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  Khat-Chewing Yemen Told to Break Ancient Habit
Posted by FoM on September 19, 1999 at 11:12:14 PT
By John F. Burns 
Source: New York Times SANA, Yemen
About 1,000 years after acquiring the habit, the people in the corner of the Arabian Peninsula that forms Yemen have never been more hooked.

More than cigarettes, more than the illicit whisky found in many middle-class households, more than the mouthwatering kebabs and roasted Red Sea fish that are the favored fare in the bazaars, what holds this devout Muslim nation of 16 million people in thrall is the mildly narcotic effect that comes from chewing the tender green leaves known as khat (pronounced GAHT).

Surveys show that more Yemenis than ever -- at least 80 percent of men, about 60 percent of women and increasing numbers of children under 10 -- settle down on most afternoons to a habit that ancient scripts recorded among merchants and religious mystics as early as the 10th century. Plucking the choicest leaves off a bundle of khat branches, aficionados chew relentlessly into the evening, until the keenest of them have tennis-ball-sized gobs of leaves in their cheeks, and the appearance of glassy-eyed Popeyes.

In a country where many people live off incomes of $100 a month or less, some of the poorest families cheerfully admit to spending 50 percent of their earnings on khat. The government acknowledges that 40 percent of the country's irrigated farming land is given over to growing khat shrubs and trees.

In the past 20 years, khat, known to plant biologists as Catha edulis, has become Yemen's major cash crop, bringing five times the earnings from coffee and 25 times those from cereals like corn.

In the bazaars behind the ancient battlements of Sana, the capital, just about everybody chews -- spice merchants seated behind baskets piled high with saffron and cardamom, thickly bearded craftsmen forging blades for the curved daggers Yemeni men carry on their belts, pharmacists, silversmiths, cobblers, men roasting shish kebabs and fish, even beggars. More than a pleasure, it is a matter of pride, central to the Yemeni's sense of himself.

"It's our whisky!" one man cried. Another, winking mischievously as he chewed, said, "It is what gives us our power!"

A government official, plastic-wrapped khat branches under his arm, joined the debate. "Without khat, Yemen is nothing!" he said. His wife, only her eyes showing through the black veil worn by all women outdoors, added, "It is the flower of paradise."

So it was all the bolder of President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- or more quixotic, as some Yemenis believe -- to begin a campaign in the spring to stamp out the habit. Long a keen khat chewer himself, given to presiding over lengthy councils of state that are simultaneously khat-chewing sessions, Saleh denounced the leaf as "a social evil," and urged his countrymen to adopt more productive pursuits.

The 57-year-old Yemeni leader suggested that khat-chewing time be devoted instead to sports or learning. Newspapers chipped in with photographs of Saleh swimming, riding an exercise bicycle and taking computer lessons.

None mentioned what happened to the last anti-khat campaign, in 1972. The prime minister, Mohsin Al-Aini, forbade khat-chewing by public servants in working hours and banned its cultivation on lands run by state-controlled religious trusts. Three months later, Al-Aini lost his job.

After 21 years in power, Saleh seems more secure. On Sept. 23, in the first direct presidential election ever held on the Arabian Peninsula, he is expected to romp to a new five-year term. Even the main opposition group, the conservative Islamist-leaning Islah party, or Congregation for Reform, has endorsed Saleh, bowing to his popularity as the man who unified the two separate nations of the Yemen -- the conservative north under Saleh, and the formerly Marxist south -- in a 1994 war.

But if Yemeni voters like him, Saleh appears less convincing to them as khat-chewers. In the bazaars, mention of his anti-khat campaign brings guffaws.

At a khat-chewing session in his Sana mansion, the Islah party leader, Sheik Abdullah Hussain Al-Akhmar, who is speaker of Yemen's parliament, was similarly dismissive. "The president preaches what he doesn't practice," he said. "After all those fine words, he's still chewing khat."

Still, khat is no joke to Yemenis who see it as the country's main scourge. Mohammed Al-Saidi, an American-educated economist who heads the country's water authority, has founded his own anti-khat society.

For one thing, he says, the proliferation of khat plantations, to keep pace with one of the Arab world's fastest-growing populations, is rapidly exhausting reserves of ground water. In Sana, many homes have running water only one day in five, and in some provincial centers tap-water is a thing of the past.

Saidi is blunter still about khat's effects on Yemenis' work habits, seeing it as one reason why Yemen is one of the 20 poorest countries in the world.

"In the West," he said, "you work 9 to 5. We claim to work from 8 to 2, but many people knock off by 12 noon to be sure to get to the khat markets while they can buy the freshest leaves. So we lose at least four hours work every day, and if we continue like that, we'll stay poor forever."

The World Bank and Yemen's Health Ministry have asked European experts to prepare new khat studies with a view to sorting myth from reality. Yemenis say chewing gives them energy, helps them concentrate, improves sexual potency, and acts as a social lubricant, drawing people together for daily discussions; they compare its narcotic effects with nicotine, and contrast it with the hard drugs used widely in the West. In fact, they say, khat's prevalence may be one reason why Yemen has virtually no reported cocaine or heroin abuse.

Western accounts, some dating back to the 18th century, have offered a starkly contrasting view, saying that khat induces torpor, melancholy, impotence, constipation and insomnia, as well as drawing men and women away from their families.

Recent medical studies have suggested a link to an increasing incidence of cancers of the stomach and esophagus, as well as lymphoma, among Yemenis, but early signs are that this may be due to chemical fertilizers on the leaves rather than khat itself.

While new studies are pending, some Yemenis suggest that Westerners suspend judgment. Among other things, they note that the West's first encounter with coffee came when 15th-century European traders tasted what Arabs call kahwa at the port of Mocha, on Yemen's Red Sea coast. At the time, kahwa and khat, in drink form, were equally popular in Mocha as stimulants, but traders took kahwa to Europe instead of khat because coffee beans were easier to transport than perishable khat leaves.

"So, don't be too quick to judge," said one Yemeni khat-chewer. "But for that, you wouldn't be drinking coffee now, you'd be chewing khat like us."

September 19, 1999
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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