Of late we Americans have discovered Yemen, thanks to a foiled terrorist and the recognition of a burgeoning Al Qaeda camp in that country. The front page of the New York Times today has a story about Yemen, complete with map. But it fails to mention the one thing that will most impress you if you visit Yemen and it's a plant called qat. You can't fathom Yemen (or Somalia for that matter) if you don't understand qat--no map can quite explain its influence on politics, culture and the economy.
If you land in Aden or Sanaa, you will notice people with a chipmunk like bulge in their cheek and the unique slewing movement of the jaw that characterizes the qat user. By chewing lots and lots of the tender leaves of this nondescript plant, one experiences a very mild amphetamine-like high. Alas, this does not translate into a super-industrious nation with a tremendous work ethic and high productivity. It translates instead into a nation where 80% of people spend many hours a day chewing qat and a nation whose ground water is rapidly drying up because 80% of water by some estimates is being used for qat cultivation. A Yemeni friend I grew up with once explained to me that mornings in Yemen are spent planning and day-dreaming about the afternoon qat session (and good luck to you in transacting serious business after one), and the actual session takes care of the rest of the day. Qat sessions are intensely social: men sitting on mattresses, bolsters for their backs and knees, a big pile of leaves in front of them, hot tea and cold water being served, and animated discussions taking place. The world's problems are soon solved in that room. After several hours, things turn quiet and contemplative (the Hour of Solomon, as it is known) and at last the session is over. Alas, no brilliant solutions actually emerge; nothing but hot air comes out of the room.
Qat is grown in Ethiopia (where I spent my years until early adulthood--my parents were schoolteachers from India hired to work there), Yemen and other highland areas and is popular all over East Africa. As children, our trips back to India during the holidays involved a stop in Aden, a fascinating city best described as an oven carved out of volcanic rock, albeit an oven that was a duty-free haven. My novel, CUTTING FOR STONE (Knopf), has my protagonist, Sister Mary Joseph Praise saying the following about Aden when she finally disembarks after a terrible sea voyage from India and after a prolonged quarantine of her ship anchored outside Aden (an experience which no doubt colors her perception):
" . . . from the sailors on the Calangute she had gathered one could hardly go anywhere in the world without stopping in Aden.The port's strategic location has served the British military. Now its duty-free status made it the place to both shop and find one's next ship. Aden was gateway to Africa; from Africa it was gateway to Europe. To Sister Mary Joseph Praise it looked like the gateway to hell. The city was at once dead and yet in continuous motion, like a blanket of maggots animating a rotting corpse. . . "
My own memory, I must say before I get angry letters, is more charitable to Aden than hers. I recall as a child landing with my parents, emerging from a DC3 into the stifling heat, and eventually finding shade in a cool and sophisticated hotel. I recall too that from the hotel there was a tiled walkway, with a Rolex watch symbol embedded in the tile, and if you followed this trail it led you to a duty-free shop. My father bought a Rolex there in 1957 or so, an entry level model (and yet an expensive purchase for him), with a face so small that these days it looks more like a woman's watch. The dial is now yellowed but it still runs and ever since he gave the watch to me, I wear it proudly. In a world of glittering, diamond-studded Rolexes and other such timepieces, this humble watch generates attention from the cognoscenti-- I have been stopped more than once and given a short treatise on the provenance of this watch. I know nothing about watches except how to tell time, and I am proud to be one of the few analog people left in a digital world; but it does allow me to tell the the story of my father, Aden and the duty-free store. (N.B.: Rolex, if you read this, you can send me a free diamond-crusted one but please don't mind if I continue to wear the old one--it is truly priceless.)
Sadly, despite oil and other resources, Yemen seems stuck. I recall being told by a Yemeni shopkeeper in Addis Ababa that but for qat, Aden could have been a great cosmopolitan city, another Paris or Beirut, to use his words. I don't know about that. But I do know that what Yemen has become now in the eyes of the world--a country in the news for the worst possible reasons-- has to have some connection with qat, which is the economy and yet which hamstrings the economy, a plant that energizes while paradoxically producing societal apathy.
So if we are trying to understand how former Guantanamo Bay prisoners sent to Yemen managed to escape from a 'high-security' prison to now lead a newly vitalized Al Qaeda cell in Yemen, I don't doubt that money and qat opened some doors.