Yemen is reportedly the least known region in Arabia. But it wasn’t always this way. King Solomon knew of this legendary land long before the Queen of Sheba visited his court with her gorgeous gifts. Yemen, along with Oman, is known for its rich resources of frankincense, spices, and myrrh. Great empires emerged there centuries before Christ. Here the Biblical Noah launched his famous ark. Yemen is still called the “Pearl of the Peninsula.”After Gunter and I and our crew, Chris, arrived in Aden and secured Pacific Bliss in the “safe” harbor in Aden (where the U.S.S. Cole was bombed) we left inland to tour Sana’a, Yemen’s 2500-year-old capital in the mountains. Old Sana’a is a UNESCO heritage site, one of the best preserved in the whole of the Arab world.

Morning in Sana’a, Yemen

What you may not know about Yemen is that the entire country chews an intoxicating leaf called

Qat.  And if foreign diplomats want to do business or strike a deal there, they will have to conduct their afternoon meetings in a qat room.  The following is taken from my journal at :

“See,” our Yemeni driver said as we left Aden for the countryside, “they bring qat from plantations to suq. Picked fresh this morning.  Lunchtime, men go to suq to buy. Then go home.”

Most work in Yemen stops at lunch time.  This is the main meal, heavy, consumed with lots of fat to fortify the digestive tract against the onslaught of the bitter leaf.  After lunch, the men go to the market to search out the best product within their budget; the longest branches, with tender light green shoots, are the most prized.  On average, a Yemeni can spend half his daily income on qat, so the selection process is crucial.  Depending on its quality, the price of a qat rubta (bunch) needed for one “sitting” ranges from 100 to 5,000 rials (50 cents to $25.00).  It is nearly impossible for the uninitiated to understand the difference between a bunch of leaves that sell for cheap and another that costs 20 times as much.  The qat comes in different varieties, shapes and shades of green.

Once they make their purchase, there comes the inevitable discussion among friends about whose home they will go to chew the qat.  Those whose homes have a big mafraj (top story room for entertaining)—or at least a large diwan (sitting room) are the most popular.  Each guest is expected to bring his own qat.  The host then provides the mada’a (tobacco water pipe) and drinking water, soft drinks, or tea.  Chewing is very dehydrating, so these liquids are essential.

The chewers use their teeth (or a small gadget if they don’t have any left) to grind the leaves into a mulch, which is then stored in the cheek.  After a couple of hours of stuffing the mouth, the mulch grows into a rather large ball from which the user extracts the juice and allows it to enter the digestive system.

This scenario is repeated across the country, every day, in the homes of the rich and the poor.  Chewing isn’t just an addiction or a way of passing time.   In Yemen, it is a way of life.

Qat Chewer at the Suq