I found Yemen a difficult place to love when I first stepped ashore. With the beauty of the desolate marsas of Sudan and Eritrea behind us I found Aden an industrial mess. After spending some time there and traveling around, especially to Arab Town, I began to understand it a bit better. Some of the people we met were wonderful. But the problem I had with Yemen was qat.
Qat, which is pronounced somewhere in between ‘gat’ and ‘cat’, is a narcotic plant sold legally across Yemen. Before Yemen united it was a problem contained within the north, which is where the plant is harvested, but with the influx of money from the south after Yemen’s unity, qat has become a growing problem across the whole country.
Qat is very definitely apparent wherever you go. It works like this: Yemen goes to work in the morning; wages are spent down the qat market at lunchtime; the leaves are chewed; then the rest of the day is spent lounging around in iron beds, up alley ways or on street corners, completely monged. Sadly it isn’t just the adults that indulge as we saw many young boys off their heads as well. They start young. We have it on good authority that the women do it too, but in the privacy of their own home of course.
You can’t miss a man on qat. One side of his face is a huge bulge, as he chomps and digests the bright green leaves inside one cheek. The bigger one’s cheek, the higher the respect it seems. Some Yemenis have very stretched and baggy cheeks when not chewing. Anyone chewing qat can’t quite speak properly, not just because their mouth is full of fluorescent foliage but also because they’re not quite with it.
Our guide, Selim, would frequently joke that whilst the Americans made it to the moon, many a Yemeni has traveled further whilst on qat. “Americans only made it to the moon. He is flying to the sun” he’d laugh, pointing at some space cadet sitting on a rug in the corner of a shop.
Selim was quite possibly the nicest person Liz and I have ever had the pleasure to meet. He doesn’t chew qat as he has a family to support and a taxi to maintain. “The problem with qat is that you go to the market and it’s qat first, food second. You should be buying food for your children but they spend half their money on qat”.
I’m for the controlled legalisation of drugs and all that but this qat issue is a serious problem because it is so wide-spread. I even had a chat with a dealer (it’s captured on the podcast) who explained that every country has its “problem. Some countries have whiskey, some have hasheesh and in some countries it is beer. We have qat. Qat is our problem”. And this was a dealer telling me this!
The fact is Yemen shuts down after midday. Even shops that stay open are difficult to negotiate. Shop keepers are slow to respond and are distant. The rest of the population pull up a bed in the middle of the street, sit cross-legged with their mates and chew. If you want anything done in Yemen, get it done in the morning!
In the next post I’ll tell you about ‘Crazy Place’, a very unique experience that a few of us were privileged to witness…