Activists against khat are finding some traction as the Yemeni love of the narcotic chewing leaf could soon make Sanaa the first world capital to run out of water.
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.”