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Yemen: Qat

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Qat | Yemen | Asia

[Visited: May-June 2004]

Come the afternoon, there is but one thing on most Yemeni men's mind: getting qat. After having lunch, chewing qat is the main activity until dinner. But before being able to chew it, it must be bought. Qat are leaves that are best chewed fresh, so it has to be bought new every day. When you travel by bus or taxi, the driver will often actively search for good qat, tasting it, and if it is approved, not only the driver, but also the passengers will buy their plastic bag of qat. Inevitably, the foreigner is often offered a few leaves of qat and it certainly entertains Yemenis to see visitors chewing qat. Although I inevitably was offered qat often by the friendly Yemenis, I never acquired the taste for it.

Picture of Qat (Yemen): Qat plantations in a valley near San'a

Then, for the rest of the afternoon, the men stick a few leaves in their mouth, chew on it for a while, and as soon as the fluids of the leaves have been sucked out, the remains of the leaves will be put in one of the cheeks and new leaves will be introduced to chew on. Apparently, everyone has his favourite cheek to store qat in; basically, it is chewing either left or right side. This can go on for hours, and consequently, one of the cheeks of Yemeni men grow bigger and bigger, until it reaches incredible dimensions. Until visiting Yemen, I never realized that cheeks were so elastic.

Picture of Qat (Yemen): Qat market in San'a: qat leaves enveloped in a cloth

For some, qat becomes more than just a means to have a relaxing afternoon, it becomes almost an obsession, and they can start chewing qat even in the early morning. Qat is also a status symbol: the more expensive qat you chew, the higher you rank. Similarly, the larger the qat ball in your cheeks, the more admiration you may receive The demand for qat has grown considerably, and since its price is still high, growing qat has turned into a profitable enterprise. In fact, qat is replacing other agriculture like coffee. It grows between 1500 and 2500 metres altitude and needs a lot of water. The qat plantations are guarded from watchtowers when the plants are ready to be harvested.

Picture of Qat (Yemen): Qat plantations in valley near San'a
Picture of Qat (Yemen): Qat plants in a plantation near San'a
Picture of Qat (Yemen): Chewing qat in the afternoon is a typical Yemeni pastime
Picture of Qat (Yemen): Selling and chewing qat at the same time; inflated cheek
Picture of Qat (Yemen): Qat suq in San'a: qat bundle for sale
Picture of Qat (Yemen): Chewing qat in a car

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