Yemen 1984

The others stopped work and came to join me. We each, except for Saeed, arranged a pile of plants in front of us on the tiled floor We put down some cushions and got comfortable lying on our sides; then we began to pull the leaves and shoots off the plants. The bearded stranger was with us. He’d been hitch-hiking and we had invited him in when his lift left him outside the electricity sub-station near Amran where we work. He had been in Yemen for a while and must have seen people chew qat before. The stranger made a half-hearted effort to work some leaves round in his mouth, while our cheeks were quickly bulging with the leaves and the middle of the room was soon strewn with plucked stalks. We pushed saliva through the leaves, drank water, spat leaves out - and slowly felt the cares of the world leave us. Saleh had just come back from Ta’izz. There, he said, the silver market was depressed: the qat farmers were making so much money they were selling their silver and buying gold. Saeed said they were the only ones getting rich: at 50 rials a day qat was ruinously expensive for the ordinary Yemeni. But it was still essential, we all agreed.

 Qat seller, Mokalla

Qat seller, Mokalla

The stranger’s eyes goggled when Ahmed started smoking a cigarette while he chewed: his question was politer but really asked how much stimulation and addiction does anyone need? Saeed started the explanations by pulling up his shirt and, showing a huge scar around his belly-button, muttered ‘amalia’ (operation) several times. Sometimes the leaves get swallowed and block up our insides. Mohammed produced a bottle of Johnny Walker and said, to general laughter, that when he got the belly-pains this calmed them quickly. Saeed’s eldest son explained how his wife had cost him 120,000 rials. She was ‘no good’ but he still had to drive his lorry, at 1200 rials a trip, to pay back the dowry loan: qat helped him forget the problem. The stranger didn’t know the Arabic word Ahmed used for another reason qat was good for us. When the graphic illustrations had helped him understand, he told us the English word: ‘priapic’. Maybe it didn’t work for Saeed’s son, Mohammed joked, especially as qat was stimulating enough to mean we often only needed four hours sleep.

After a couple of hours, the stranger left to find another car so he could reach his destination before the sun came down. We lay there longer. Work would wait.