DHAMAR PROVINCE, YEMEN — Sheikh Abdul-Wahed Al-Rabeey holds a bag of little green leaves that have been plucked fresh from the Yemeni countryside and throws generous bunches into the laps of his guests lounging on cushions in a village mafraj, an Oriental-style sitting room.
At daily chewing sessions that typically can run from 2 in the afternoon past 6 p.m. in Yemen, Sheikh al-Rabeey's guests eagerly stuff batches of raw leaves into their mouths, pushing ever- bigger wads into their cheeks until the juices produce their desired stimulating effect.
Khat, as it's known, is classified as a stimulant akin to amphetamines by the World Health Organization (WHO) and is illegal in the United States.
But on the Arabian Peninsula, and throughout East African countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, khat chewing is an ingrained part of the culture that predates coffee drinking here.
In much of the Middle East, Yemen's Muslim neighbors frown on the use of khat as a violation of the Islamic prohibition of alcohol and drugs. But not in Yemen, where khat is used more than in any other country. United Nations and Yemeni officials say khat would be the biggest cash crop in Yemen if included in the gross domestic product.
These innocuous-looking little green leaves are turning into a big drain on Yemen's economy: Productivity has plummeted in recent years, and the nation's fields now produce more khat than food. Some people in Yemen - one of the world's poorest countries - are calling for khat use to be curtailed to boost the country's development and worker health.
Others defend khat, saying the ubiquitous leaves enhance creativity and forge strong social ties. "The chewer goes through three stages of experience," Al-Rabeey tells listeners as he dispenses another round of khat. "Intellectual inspiration, cooperation, and self-reflection."
Studies by the WHO, however, have linked khat use to a number of health problems, while social scientists blame khat for causing nighttime insomnia that makes exhausted users absent or late for work the next day.
"Traditionally, it was supposed to be an innocuous habit," says Michel Granek, an Israeli psychiatrist whose clinic sees a predominantly Yemeni clientele, many of whom complain of khat-related hallucinations. "But it's not as innocuous as it seems to be."
Many fields once used for growing produce and coffee have been gradually turned over to grow lucrative khat, making Yemen more dependent on foreign food items. Yemen imports many of its necessities, like wheat flour, and UN officials estimate that some 60 percent of the country's scarce water resources are dedicated to growing khat.
Khat is a drain on other countries, too. The impoverished African nation of Djibouti, for instance, spends $24 million a year importing eight to 11 tons of khat a day from neighboring Ethiopia.
Catha edulis, as it is known in Latin, or the everpresent "Satanic tree," as one intellectual calls it, looks like an evergreen tree or bush. The plant prospers in any clime or altitude and can grow up to 23 feet high.
While some people chew as they work, in many quarters work screeches to a halt for most of the afternoon. An average worker may spend one-third of his daily wages - about $1.50 - on the habit. Top-quality khat can cost as much as $50 for a pouch the size of a small grocery bag.
Some say khat has a positive influence on Yemen. It is seen as a key factor in helping money from the cities flow back to rural areas, where a majority of Yemenis still live, keeping jobless Yemenis from flooding into the overcrowded cities. But Yemen's educated elite have long suspected that the negative effects outweigh any purported benefits.
During South Yemen's socialist era, which ended with the unification of the two Yemens in 1990, a paternalistic government tried to restrict chewing to Thursdays so that Friday, the Islamic day of rest, could be used to recuperate. Twenty-five years ago in the north, an anti-khat campaign failed miserably.
Meanwhile, the debate between chewing and not chewing is not likely to end any time soon, either on a local or regional scale. The plant is so popular in Somalia that there was an angry demonstration this fall when the price of khat tripled due to conflicting reports of increased taxes on imports and government profiteering.