The other day, a Yemeni friend invited me to his co-worker’s house to chew khat. I receive similar invitations with unfailing regularity; the leafy green plant, as anyone who has spent time here can attest, plays an outsized role in Yemen’s social life.
Introducing myself to those around me, it gradually became clear that I had chewed with more than half of the other people in the room, although never in the same place at the same time. One was a friend of a friend; another worked for a politician I know. Two of the others had seen me at separate chews at the home of a tribal leader from their native district. Another swore he had run into me somewhere, though neither of us could remember where.
This is the world of khat: other countries might have six degrees of separation, but in Yemen, a degree or two of chewing seems to link nearly everyone in the country together. An invitation to chew is, in American social currency, like an invite to a happy hour—they’re usually held after the work day, they tend to be quite informal and they often feature a great deal of venting and discussion.
Plenty of ink has been spilled regarding khat, but reports that cast chewing as catastrophic custom (memorable headline: Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death?) miss the mark. Yes, there are negative effects of excessive khat consumption: its widespread cultivation is straining Yemen’s diminishing aquifers, and many families devote a shocking percentage of their household income to purchasing their daily supply. But I am a khat chewer, and proudly so, because if you want to live in Yemen, and especially if you want to be a correspondent here, khat is the door you have to walk through.
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