Despite conflict, demand for Qat still strong in Yemen

Craving for the mild stimulant has kept the qat trade going strong in an economy otherwise devastated by war

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Civil war may be tearing Yemen apart but every afternoon combatants set aside the struggle for the country’s future to stuff their cheeks with wads of the narcotic green leaf, qat.

The national pastime of chewing qat is one of the few certainties in a nation turned upside down by air strikes and street fighting.

From lunchtime til sunset prayers, shelling inevitably dies down and fighters from both sides put aside their Kalashnikovs to enjoy the buzz.

Craving for the mild stimulant has kept the qat trade going strong in an economy otherwise devastated by war.

Farmers rise to cut it, traders brave bombs to transport it and addicts scrape empty pockets to scoop up a bag of the soft green leaves chewed daily by millions of Yemenis. It costs between 2 to 14 dollars a bag, depending on the quality.

Three weeks of Saudi-led air strikes aimed at stemming the advance of Iranian-allied Houthi rebels have only increased Yemenis’ desire for the relaxing escape provided by qat.

Mohammed Azal, a government employee rendered idle by battles in the southern city of Aden, strolled through an abandoned street chewing on the bitter morsels and storing them into a wad bulging inside his cheek.

“In a war situation like this, with the stress and explosions, qat is the one thing in our day that can give us a bit of peace and comfort,” he slurred.

One in every seven working Yemenis is employed in producing and distributing qat, making it the largest single source of rural income and the second largest source of employment in the country after the agriculture and herding sector, exceeding even the public sector, according to the World Bank.

Offices and banks have closed, depriving residents of cash, but the qat souks still bustle with loud bargaining as war rages.

Qat is one of the only commodities still flowing into the city, as fighting has struck water and power infrastructure while scaring off suppliers of milk and meat.

Aden’s qat basket is Dhalea. Getting there these days requires a two-hour drive through a warzone contested by Shi’ite rebels, militiamen and Al Qaeda.

Nevertheless, trader Ali Muhsin al-Jahafi plies the route there and back every day.

“Every day is an adventure. Getting from here to there involves air strike, clashes, checkpoints and every kind of danger,” he said.

“God knows the trouble we face, but we cut the plant in the morning and return at night because our trade is the source of our livelihood and dignity. This plant sustains my household.”

Classified as a “drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence” by the World Health Organization, qat’s physical symptoms can include hallucinations, depression and tooth decay.

Surveys suggest that more Yemenis than ever - at least 80
percent of men, about 60 percent of women and increasing numbers of children under 10 - settle down most afternoons to chew.

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