Sanaa, Yemen - Before the Christmas Day underwear bomber came along and elevated the profile of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, most Westerners probably only thought of Yemen for being the originator of coffee, and for that strange narcotic, qat.
Well, a lot more qat is consumed here than coffee.
I've gotten into cabs here in the capital in which the driver had a wad of qat in his cheek, making him look like a chipmunk with a mouthful of acorns. The traffic here is so aggressive that it's hard to tell if the drug had any effect on his driving.
I went to a pharmacy yesterday to buy some toothpaste - the pharmacist was sitting at the back of the store chewing qat with a friend. He came to the counter with the green stuff packed between his lips and teeth, charming.
My first exposure to what officially is described as a natural amphetamine was at a wedding the day I arrived in Yemen last week. I was invited to tag along with a leading businessman and found myself in an enormous room of several hundred men all lounging on cushions on the floor, peeling off the small leaves on stalks of qat and popping them in their mouths. Once stripped of their leaves, the stalks were just tossed on the floor to be picked up later.
I found myself next to some prominent government, judicial and military figures, all of whom were indulging in the habit. Most had come to the men-only afternoon party with a kilo or more of the stalks.
The leaves are small, about two to three centimetres long, green with some reddish tinge.
The good stuff sells for $30 a kilo in winter, $15 in summer.
You take each stalk, one at a time, hold it at the bottom and delicately pluck off each cluster of leaves. Then, holding half a dozen or so at a time, put them in your mouth between the molars at the side of your mouth. (You don't chew any big leaves that may be at the bottom of the stalk, they are considered inferior.) You chew them for a little while, try not to swallow them, and then manoeuvre them into your cheek, as you pop in the next bunch. After you've held the wad in your mouth for a while (20 minutes or more) you can spit it out into small spittoons that usually are provided.
It tastes like … well, like chewing leaves. Not particularly appetizing, but they say you come to like it. The qat bush grows almost exclusively in Yemen and Somalia - some is grown in Saudi Arabia, but it's illegal there. It's a major crop all around this country's capital, often at the expense of other crops, of food.
Not many women chew qat; young people don't seem to do it either.
As well, the very religious (salafists, wahhabis etc) don't chew it as it's haram, forbidden, in the Koran.
But the overwhelming majority of other Yemeni men chew it. Most chew it daily, usually in small groups, mostly starting about one in the afternoon, and most for about three to four hours at a time.
Some, then return to work, believing their minds are sharper because of it; (which may be why Yemen is in such great shape).
It's astonishing how prevalent the qat-chew groups are, and at all levels of society. I was invited to drop in on two qat chews, each held in the diwan (sitting room) of a luxurious house. The members of the groups included deputy ministers, former governors, leading businessmen, members of Parliament and members of the Shura Council. At both chews, a leading security official (one of the guys running the secret police etc) had the biggest wad in his cheek of anyone I have seen so far. It looked as if he had a tennis ball in there.
Earlier this week, I tried to make an appointment with a general I had met at the wedding. I called his office a little after 12, noon, and was told he had left for the day. I later learned he usually is in the office only between 10 and 12.
And where does he go when he leaves work? To the President's residence where a very high-ranking group have their regular qat chew and mull over matters of state.