Chewing Khat/Qat

 By Lin Noueihed

Yemeni men chew qat/khat in the main qat market in Sanaa May 9, 2007.

SANAA, May 28, 2007 – Lunchtime in Sanaa. Offices begin to close, the crowds disappear from the ancient souqs, restaurants hurry their last customers out: the qat is here.

The arrival of this mildly stimulant shrub by truck from the countryside heralds the end of the working day as Yemenis settle down to chew its leaves for the next four, six or even 10 hours.

On any given afternoon, many men sit, drive or walk the streets with a tennis ball-sized wad of qat in one cheek, looking at first glance like they desperately need a dentist.

Cramming a few choice pickings into his already bulging cheeks, driver

Zayed al-Rehani, 28, swears by the stuff.

“It keeps me up 24 hours. If I am on night duty, it keeps me up,” he said, five hours into the eight-hour drive from Yemen’s southern port of Aden to the capital in the north. “I started when I was around 15 … we grow it in my village.”

Qat, or catha edulis, has become the national pastime in this poor Arab country of 19 million, but one many experts say is ravaging Yemen’s frail economy and sucking up precious water.

Demand for qat is so high and Yemenis are so inclined to spend a large chunk of their paltry incomes on it that farmers are uprooting their fruits, vegetables and coffee in favor of the popular evergreen that provides year-round profit.

Qat production has grown by more than 41 percent to 147,444 tones in the decade to 2006, according to official figures.

That makes qat Yemen’s biggest cash crop by far; just 22,002 tones of its nearest rival, cotton, were produced in 2006.

Already filling terraces across much of Yemen’s mountainous north, qat is now making inroads into the plains further south.

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