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A khat-free wedding becomes big news in Yemen

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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.”

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