A Qat-free wedding
The other day I was invited to a wedding - not a normal Yemeni wedding - but a wedding without Qat! This was a novelty I was keen on witnessing, but was unfortunately unable to accept the invitation as I was travelling outside the country at the time. I was, and remain, intrigued.
This small, baby step is a demonstration of the “New Yemen”. In 2011, younger Yemenis, like others across the Arab World, took to the streets to demand better government and a better future with jobs and dignity for all. The revolution is now evolving and is no longer confined to economic and political demands. A social and cultural focus is emerging too; as seen in the growing number of Yemenis voicing their opinions about Qat and demanding an end to the habit.
Ever since I came to Yemen in January 2012, people have been asking me what I thought about Qat, and whether I had ever tried chewing it. My answer on whether I have ever tried it is a categorical ‘no.’ I never have and never will. My thoughts on Qat are much more complicated.
Chewing Qat is a tradition in Yemen, like smoking shisha in the rest of the Arab world. It is a tradition that once served to strengthen the bonds of family and friendship. Families would gather on a Thursday afternoon (only one afternoon a week) to chew Qat, spend time together, and enjoy each other’s company and conversation. Unfortunately, this cultural experience has gradually been replaced by the daily chew. Chewing became a habit and ended up as an addiction. Those who chew tell me that they have to chew every day! Otherwise, they feel dizzy and by the afternoon, they can no longer focus. What else can we call this sort of physical dependency, other than addiction?
Daily chewing causes harm to individuals, families, and the nation. As for individuals, people find it difficult to eat or sleep after chewing, which means they are not well rested or fully productive the following day. Also, the percentage of cancer cases has substantially increased, which some attribute to the pesticides used in growing Qat and daily chewing. As for families, many households spend around 15 percent of their income on Qat. This is higher than the total amount spent on the health and education of their children. Household funds spent on Qat means less money for food, which has all too often left children malnourished.
As for the nation, the cultivation of Qat consumes large amounts of precious water, eating into scarce reserves. The aquifer In the Sana’a basin that supplies the capital is being depleted at an alarming rate. Some experts predict that the water in the Sana’a basin may run out within the next 10 years, if there are no serious efforts to slow the depletion rate. Qat also indirectly affects overall productivity by shortening working hours. Government and private sector employees leave their work places early to rush to the Qat market and spend the rest of the day chewing with friends. Many counter that Qat also delivers benefits. It employs a large number of people (with some estimates that around 10-20 percent of the work force are employed in Qat production and distribution). This may be true. But, if you weigh the costs and benefits, the costs by far outweigh the benefits. These benefits could also be achieved with the diversification of agricultural production. Growing fruits and vegetables locally could reduce the bill for imported food, thus reducing the pressure on much needed foreign reserves.
So, is chewing Qat a problem? It most definitely is a problem. Yemenis no longer use it in the old, traditional way. It could, however, return to being the authentic cultural experience it once was. Yemenis need only to go back to their tradition, and chew Qat on Thursday afternoons only, making it a family time, where everyone spends time together- a quality, get-together family time!
Can the government do something about it? Yes, they definitely can! I would challenge the leadership of the nation, starting with the President, Prime Minister, parliamentarians, and ministers, to lead by example, and declare that they will only chew Qat on Thursday afternoons. It could also be made illegal for government officials, including security forces, to chew Qat during working hours. Working hours could also be extended to 3 o’clock, as it was in the past. These new rules should be strictly enforced by the government. Civil society and the private sector should match this commitment, and the international community should encourage it. Only then will I go to a Thursday afternoon gathering, a ‘Majlis.’ I would welcome the chance to enjoy the family and friends time, but would still not chew Qat!