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Yemenis Take a Green Leaf as Serious Pastime

Mideast: Khat chewers say it's good for the economy and their health. Critics decry addiction to the narcotic.

April 17, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ASNAF, Yemen — It's hard to know if it was the years of isolation in a remote village, or the years spent chewing on a narcotic leaf called khat, or maybe a bit of both, but Aziz Mohammed Hasben wasn't fooling around when he said the Earth must be flat.

"I believe only what I see," said Hasben, 65, his words a bit garbled by the pasty wad of green leaves tucked chipmunk-like into his cheek. "I only know north, south, east and west. I don't believe the world is like a ball."

In Hasben's universe, some things have not changed since the days when most people believed that the world was flat. His village in northern Yemen has no running water, electricity or the other public conveniences--such as sewers--generally associated with modern life. But, as has been true for generations, it does have a supply of khat--pronounced "gaht"--a shiny green leaf that grows on trees and serves as the national pastime.

And what better place to discuss the mysteries of the universe than a daily khat chew, a midafternoon Yemeni ritual that, to the outsider, looks like something between a kaffeeklatsch and a scene from a 1970s Cheech and Chong movie spoofing marijuana use. There's a lot of casual conversation, at times taken in bizarre directions by the mood-altering nature of khat.

But where Cheech and Chong got laughs, there is little amusing about khat. This is a national habit of enormous proportions. Not only is khat use legal, but nonusers are often treated as social outcasts. Soldiers frequently walk around with a weapon in one hand and a bag of khat in the other. Traffic police chew it while standing in the middle of the street. If you want to meet with the speaker of parliament, Abdullah Hussein Ahmar, better to catch up with him at his daily khat chew. (His leaves are ground and served with a spoon.) Even President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has tried to cool his people's obsession, settles in for a good chew now and then, his aides said.

"This is actually a bad habit, chewing khat," said Mohammed Kahtan, political director of Islah, the Islamic reform party, as he tucked a few of the small, basil-shaped leaves into his mouth. "It is a bad habit, but we surrender to it."

Yemenis are defensive about khat. They insist that it is not addictive and that its amphetamine-like effect is good for the economy, good for one's health, good for maintaining strong ties with family and friends. They say it energizes people.

"It's like liquor and chocolate," said Ahmed Ali Yemeni, 29, who is well educated and fluent in English. "So many people benefit from it: farms, sellers, transporters, the government. You are not forced to chew. People are more productive with khat. They work harder, they get paid more. It helps their income."

This is the majority view in a country where officials acknowledge that 70% to 90% of the 18 million people chew regularly, with many children in the countryside starting as early as age 8.

The anti-khat minority, however, sees it as a destructive addiction.

For the individual, there are negative health effects that run the gamut from indigestion and insomnia to manic behavior with grandiose delusions, the latter a real problem in a country where just about every man owns at least one firearm. Polish Ambassador Krzysztof Suprowicz, for example, said the five armed men who kidnapped him in March 2000 were chewing the leaf.

"All of them were under the influence of khat, so they were agitated," said the ambassador, who was later released unharmed.

Khat is also damaging to the broader community.

"We as a society spend 1 billion Yemeni rials [about $6 million] every day on khat. We lose more than 18 million working hours a day chewing khat," said Ahmed Jaber Afif, a former education minister who unsuccessfully tried to get the government to crack down on khat use in the 1970s. A decade ago, he founded an anti-khat organization that isn't doing too well, either: He figures that it has 100 members.

"I can't say we are successful," Afif said. "But we will not lose hope."

Yemen is a poor country, among the least developed in the world. It needs to attract investment, trade and hard currency. Though political instability and violence have been among the main reasons for Yemen's economic difficulties, khat also is a factor. The World Bank has cited estimates that khat production accounts for 25% of the gross domestic product.

"It is a major contributor to the rural economy," said James Rawley, a United Nations Development Program representative. "[But] the downsides, there are quite a few. The amount of lost time in terms of the whole khat phenomenon--it is a negative contributor to production throughout the economy."

For rich and poor, powerful and dispossessed, khat is the great equalizer. About noon, many people begin to grind their teeth and think about it. By 1 p.m. they are off to a market to pick up their stash. Khat must be chewed within 48 hours of being picked, so Yemenis shop for it the way the French shop for bread.

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