SANA’A, YEMEN – So the poor Tories, $5 billion in the red, say they might clobber Ontario’s smokers with higher taxes to bankroll new spending. An ex- smoker, I can relate to the pain. Too bad there’s not another easy target. Like qat.
Qat in Yemen is what hockey is in Canada. First brought here 700 years ago, it was a luxury for bored merchants and mystics. Now about 85 per cent of Yemeni men use the leaf. Some other places, particularly Ethiopia, also have it. But Yemen is King of Qat.
Folks here, literally by the millions, stuff their cheeks like chipmunks every day. After being packed in one’s jowl for a few hours, qat leaves turn into a green slime that releases the amphetamine cathione. I’m told that gives a feeling akin to a deep massage, six double espressos and a couple of spliffs. One usually catches the buzz with others, as group chews are important social affairs.
I tried qat once, but just got thirsty and a headache. Other effects are more problematic. Some Yemenis easily spend 30 per cent of their income on it. Also, qat plants need water, a precious commodity that, according the World Bank, Yemen may run out of in 10 years. Consider also that one-third of Yemen’s GDP is related to qat, and it costs the country about $6 million US every day in lost productivity.
Still, qat kills virtually nobody: just a few hundred souls poisoned from pesticides not washed off. Compare that to the 4 million deaths caused by tobacco every year, 435,000 of which happen to be in Canada. Qat leaves no smell. And there are other reasons it might eventually overtake tobacco as the world’s top weed. Here’s the Top 10:
10. With their cheeks bulging, chewers look like a bunch of happy Louis Armstrongs.
9. Defending users of qat, a product illegal in some countries, is a lawyer’s dream. There is no proof of crime since the chemicals in freshly-cut leaves break down to nothing in 10 days.
8. Qat socials negate the need to learn golf for high-level business deals. Yemen shuts down several hours every afternoon to facilitate chews. How serious are they? Apparently when a Yemeni foreign minister was once told that Yasser Arafat wanted to see him, the minister told him to return after his chew.
7. Qat has no confusing brands. No Lights or Slims. The product is straightforward. Its only suitable name is High-and-Dry. That has singularity of purpose that people really crave.
6. There is no anti-qat lobby. A former Yemeni education minister tried to launch one years ago. It still hasn’t reached 100 members. And while the World Health Organization is trying to control tobacco worldwide, qat continues to fly under the radar.
5. Unlike grisly warnings on some cigarette packs, when qat is wrapped it looks like flowers for your wife. For about $12, a Yemeni can walk down the street with prestige while carrying a large qat bundle wrapped in pink or blue cellophane.
4. Qat sells without sex appeal. There is no need for Marlboro Girls, the gals in short skirts who, in some countries, go to public places and hand out free cigarettes. Qat is an equal opportunity plant, easily marketed by any hairy-legged Yemeni in a robe. I’d name him Qatman, fill his cheek to bulge like a tennis ball, get him to rock concerts and beauty pageants, and put his image on racing cars, T-shirts and lunch-buckets.
3. Qat sharpens the mind. Without having prior ability, qat chewers know how to fix computers and write poetry. They ask deep questions. For example, while observing a bottle, a chewer asked one day, “Just what is behind America?” Was his question sociopolitical? No, he was wondering what was behind America’s landmass. His qat-chewing friend waved his hands and would have nothing of it. He knew the Earth is flat.
2. Qat can balance East-West trade. Cigarette sales are down in places like Canada, but tobacco companies now make billions in profits by targeting the Developing Word, where 70 per cent of smoking deaths occur and where 10 million smoking-related deaths are expected annually by 2025. Sending qat in the other direction returns the favour.
1. Qat can, in fact, unite the world. Did tobacco beat communism? No. Qat did. Case in point: Marxists, who used to run the former South Yemen, restricted qat chewing to weekends. They felt it made people ‘lazy.’ But the masses threw off their shackles because they understand they were fed only half the truth. Sure hard work won’t kill you.
But why take the chance? Millions of Yemenis now chew in perfect harmony, just like singing the Coke song. The rest of the world can now join in. Every dog, after all, deserves its season.