Yemen qat ban breathes new life into Aden
Aden // The ban on qat in Aden has transformed the city with some men now taking their families for picnics and walks instead of sitting outside their homes, eyes glazed and cheeks puffed up with wads of the narcotic leaf.
Authorities in southern Yemen banned the sale of qat on week days in May, citing “security, social and health” concerns. Qat is now only sold on Thursdays and Fridays — the Yemeni weekend.
Chewing qat is Yemen’s national pastime, and men traditionally spend several hours everyday chewing the mild stimulant. Qat is also a huge industry in Yemen, providing employment and an income to many people in rural provinces.
However, the scale of usage and the social and health effects take a severe toll on Yemeni society.
Saleh Salem, 50, a receptionist at the Al Thaibani hotel in Aden, used to spend 2,000 Yemeni Riyals (Dh30) each day on qat. After the ban came into effect, he used that money for picnics with his family among other things.
“Qat used to take most of my time and there were many problems with me and my wife because of qat,” Mr Salem said.
He said he found more time on his hands after the qat ban, and started spending time with his family instead.
“I now go out to the beach with my family,” he said, adding that “many people welcomed the ban of qat”.
The World Health Organisation has classified qat as a “drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence”. Chewing qat can lead to physical symptoms such as hallucinations, depression and tooth decay.
When the ban came into effect, Mr Salem suffered withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and irritability.
He eventually turned to other alternatives such as going for walks with his family in the evenings.
Ali Abdulhabeeb, 47, an accountant with a local company, used to work in the mornings only, preferring to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening chewing qat. When the ban started, he decided to work full-time from 9am to 6pm.
“My life completely changed, and I could order my life in a better way, as I began earning more money and spending less, as there was no qat [to spend on],” Mr Abdulhabeeb said.
Pro-government forces barred hundreds of vehicles carrying qat from entering Aden on May 16, after discovering explosive devices and weapons being smuggled by extremist groups who hid them under large bundles of qat leaves, said security chief Nabil Al Mashawshi, whose forces control the check points into Aden.
“The security forces in Aden will continue to impose the ban, as the main aim is to impose the ban in all the liberated provinces,” Mr Al Mashawshi said.
He said there had been hundreds of qat-related crimes recently in the months leading up to the ban.
“That is why we will work hard to uproot this tree,” he said.
According to the World Bank, 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, exceeding even the public sector.
Mr Al Mashawshi said that eradicating qat should be everyone’s responsibility. He said people need to be aware of its dangers, and that the government has to support farmers and help them plant new crops instead of qat.
In addition to the social and security benefits of the ban, roads near the qat markets used to be clogged with traffic but the congestion has eased.
Khalil Bamashmoos, 44, a taxi-driver, said: “There used to be traffic jam near to the qat markets, but now it has reduced, so I thank the authority for the ban.”
Qat sellers, however, are angry at the government’s decision and have called for authorities to retract the ban.
“The decision of the ban is unfair [to us] as we do not have alternative work to make a living to support our families,” complained Khalid Abdulqawi, 27, a qat seller from Al Dhale.
He now sells qat in his province of Al Dhale for half the price it used to fetch in Aden.
*With additional reporting from Reuters