The Big Bulge – Yemen

He looked into my eyes and gestured wildly for me not to swallow, but my mouth was full of the gunk and so I did what came naturally, and took it in. My face twisted in ghastly contortions as I gagged and choked, much to the great glee of the twenty or so men who were surrounding me and doubled over in laughter. And so there in the market of Sana’a, I was introduced to qat, the national plant and favorite pastime of the people of Yemen.

In order to understand Yemen, you have to first understand qat. In fact, the first thing you notice when arriving in Yemen is that every man over the age of thirteen or so starts to bulge after lunch. (His cheeks, that is.) That and the fact that they are wearing skirts and carrying daggers. The national narcotic of Yemen, qat leaves are gently masticated for entire afternoons, forming a bulge, of sometimes monstrous proportions, in one cheek.

While the psychological and physiological effects of this mild stimulant are debatable, Yemenis firmly believe that it results in greater concentration (Yemeni students often rely on it to help them study harder), deeper and more meaningful thoughts and more satisfying sexual relations. The social implications are strong as business transactions are completed, marriages are arranged and news is exchanged during the animated first part of the qat chew, but by the early hours of evening, the chewers resort into their own world and become increasingly introverted and meditative.

One thing is clear: qat rules the daily lives of most Yemeni adults. In fact, it has been reported that as many as 75% of Yemeni adults spend up to five hours each afternoon chewing qat leaves. The government shuts down, stores close up and virtually every male heads off for a communal qat chew. But many of them just lounge on sidewalks, in the cool of the shade, chewing and chatting for hours. Unfortunately, this includes the poorer segments of society who can spend up to one third of their income on buying qat. This in a country where the GDP is only $740 per head and thousands of children clearly suffer from malnutrition.

Every city, town and village in Yemen has a qat market, as the plant cannot be preserved and must be purchased daily for that afternoon’s chew. Sometimes these are organized markets, but most often they are spontaneous affairs with qat being hawked from the trunks of cars or by young boys selling plastic bags of it along roadsides to passing motorists. Traveling in Yemen is already challenging and frustrating enough due to the innumerable police checkpoints, poor road conditions and requirements of travel permits, but add to that the fact that your driver will waste precious time in his search for quality qat and that your armed police escort will hold you back for an hour as they idle in the shade chewing qat, and you just want to scream.

But instead of fighting it, the best thing is to join in on the fun. Indeed, the surest way to make friends with a Yemeni is to accept his or her offer of qat. (Women partake as well, though they have their own qat chews.) They delight in watching a foreigner try to manipulate the green gunk into a bulge and are very generous with their qat offerings. Twice I have munched on the leaves, but only to swallow them each time. And so I have given up on qat, and when offered it (which seems to be almost on a daily basis), I must act out my previous qat experiences, which provides everyone with a hardy chuckle and gets me off the hook, without appearing rude.

It is entertaining for a foreigner to witness this national obsession with qat, but as you can imagine, the effects on the country are serious. So grave is the situation that President Salih announced in 1999 that he had stopped chewing the stuff and the government has unsuccessfully attempted to limit qat chewing in the past. Entire afternoons are wasted away at qat chews, people devote significant proportions of their meager salaries on qat and the irrigation of qat crops is dangerously depleting the nation’s severely limited groundwater supplies. The cultivation of qat demands large quantities of water, which acerbates an already serious situation in this arid land of few water supplies. And yet the stranglehold this green god holds over the people of Yemen is as powerful as ever.

Another subject that foreigners must be familiar with in Yemen is kidnappings. While in Syria, I met Thomas, a twenty-something Australian who had just spent four months learning Arabic in Sana’a. He was thrilled to hear about my upcoming trip to Yemen and suggested I contact his German friend Carl, who was studying at the same institute and who would show me around. Entrusted with a letter for Carl from Thomas, I trotted off to the institute, only to find out that he was not in. And so I gave the letter to an American student, who invited me to a concert that evening where I would meet up with Carl. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to the concert, but I had hoped to link up with him at a later date.

That was not to be, as less than one week later, Carl was kidnapped by five tribesmen on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of downtown Sana’a. It has now been over one week since he has been detained by a stubborn rural tribe who is demanding the release of four of its brothers. The prisoners have been sentenced to have their right hands and left legs cut off for having stolen the car of the Supreme Court Appeal Committee Chairman, though the sentence still must be approved by the president. Security forces have mobilized and chances are that Carl will be released safely, as there have been only four hostages who have been killed out of 155 foreigners kidnapped since 1996.

Indeed, many tourists are keen to be kidnapped for they are usually treated like royalty by the Bedouins and quickly released once the demands, which are usually for a new school or the like, are met by the government. That and the fact that they have a damn good story for friends and family upon their return.

Because of the rash of kidnappings and its negative effects on tourism, the government has imposed a rigorous, and in some cases, ridiculous system of travel permits and military escorts. Independent travel to the dangerous northern regions is strictly off limits, and a car and driver must be hired, generally at the cost of $50 a day. Travelers to those regions must be at the checkpoints leading out of Sana’a at 9 am in order to be escorted in convey by armed policemen.

I must admit that it is a bit harrowing to be riding in the back of a four-wheel drive with a machine gun-wielding, camouflage-wearing, grenade-toting policemen, who is, of course, chewing qat as well, sitting right next to you. Three policemen ride in the front of the police pick-up truck, while nine others, armed to the teeth, sit in the back, with one controlling the mounted machine gun.

