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Kicking Yemen's qat habit

Chewing qat leaves is bad for Yemen's economy and public health, says its government. But, as Stephanie Hancock found, curbing this national pastime is an uphill task.

I had only been in the country a few minutes when I noticed a man with a gigantic growth bulging out of his cheek. The swelling was enormous, it was so bulbous it practically had its own heartbeat.

Qat on sale in a market in Sana'a
Qat chewing is a national pastime for the people of Yemen

Now I have been brought up not to stare but, feeling slightly guilty, I kept sneaking glances at this unfortunate fellow.

What an awful disease, I thought to myself and how nice that other people are not staring at him, unlike me.

I wondered whether the growth might be a tumour, or perhaps some sort of thyroid problem.

I did not want to seem rude but I quietly asked my guide, Ahmed, if perhaps this man was ill.

Ahmed, in his nonchalant manner, turned to look at the man, and gave a small laugh that suggested I was very stupid.

"Ha! That's qat," he said.

And so it was that I discovered the substance that makes Yemen tick.

Qat is a flowering plant that grows all over the Arabian peninsula, and when you chew the leaves it acts as a mild stimulant. The habit is known as qat chewing, but this is a misnomer as the teeth are not actually really involved.

The aim appears to be to stuff as many leaves as you can possibly fit into one cheek, until you resemble a lop-sided hamster, and then sort of suck on the juices.

Some people chew to give them energy to work others use it for relaxation

After a while a green foamy paste forms at your lips, and at this point, conversation is now impossible. Any important information must be communicated via grunting and pointing.

To say qat is popular in Yemen would be a massive under-statement, practically everybody in this country chews qat, two thirds of men and a third of women.

It is not elitist either, everyone from businessmen to street urchins like to indulge. Apart from a few hard-core fans, most people seem to start up after lunch, and the chewing will often go on late into the night.

Relaxation aid

Some people chew to give them energy to work others use it for relaxation. It is a common sight here to see men flaked out on pavements, gazing absent mindedly into the distance, giving total concentration to the chewing task at hand.

Map of Yemen

Qat is an integral part of life here in Yemen, but these days the government is becoming concerned about its effects and this week sounded alarm bells about qat's grip on the country.

The man behind the warning is Yemen's planning minister Abdulkarim al-Arhabi. I went to meet him in his office, where he patiently explained all the many ills qat is responsible for.

For starters, there are the health effects such as mouth cancer, he said, which is on the rise because farmers are using more insecticide.

Farmers are also now choosing to grow water-thirsty qat instead of food crops, he said, because it consistently fetches high prices.

Economic drain

The result is a major drain on water in a country suffering drought and a growing reliance on foreign food imports at a time when staple goods are more expensive than ever.

Then there is the effect on productivity, he added, with all those young people sitting around chewing qat when they could be working.

Critics of the government point out that one in three Yemenis is unemployed and chewing qat is a simple way to pass the day and keeps them away from alcohol and harder drugs.

Later I went for a look round Sanaa's lively qat market, and it is amazing to see how much money changes hands, especially for the high quality blends which can cost up to 10 a bag, and that will only last you one afternoon.

When people are chewing qat, they don't ask awkward questions about where Yemen's oil revenues are going

It made me realise that qat is a big part of the economy here.

My guide Ahmed, whose mood was always intimately linked to the size of the bulge in his cheek, is suspicious of the government's fighting talk over qat. "The government needs qat," he told me with a mouthful of green leaves. "It says it wants to stop it, but it earns lots of money from all the taxes farmers pay.

"Besides," he added, his voice dropping to a gurgled whisper, "when people are chewing qat, they don't ask awkward questions about where Yemen's oil revenues are going."

The qat plant - copyright Peter Houghton King's College London
Nobody knows what would happen if qat was taken away

And with this he hit the nail firmly on the head. Yemen has recently suffered from riots, when angry young men, unable to find work, rose up against the government.

Poverty and corruption, a faltering economy and unemployment all linked and all related in some way back to qat.

It might be causing problems for this country, but nobody is quite sure what would happen if you took qat away.

As one trader told me as he hawked his goods for sale in the market: "Qat is the key to peace in Yemen. Nobody would be stupid enough to meddle with that."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 2 August, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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30 Apr 08 |  Country profiles
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