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Culture : Yemen Ritual Gives You Something to Chew On : Imagine a country where most everyone, from shoe sellers to politicians, is stoned the entire afternoon. Welcome to the land of qat.

June 23, 1992|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANA, Yemen — Abdul Hamid stuffed the yellow Mercedes into second gear, hit the gas and flung the car out into opposing traffic, eyeing the oncoming flatbed truck nonchalantly. "We will go now," he announced quietly, as if the past half hour of traveling hadn't really been going but merely driving--or what passes for driving when the driver has his face full of a green narcotic leaf called qat.

The Mercedes, magically repelling the truck, pulled back into line and sped on past the outskirts of Aden and into an arid heartland of rocky peaks, rippled dunes and endless skies where gas is cheap and qat is king.

Steaming up the narrow thread of highway, Abdul Hamid kept stuffing more leaves into his mouth and advising his passengers in the back how to time their qat highs. "You must do it in stages, step by step," he advised. "More road, more qat . Don't stop yet."

Imagine a country of 14 million people, the majority of whom spend every day between 2 and 6 in the afternoon completely stoned, whose chief agricultural product is the squat green tree that produces the mesmerizing leaves, whose poverty-ravaged populace spends a third to a half of their family income every day at noon at the qat market.

There is probably nothing which brings together Yemenis--religious northerners and secular southerners, rival tribesmen from the hills around Marib, free marketers and Communists, Nasserites and Baathists, bankers and shoe sellers--more pervasively than this culture of qat .

When President Ali Abdullah Saleh held closed-door meetings with political party leaders during the recent holy month of Ramadan to work out a deal on the upcoming elections, the discussions were held during a series of ritual qat chews that are as much a part of Yemeni political and business life as the three-martini lunch once was in America.

Friends meet after the noonday meal in a specially designated room of soft pillows and Oriental rugs--men in one room, women in another--to smoke water pipes, talk and share well-tended bags of qat .

Strolling around downtown Sana in the afternoon, virtually every man on the street has a hamster-like wad in his cheek. Merchants chew in the backs of their stores. Women partake under the protection of opaque black veils.

"Qat is our whiskey," explained a Yemeni writer, moments after refusing a dinner invitation because he was still too high from his afternoon chew to eat. "The problem is the working hours in Yemen. You finish work at 1:00, and really, there is nothing in this country to do in the afternoon. Nothing except chew qat . "

Qat , which has been described as a mild cross between opium and cocaine, at first produces a feeling of quiet euphoria followed, within a few hours, by a rush of energy that is much of what animates a Yemeni afternoon.

"After qat , I can wash my car, I can clean my room, I can do anything!" explained a young Sana hotel clerk who enthusiastically launched into the subject after spying small telltale bits of green leaves between the teeth of a guest.

Incredibly, this leaf is the engine that drives much of the internal economy of Yemen. Local economists and foreign diplomats estimate that up to two-thirds of the country's cultivable land is planted with qat , and Yemenis spend an estimated $2 million a day buying it.

"It takes up a large proportion of the income of the poor, and people are incapacitated for half the day and never do anything. But I think in some ways qat is actually a positive phenomenon," said a Western diplomat who admits to having made an extensive personal study.

"An overwhelming amount of land is devoted to its cultivation, and it keeps a large number of people in the villages who might otherwise, as in other areas, end up migrating to the cities. Yemen hasn't seen the migration to the cities of other Third World countries. The network of production and distribution is quite sophisticated, and if it could ever be applied to something other than qat , Yemen might suddenly find itself in a much better economic condition than it's in."

Much of the land that used to be devoted to exportable cash crops like coffee--Yemeni coffee, shipped from the famous old port of Mocha, is among the best in the world--now is planted with qat . Devotees say qat is easier to grow and more lucrative, and in any case it springs easily to life on the rocky terraces of north Yemeni mountains.

Since northern Yemen's unification with the south two years ago, the phenomenon has swept southward, where the former Communist regime had banned qat chewing except on weekends. But now, many Yemenis are trying to reverse the trend, saying maybe the former southern regime had it right: Yemenis, they say, spend too much time chewing qat and too little time doing much of anything else.

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