Chewing Qat Blamed for Yemen's Poverty By PAUL GARWOOD, Associated Press Writer Wed Nov 30, 4:34 AM ET SAN'A, Yemen - The writer winked conspiratorially, shifted the golf ball-sized bulge in his left cheek and tapped his temple gently. "Qat is good for the mind. I can't stop writing once I start. But the next morning I read what I wrote and tear it up straight away," chuckled 35-year-old Hatem Bamohriz, nibbling yet another leaf of the mild narcotic. To many government and aid officials, qat has ceased to be funny: Yemen's government is making another push to cut the use of the rubbery green leaf with amphetamine-like qualities that is blamed for many of this country's ills, from widespread poverty to growing health problems. But there is little progress. Up to 90 percent of Yemeni men are now believed to chew qat daily, and growing numbers of women and children are also chewing, the World Bank says. "Qat is a disease, and I hope for the day that they'll take it away," said Samra Shaibani, spokeswoman for the World Bank, a leading anti-qat campaigner. "But if they do, there would be a revolution because the people have little else and rely on it so much." Qat is a centuries-old social custom that stimulates mental activity, long conversations and tall tales in this tribal-dominated nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Qat chewing is ubiquitous — as common in Yemen as wearing a curved dagger on the belt. Historical records show qat in regular use in the 15th century when Sufi Muslims — a deeply mystical sect — chewed the qat leaves during prayer and meditation. As time passed, ordinary Yemenis increasingly took up the practice at special celebrations. But now, many experts have come to believe it's at the root of Yemen's 40 percent unemployment rate, its status as the poorest country in the Middle East and its growing national health problems. Critics blame qat for everything from the country's low economic productivity to excessive water use to irrigate the qat crop. Some blame it for eating disorders and high cholesterol rates. "Qat is the No. 1 socio-economic problem of the country," said Khaled al-Shaq, a communication officer for the United Nations Development Project in Yemen. "It manifests all the frustrations of Yemen." Under intense international pressure to improve its ailing economy, Yemen's government released a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper recently that targeted qat, particularly as a waste of precious water. In the San'a region alone, nearly three times as much water goes to qat production as is consumed by the population. Government leaders from President Ali Abdullah Saleh on down also have announced they have given up the habit, hoping others will follow their example. But many complain that Yemeni authorities are not committed to combatting qat because the crop is such a moneymaker for senior officials and influential tribal leaders. "Yemenis always avoid talking about it, because behind it is a big group of people running qat businesses and making millions," said Dr. Hashim el-Zain, country director for the U.N.'s World Health Organization. So far, there is little progress. At about 1 p.m. each afternoon, most Yemeni men stop work, scour crammed street-side markets for the choicest bundles of qat and meet friends in cushion-filled salons or on grubby street corners for their daily chew. The plant is grown and used legally in Yemen, where its production is a major source of employment and income — particularly for powerful tribes with vast tracts of land. Many farmers tilling the terraced plots, carved into towering mountainsides or on flat, humid coastal plains, grow it instead of food crops. Nothing else is in such great demand or can be harvested year round, making it a good cash crop for farmers, said 44-year-old British writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who has lived in Yemen since 1982 and chews qat daily. What's more, Mackintosh-Smith said, qat cultivation eases the population strain on major cities by keeping farmers in the countryside. Beyond that, old habits — despite the hardships they may cause — hang on stubbornly at the languorous tip of the Saudi peninsula. "I have been chewing qat since I was 15," said Sheik Abdul Ghani Mahfouz Shamili, a 61-year-old San'a trader. "If I have work, maybe I won't chew. But if I have no work, what else can I do but sleep and chew qat."