The Corner

Opiate of the Masses

Marx meant it metaphorically, but in Yemen it’s the real thing:

Khat, a leafy narcotic, is consumed by nearly every man here. Add that to the many reasons that Yemen’s protest movement has yet to gain the same momentum as the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, say many Yemenis.

For the past three weeks, protests have rocked this impoverished Middle Eastern capital. Some were massive; others were tiny. But one thing has remained constant: Most of the protests ended before 2 p.m. That’s when many Yemenis enter khat-chewing sessions in their homes or cars, practically anywhere.

“In Yemen, chewing khat is like drinking water,” said Samir al-Sami, an aid worker observing the demonstration. “We can’t live without it.”

Among its effects, khat is said to induce euphoria, loss of appetite and sleeplessness. The World Health Organization classifies it as a drug that, if abused, can cause mild psychological dependence. It is an illegal substance in the United States.

In Yemen, researchers estimate that as much as 80 percent of the population chews khat leaves, the vast majority starting at a young age.

That confounds Aidroos Al Naqeeb, an opposition lawmaker. When asked why Yemen, inflicted with many of the problems fueling the rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia, has not experienced a similar transformation, Naqeeb cited Yemen’s weak civil society and weak culture of popular protests.

Then he added, shaking his head, that “the culture of khat is also playing a role.”


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