In most regards, it was a typical Yemeni wedding. Traditional music swelled and guests performed centuries-old dances. But there was a conspicuous – leafy green – absence.
The activist groom told his guests that khat, a leaf chewed in Yemen as a stimulant and social lubricant, wasn't welcome at his wedding. As the presence of no less than six camera crews from local and international television channels suggested, a khat-free wedding literally marked a newsworthy event.
In contrast to alcohol or harder drugs, khat is largely seen as a religiously acceptable indulgence in this conservative Muslim society. Many Yemenis will argue it lacks the negative social effects of whiskey or marijuana. But regardless of Yemeni society’s general toleration of the nation’s collective habit, a clamor is growing that the plant is a curse that needs to be addressed.
The warnings are years – if not decades – old. Academics have raised issue with the plant’s environmental, societal, and economic effects; even former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – a committed chewer himself – launched a brief initiative aimed at stemming its use in 1999. In recent months, a grassroots campaign has placed nearly unprecedented attention on khat’s negative effects on Yemen.
“I think of khat as [a key part of] Yemen’s social fabric. But while it maintains a degree of social cohesion, there are many drawbacks,” said Abdulaziz al-Saqqaf, a youth activist who occasionally chews. “Within a decade Sanaa will be the first world capital to run out of water – and that’s due to khat.”
Between 1970 and 2000, the amount of land set aside for khat farming increased by nearly 1200 percent. In addition to taking up valuable arable land, the cultivation of the thirsty plant – which takes up nearly 40 percent of Yemen’s water resources – is contributing to a growing water crisis that threatens to suck the country dry.
Farmers who switch from cultivating fruits and vegetables to growing khat are driven by the high profits and strong demand for the crop. While the World Health Organization does not regard khat as seriously addictive, social pressures and psychological dependence mean that even impoverished Yemenis funnel cash into the leafy narcotic. Many families devote more money to khat than than they do to food.
The latest anti-khat campaign began on Twitter by Hind al-Eryani, a Yemeni blogger based in Beirut. But the online effort has rapidly spiraled into an initiative on the ground that’s been taken up by a number of activists, largely pulled from Yemen’s educated middle-class.
A diverse group of politicians here have thrown their support behind the campaign, while a number of prominent businessmen have offered financial backing. But even if it has kicked up surprising steam, the campaign continues to face nearly insurmountable challenges in curbing the consumption of a plant many Yemenis see as innocuous.
As many as 80 percent of Yemenis chew the plant on a regular basis, and in much of the country, khat is nearly impossible to escape. It has been seen as a key accompaniment to nearly every social event – from family gatherings to kidnapping negotiations – for centuries. Many Yemenis see a taste for khat as key element of the national identity.
Each day, at the dawn of the early afternoon, the workday largely ends as Yemenis flood markets to buy the day’s ration of the leaf. By three o’clock, it’s a struggle to avoid khat’s telltale cheek-bulge – whether it is being chewed to alleviate a storekeeper’s boredom or to loosen inhibitions at high-level political and business meetings.
And while the initiative has garnered a great deal of attention among Yemen’s urban elite, Yemen’s rural majority will be key to any real attempts to wean the country off of its national addiction. In the countryside khat is both a recreational habit and an economic lifeblood.
But activists say they are aware of the long road ahead and remain optimistic that their work could eventually yield lasting effects.
“Even just to reach this point was a challenge,” says Baraa Shiban, the khat-free wedding’s groom, noting that members of his family initially threatened to boycott the event due to the ban on the plant. “But I believe the youth can make a real change here.”