For Imam Yahya, one of the last kings of Yemen, qat was a delight, something to be praised in his poems. For his adversary, the revolutionary Mohammed al-Zubayri, the plant was "the devil in the shape of a tree."
That hardy tree -- famed among farmers for its drought resistance and whose leaves, when chewed, act as a psychoactive stimulant -- is today an integral part of Yemeni life. On average, 72 percent of Yemeni men chew the bitter leaves of the qat plant. The qat sector provides employment for one in every seven working Yemenis. The income qat provides allows many to remain in their rural hometowns instead of drifting into the cities to seek work. In some highland districts, over 90 percent of farmers are involved in qat agriculture.
Social life in Yemen revolves around qat. It is an accepted habit across all strata of society. Even afternoon sessions in the ministries or the consultative assembly are accompanied by chewing. Qat relaxes the chewer and helps stimulate mutual understanding and companionship. But there are also heavy social pressures to chew: Yemenis who might wish to abstain, for financial, family, or health reasons, fear exclusion and loss of respect.
Over the years I have observed how the chewing habit has proliferated in southern Yemen, in areas like Hadramawt, al-Mahrah, the Socotra Archipelago, where it was banned prior to the country's 1990 unification. I saw how the habit took hold of the coastal population and then slowly crept up the wadis to the herders of the highlands, how it spread from soldiers to fishermen, from traders to farmers, from adults to adolescents, and from husbands to wives. I watched how qat ravaged these regions' unique culture and how it changed social customs and society, how traditional leisure pursuits disappeared and how values and ethics have become diluted.
I have known Yemen for 20 years, have taken part in innumerable qat chews, and have interviewed several thousand people on the qat issue. For me, the leaves of the qat tree are not a narcotic drug. I hold the firm belief, however, that they are much more than the "mild social stimulant" to which literature so often refers. In my book, Politics of Qat -- The Role of a Drug in Ruling Yemen, I argue that qat is a potent social drug, holding Yemen and Yemeni life firmly in its grip.