But they are generally friendly chaps who are eager to have their pictures taken and who even offer to let you pose with the machine gun. Friendly that is until you refuse to pay them off. They will delay your trip for hours in such cases, and so in the long run, you shell over the money. It is frustrating to be required to travel with them because they already hamper your trip as you wait for them to buy qat, to have lunch, to go to the mosque and to have a friendly little qat chew, as you sit there in the steaming heat of the car, waiting for them. Plus, it is illegal for them to demand bribes, but, hey, they need money for qat and you are hotter than hell, and so you break down and show them the money.

It is not only the police who benefit from these travel restrictions. The General Tourism Authority employees, those all-powerful beings who issue travel permits, which in theory are needed throughout the entire country, often inform gullible tourists that it is impossible to travel to certain areas without a car and a driver. And, of course, THEY will provide you with such at a special price for you, dear tourist. However, in many instances you can indeed travel via public transportation, but they don’t tell you that. And so, in your desperation and frustration to get around Yemen, you accept their “special price,” and next thing you know, that officer at the tourism authority is now driving you around in his private car for the next few days. But if you insist, it is possible to call their bluff and to just get the permit.

I did venture into the wilds of the north with Sebastian, a 30-year-old English chap with whom I traveled for eleven days. A tad cocky, but extremely appealing, he made for a lively travel companion. We rented a car with a driver and headed north to the town of Sa’da where there is a huge weekly gun market that he wanted to check out. Me, I was just going along for the fun.

So we dealt with the numerous checkpoints, police convoys and its mind-numbing delays, only to be stopped at a Bedouin checkpoint. (Yes, they even set up their own independent checkpoints!) Our trusty armed escorts were not to be seen and were probably off chewing qat somewhere. The tribesman told our driver that he wanted to kidnap both Sebastian and myself, to which our driver replied that we were guests in their country and that he should act accordingly as our host. And so, we were left to go on our merry way and weren’t kidnapped. A newspaper journalist, Sebastian drooled at the thought of being kidnapped and the sensational story that would result; but, alas, it was not to be.

Our two and a half days up north were limited due to the frustrations that we faced on the road, but we did manage to spend a few hours at the gun market. There, Sebastian wandered around like a kid in a candy store, while I drifted off from shop to shop, drinking tea with the owners and checking out their goods. Business has been slow recently due to the region’s “economic problems,” we were informed by a bored shopkeeper. It seems that the economy is on the upswing and that the Bedouins are now getting jobs with companies, rather than fighting each other and the government.

Our appearance in the gun market caused quite a stir, especially as I decided to wear a long skirt that day. Only my ankles were showing, but that was enough. (In fact, you will be happy to know Mom, I received three marriage proposals. So there is hope.) As I sipped clove-flavored tea with two elderly men on the floor of their closet-like shack, the shop suddenly became dark. The sun was being completely blocked by the dozen or so men who clamored around the doorway, gawking at me and peppering me with questions. Land mines, grenades, AK-47s, bazookas and a vast variety of Kalashnikovs were shoved in my hands. Need a grenade? Only $6, thank you. Or how about a Russian-made semi-automatic AK-47 for only $331. Too much you say, then go with the Chinese one for only $241. Looking for an anti-aircraft gun? They could get it for me. (The heavy artillery is stored at their houses and you need to go there to check it out.)

Friendly folks, they were happy to see a foreigner in their midst and were quite animated and affable. We laughed about Clinton, who is very well liked in Yemen, and agreed that Bush is a bust. Eager to test out their wares, we headed to the market’s outskirts, where Sebastian and I emptied off a clip of a Kalashnikov. He did the bulk of the shooting, but I fired off a few rounds myself into the nearby hills. They were so excited to see me shooting that I didn’t have the heart to tell them that this was my second experience with a Kalashnikov, as Sebastian and I had fired one the day before.

As a matter of fact, while marveling over the magnificence of a 17th-century bridge that spans a gorge in the nearby mountain village of Shihara, we had stumbled across seventeen-year-old Mohammed, who was carrying a 1953 Kalashnikov. He claimed his father had given him his first gun, at the age of ten. So we gave Mohammed a few bucks and each fired off a round. What he really wanted was pens, as all Yemeni children clamor for when they see foreigners, and so we agreed to meet the following day. I would bring pens, good ones he insisted, and he would let me shoot some more rounds. Sounded like a fair deal to me. But as luck would have it, we had an early start and so we missed our Kalashnikov-carrying friend.

The Lonely Planet guidebook described the ascent to Shihara as “a very unpleasant drive,” but Sebastian and I had the time of our lives, standing in the back of the pick-up, as we thumped our way up the mountain on bumpy switchback roads. Accompanying us were six Bedouins, five of them carrying guns. At some points, it looked as if we were going to topple over the edge, and in fact, we did pass the remains of an unlucky vehicle that did go over, resulting in two casualties and four injuries. Higher and higher we cautiously climbed through the majestic mountains which were striped with qat-growing terraces. Gripping the back of the truck, bobbing along and taking in the extraordinary scenery, I was having one of those memorable life moments. So overwhelming was the beauty of the land that Sebastian and I would try to point something out to each other, only to end up gibbering and not being able to form complete sentences.

And so in this country of 17 million people and 70 million privately owned guns, I had the time of my life.

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