen Abu Watfa, chewing the mild narcotic qat helps him study hard and better understand his lessons. Having previously worked in Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian young man now is a student at a private Yemeni university in Sana'a.

Abu Watfa admits that he's become addicted to qat, chewing it for 16 hours nonstop during exams. He notes that his Yemeni friends convinced him to start chewing.

“[Qat] is a blessing and a curse at the same time,” Abu Watfa observes, “It's a blessing because students who chew it don't think about doing anything else, so their thoughts are limited to studying and how to achieve higher marks.”

However, he says qat also is a curse because it's both expensive and it negatively affects chewers' health. “I don't like anyone to see me chewing qat other than my friends,” he admits.

It's common knowledge that many foreigners from all over the Arab world live in Yemen. Although they may have cultural differences from each other and from Yemenis, they set aside these differences to join their Yemeni friends in the afternoon qat chew. Thus, qat no longer is just a popular activity for Yemeni youths, but for most Arab youths living in Yemen to spend their leisure time.

Whereas other Arab countries have lush public gardens, entertainment venues and theaters, Yemen lacks such places or, when found, they are filled to capacity with crowds. Additionally, such entertainment venues are open only for a limited time, from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., with more than 200 visitors to each place.

Mohammed Abdul-Rahman, a 27-year-old Syrian national living in Yemen and working as an omnibus driver for Al-Rowaishan Company, has chewed qat for six years, having taken it up during his vacations from work because he couldn't find anything else to do. Unable to find any place to relax with his family or anywhere with suitable entertainment, he now spends most of his leisure time at the Ali Baba, an entertaintment club for males.

Abdul-Rahman also claims that chewing qat has helped him earn Al-Rowaishan's “best driver” prize twice, attributing his success to qat because it keeps him calm yet full of energy.

Fun City, Hawaii , New Land, Ali Baba Club, Faraah Land, Fridays, Gulf Nights and Funny Bunny are some of the only places young people in Sana'a wish to spend their leisure time because in such places, they can play billiards, video games and table tennis, among other activities, such as smoking shisha.

However, such venues also can stir up fights caused by harassment and/or mockery of appearance, hair style or clothing, which youths often discuss while there.

Many Arab foreigners say they resort to chewing qat because there are very few entertainment venues, such as theaters. In Sana'a alone, there's only one cinema, which only shows Indian movies. For this reason, as Abdul-Rahman explained, youths are obliged to purchase movies on DVD, mostly watching American and new Arabic movies.

Coming to Yemen in 2003 following Iraq's occupation, 25-year-old Iraqi youth Omar Al-Ubaidi recounts that he became acquainted with some Yemenis and after forming relationships with them, he discovered that one of them had a revenge killing issue.

Having heard how such issues can be resolved in Yemen, Al-Ubaidi decided to go and see for himself, but his Yemeni friend told him he could only attend the session where the revenge killing would be resolved if he chewed qat and dressed in traditional Yemeni clothing. At the same time, his friend pointed out that it was a good chance for Al-Ubaidi to try qat and judge for himself what he thought about it.

So, Al-Ubaidi decided to take up his friend's challenge and discovered that qat distracted him from constantly worrying about the bad news related to his relatives in Iraq.