Abdullah al Areeqi spends most afternoons in the back seat of his Toyota pickup truck, hawking plastic baggies of green leaves in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a. Pouches dangle from the truck’s ceiling and cluster in his lap; still more are stacked in the bed behind him. He haggles over the price with all of his customers, who take the leaves and shove them deep into their cheeks. Throughout the day, they’ll nurse their golf ball-size bulges while working, lounging, fighting—just about anything except eating and praying.
Abdullah is one of the millions of informal qat (also “khat”) workers in Yemen, a country where roughly 90 percent of all men and over half of women use qat. Many can be seen in a typical qat-chewing pose: the lean. Deliverymen recline in the trunks of their cars, carpenters back into unfinished dressers, seed salesmen nestle into their bags of grain, all aiming to control the spit the chewing produces. As they lean, qat’s amphetamine-like effects kick in. Workers say it gives them power to push through long hours, and many people use it to smooth the awkward edges of social gatherings.
“Qat helps you focus,” Abdullah explains from inside his truck-turned-shop in Tahrir, the main commercial square of Sana’a. “When you need to do one task at a time and work hard on it, qat is great for that.”
Qat is far more than a physical stimulant. The leaf is propelling the black market economy in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Vendors typically sell billions of riyals worth of leaves—or millions of US dollars—across the country each day; this number doesn’t include money made by other links in the supply chain, like village workers who pick the leaves and tribesmen who truck them from farm to market.
A growing number of Yemenis and international groups, however, are starting to see this as a scourge—not an economic boon. Qat leaves are lucrative, so they’re pushing out more exportable crops like fruits and coffee. They’re also sucking up 40 percent of the nation’s dwindling water supplies. The World Health Organization says that despite its caffeine-like buzz qat is actually causing Yemen’s workforce to power down as laborers, lose sleep, or devote vital working hours to chewing qat.
Because of public health and environmental concerns, a handful of countries have made it illegal to grow and chew qat, including most recently Canada and the United Kingdom. Yemen’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, also bans qat, making it harder for Yemenis to push their product next door. Saudi border guards seize millions of kilograms of Yemeni qat each year, some of which comes stuffed in smugglers’ shirts and pants.
None of this seems to have made a dent in Haraz’s qat business. The misty highland region west of Sana’a is blanketed with stubby Catha edulis shrubs along terraced mountainsides. As visitors drive up to each village, groups of young boys run onto the road, lugging their fathers’ harvest in bags or in bundles as big as their bodies. “This is the best qat. I just pulled it an hour ago,” they call out over each other. “I’m selling for only 2,000 riyals (USD 9)—less than what you’ll get down the road.” Nearly every driver declines and gently taps the gas, until a pair of toothpick legs comes running after him, ready to haggle.
And despite unease about qat, the leaves haven’t lost their social allure. Fine qat, akin to expensive wines and cigars in the West, remains a status symbol; at weddings, influential families pass out top-quality and high-energy qat to guests. Power brokers like politicians, sheikhs, and religious leaders chew qat to promote decision-making and negotiate business—a process known as Sa’ah solimaniyah, or the hour of discussion. Another stage of qat-chewing is sa’ah al hudu’, or the hour of relaxing.
Quality of qat is essential; wilted qat is as useful as moldy bread to even a novice chewer. Since qat spoils quickly in Yemen’s hot climate, vendors experiment with the packaging to extend the shelf life of the leaves.
At the Tahrir market in Sana’a, Abdul Rahman wraps his haul in folded stalks of bamboo, creating tight-rolled packages. “This kind of qat is special. It’s very strong, so we try to keep it fresh,” he explains, sitting on the ground near a street-side restaurant. The kind of qat he’s talking about is called Sawti, a cheaper variety notorious for causing strong highs and sleep deprivation. There’s also Hamdani, which gives a quick boost but dies out quickly, and Ansi, which has a slow, burning energy that lasts for hours. Even trickier than keeping leaves crisp is chewing abroad. Smuggling-friendly versions are dried out (made into ya’bis) and packed tightly, making qat easier to hide from airport security in places like the UK and US (where the legality of the plant hovers in a grey area). This doesn’t inhibit popularity though. On a recent trip to New York City, I encountered a number of Yemenis chewing the dried brown leaves in a café. “It is not as tasty,” one man remarked, “but it still has the same effect.”
In Yemen alone, there are dozens of types of qat, most named for the region in which they grow. Each has a unique look and effect, depending on its region’s climate and elevation. Here are three of the most-chewed leaves with their winter and summer price tags for an afternoon chew:
Ansi Grown in the relatively warm midlands, at elevations around 1,500 meters, Ansi’s large leaves are resistant to heat, making it popular in humid areas like Hudaydah, Aden, and Socotra. 3,500 riyals (USD 17) / 1,000 riyals(USD 5)
Arhabi Arhabi has the tiniest leaves, 1-3 centimeters long, and chewers pick the most delicate a few at a time, making the bag last for hours. Grown in the high and dry mountain areas of Arhab, northeast of Sana’a, city-dwellers like this qat for its strong high but easy let-down. 5,000 riyals (USD 25) / 2,500 riyals (USD 12)
Sawti The strongest and cheapest of all, Sawti is the qat of the masses, popular among laborers with tough hours. It brings the chewer up quickly and drops down even faster. The short and knobby stalks have small and delicate leaves, one reason they are wrapped in banana leaves. 1,000 riyals (USD 5) / 500 riyals (USD 2.5)