Chewing the 'qat' in Yemen has long been practiced as a silent switching off and legitimate unwinding activity -- but now the ritual is being increasingly incorporated into the regular day whether to engage in politics and debate or during work.
The economic crisis in Yemen has driven up the price of most basic needs. Yemenis are suffering more and more from a lack of fuel, electricity, cooking gas, water and some food items. However, there are indications that the one thing that has not been affected by the crisis is qat consumption.
The qat markets are still crowded with customers. The number of qat buyers has even increased in the ‘Change Squares’ and some street corners.
Omar Al-Khateeb, general manager of a travel company, told the Yemen Times that everything has been affected in Yemen except qat. He said that that fuel, food, water and other basic needs are scarcer and more expensive in Yemen. He continued: “The strange thing is that qat wasn’t included in our economic crisis. It’s available in all the markets and its price is stable.”
Before the economic crisis, Al-Khateeb used to work full-time and wasn’t chewing qat. Now he is working part-time and chews qat for the rest of the day.
“I was preventing my employees from chewing qat during full-time work, but recently I resorted to chewing qat every day. I have to chew qat these days because there are no alternatives. Everybody around me chews qat,” he said.
Dr. Mokhtar Noman confirmed that qat consumption has increased and added that the rituals of chewing qat have changed.
“The chewers of qat used to be silent but now they are discussing and arguing about the political and economic situation,” he said. “They have become more active.”
One of the qat sellers in Al-Daeri St. said that qat consumption has neither increased or decreased in the current situation.
“I have specific customers and almost all of them come regularly to buy qat. As you see, the movement in the qat market is still strong,” he said.
Khaleel Al-Haimi, who works in public relations, said that the economic crisis has forced people to stop chewing qat and kept them busy finding food and basic requirements for their families.
“I used to chew expensive qat everyday, but now I barely chew it each week due to the changing circumstances. I cannot afford to buy qat everyday now due to the sudden price increases,” said Al-Haimi.
“I’d rather provide food for my family than buy qat,” he added. “It’s crazy to continue chewing qat in these harsh conditions.”
Before the uprising, several organizations and foundations were established with the aim of fighting qat consumption, but they have no programs at this time. Khattab Al-Hemiary, media officer for the Al-Najat Foundation for Fighting Qat, said that the current crisis made Yemenis turn to qat.
“They resort to chewing qat to forget their problems and waste their time. Unfortunately, qat has became their ‘close friend’,” said Al-Hemiary.
Al-Hemiary said that the crisis has created psychological pressures on most Yemenis, and they have resorted to qat to forget their problems and concerns.
“It’s no solution to escape to qat to forget your problems. On the contrary, qat exacerbates the problems of people and makes them more disappointed,” he added.
Al-Hemiary indicated that the Al-Najat Foundation tried to raise awareness among protesters of the damage qat causes, but without success.
“The foundation has stopped its activities because the protesters are not willing to quit qat, and are not willing to take part in any program concerned in fighting qat,” he explained.
According to Al-Hemiary, the protesters have a deep conviction that qat keeps protesters at the sit-ins and makes them more steadfast.
“The justifications of the those chewers are not logical,” he said. “We should build a new Yemen without qat.”
Al-Hemiary is trying hard to convince people around him to quit qat. He tries to show them the dangers of chewing qat, including poisoning from the pesticides used on qat plants.
By Sadeq Al-Wesabi