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D I S P A T C H E S

+ "A Talking Drug"


From Marcela Gaviria

There is one visible difference between a Yemeni and most men in the world. Seven out of 10 men will have a protruding ball bulging out of their left cheek. It is not a physical abnormality, but a ball of qat, a mildly narcotic leaf that Yemenis have been chewing for centuries.

Taxi drivers will have bags of qat leaves next to their shift sticks. Vendors will have bags of qat next to the cash registers. Bureaucrats will keep qat next to their computers. Armed guards standing at attention outside public offices will break from holding their kalashnikov to pull more leaves out of the bag. By the time the sun comes down at six, the ball of qat will bulge so big that a Yemeni's speech becomes muddled and their smile turns bright green.

Qat is supposed to quicken the mind and liberate the tongue. A stimulant that induces banter and creativity. "It's like a talking drug," says Khaled, my translator. "Some people talk too much when they chew qat, but after a while it makes them sleepy and lazy." The crash after the high.

In Yemen, qat is not a luxury item, but an essential part of everyday life. Some Yemenis will spend a better part of their salary on these leaves and a better part of their day hoping for it to be 4 p.m. -- the time of day when and everybody retreats to attend a qat party.

It's a tradition that every Yemeni, no matter the social status or gender, relish. Women attend their own qat chews called tafritahs. Men attend maquils. Each chew is an opportunity to gossip, discuss politics, or simply catch up with ones neighbors.

Yemeni men chew qat.
Even though I am a woman, I have been invited to attend a maquil at the house of Jaruallah Omar, a prominent member of Yemen's Socialist Party. I arrive at 4 p.m. with Khaled, my translator to find that 50 pairs of sandals are already stacked outside the door.

I enter a smoky rectangular room 15 feet wide and as long as a tennis court to find over 60 men sitting on the floor, each separated by an armrest, compulsively stuffing their cheeks with qat. Each man has a large plastic bag full of qat, a silver spitoon, and a bottle of "Shamlan" brand mineral water at his feet.

They hold stems of qat branches and pluck the leaves fastidiously. The tender leaves from the top are preferred, but some men seem happy enough to put thick wide leaves into their mouths. I am told that tender qat can reach a price of up to $100 dollars a bag. But there are also bags that command the modest price of two bucks.

I am welcomed to this maquil as if I am one of the boys. I am asked to sit to the right of the host, Jaruallah, a charismatic man who is a leading figure in Yemen's Socialist Party. This is a great honor. The more important the person, the closer the get to sit next to the host.

Men gather at a daily "maquil" to chew qat and socialize.
Everybody wants me to try their qat. "Here, take mine, its of the finest quality," says one man with a red kafiyah draped over his head. Another man passes me an entire branch and adds, "You must try this one, it's more powerful."

I do as I'm told. First shake the leaves and massage them with my fingers to take away any pesticides. Then pluck, stacking the tender leaves on my lap and discarding the rest of the branch. Soon I am chewing on half a dozen leaves and pushing the mash with my tongue to the left, where the wad of sour paste is supposed to be lodged for a couple hours. It's not particularly unpleasant, a bit like chewing on blades of grass. But the damn qat activates the salivary glands, and I am soon swallowing thick gobs of green saliva.

While we chew, the conversation -- to my misfortune -- revolves around me. "Where were you born?" I tell them I was born in Colombia. "Why do you look like an American?" "Because my mother is American," I respond. I try to get in a few questions of my own, but the group, which consists of members of the Socialist Party and various professors and journalists, don't want to talk of Yemen. They want to hear about the Marxist guerrillas in my homeland. "What is their political program?" "Do you think they will get to power?" "Are they trying to form another Cuba?" I am amused that they are so interested in the plight of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, but I suppose its not surprising given that before unification, southern Yemen was a Communist state.

As we joke about how both Colombia and Yemen, have much in common -- Arabica coffee beans, coca and qat -- Faris Saddaq, a leading political analyst, rummages through a newspaper. Khaled my translator tells me that it is also a tradition to select a news item to discuss. Khaled explains that this only happens after the qat has had time to take hold, "so that the conversation will be more lively."

The article that has been chosen by Saddaq is one that was originally printed in a Jewish newspaper and has been translated and reprinted in an Arabic daily. The headline of the piece: "Why the Arab World Lags Behind Israel."

Once the piece has been read out loud, people take turns commenting. They discuss why Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, trails behind all their neighbors. One man comments that the problem is corruption. Another man says that Yemen is too insular. Another man spews a long and impassioned speech about the importance of education.

The talk goes on for hours. It happens ever day, day after day, just as it has for centuries. Work comes to a halt as Yemen stops to chew qat. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on these leaves. And half the productive workday is spent idly, stuffing cheeks.

I listen to the endless debate at the maquil, and think that Yemen's underdevelopment has a lot to do with all this qat chewing.


< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

London
(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

Pakistan
(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

Pakistan
(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

Frustrations
9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

Indomitable
23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

Yemen
(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

+ A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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