Yemen: Nodding off at the Wedding

Although the reformist enthusiasm of this writer is clear, she cannot help but notice that the guests at new Qat-free weddings in Yemen’s capital tend to nod off after a few hours. Qat, the addictive natural stimulant chewed by most Yemenis, has grown to consume most of the country’s agricultural sector and threaten its water resources. Young campaigners hoping to stamp it out have started with the country’s most prominent social occasions: weddings.

Yemen’s youth are driving social change. One initiative that is reverberating across Yemeni society: holding wedding parties in which no one chews qat. What does this entail? observed the experiment at a number of recent wedding parties.

Deciding to break the chains of wedding tradition in Sana’a, Al-Baraa Shaiban arranged a unique celebration. The invitation cards he sent out to his guests, augmented by Facebook and Twitter posts, stipulated that no qat could be chewed at his wedding.

The groom and his close friends promoted the wedding as a joyous occasion, and guests at the large wedding hall were pleasantly surprised at the result. A number of prominent social and political figures, members of parliament, diplomats and reporters attended, along with the groom’s friends and family.

Many hoped that weddings like this would be a first step in the elimination of qat, at least during wedding celebrations, and would limit the consumption of this harmful plant which drains wealth, shrinks the economy, and wastes such time and effort.

In contrast to other weddings, where bottled water is distributed to accompany qat chewing, at this gathering two young boys were employed to hand out fruit juice, cake, and other sweets to each guest as they entered, in order to keep them entertained in the absence of qat.

An unprecedented number of anti-qat activists also attended the wedding, not for their direct acquaintance with the groom, but rather to join the celebration in an environment free of qat and smoking.

At a similar event, journalist Saddam Al-Kamali arranged his own wedding without qat. Al Kamali arranged a lively atmosphere, which he topped off with his stylish look and a cheerful grin as he shook hands with the unusually long train of guests–whose hands were free of qat, to the amazement of all.

Some guests commented on how unique this wedding was, noting the aura of happiness, and the enthusiasm for singing and dancing.

Others passed the time contemplating invitees’ cheeks free of even a single twig of qat, while still others – just a few – fought off the drowsiness that comes from abstaining from their usual habit of qat-chewing: but they managed to hold out for several hours.

Meanwhile, smiling boys served juices, pastries and sweets on elegant dishes to guests who were, for the first time, sharing in the groom’s special moment without qat or smoking.

On Thursday, January 24, 2012, the Wedding Night Hall, located in the Yemeni capital, witnessed the joint wedding of two brothers, Ali and Malik, in an environment free of qat and its usual accessories. The party was partially aired live on television while the hall filled with well-wishers.

On the same day, the Yemen Without Qat Foundation held a no-qat wedding at University Hall, made particularly festive with traditional folk dancing, songs, speeches and poetry, and heavily attended by influential figures from the politics and business world.

Previously, Life Makers Foundation in Hajjah governorate organized a mass wedding for 130 couples under the slogan, “Wedding Without Qat.”

The young people at all of these weddings took a risk, and their successful initiative has echoed across Sana’a. It is a step toward overturning a tradition that has depleted water and agricultural resources, and has spoiled the health of so many Yemenis. Civil society organizations are struggling to educate the public on the dangers of qat; it could take many years before they achieve even partial success in fighting this generations-old habit, unless the government takes action to restrict its use.

Qat consumption in weddings is an accepted social custom, but many people and civil society organizations in Yemen are hoping to render it socially unacceptable, and to swerve public opinion toward preferring weddings without qat. Purchasing qat for wedding guests costs the groom and his family dearly, and may lead to wedding postponements or exacerbate the burden of debt on the family.

Dr. Hamid Ziad, Secretary General of the Yemen Without Qat Foundation, said that these qat-free weddings are a serious step towards a Yemen free of qat, a plant that has wreaked havoc on people’s health, the environment, and the economy, and has distorted the reputation of Yemen and Yemenis abroad. Health problems related to qat have multiplied due to the pesticides that are sprayed on the trees, causing many illnesses, in particular cancer which affects nearly 20,000 new people every year. He said he hopes to live to see the day when Yemeni society is free of qat.

Iftikar Al-Qadhi