SANAA, Yemen — For nearly a year, tens of thousands of Yemenis have taken to the streets to call for an end to the 33-year-old rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Thursday, activists took aim at a different target, which they say is as great a menace to Yemen's progress as decades of government corruption and misrule. They acknowledge that the chance of success is even smaller than the anti-Saleh campaign, which has garnered a pledge from the president to step down next month, after presidential elections.
The new target is khat, a leafy narcotic whose use here is ubiquitous, and whose mild high many activists blame for Yemen's inability to prosper. Their call was for Thursday to be a one-day nationwide boycott of the drug to raise awareness of its harmful effects.
Fortunately, they'd kept the bar low on declaring success. Outside of protest squares and elite circles, most Yemenis marked Thursday, the first day of the Yemeni weekend, just as they usually do: with a khat chew. Sanaa's khat sellers continued to do brisk business, and a khat-free Yemen seemed far off.
"They can try to get rid of it, but I doubt they'll succeed," said Ali Hassan, a khat seller in Sanaa who was negotiating mobs of customers despite the campaign, which he said he was unaware of. "For many Yemenis, chewing khat is as essential as drinking water."
Launched online a week ago, the "No Khat on Jan. 12 Campaign" gained the backing of youth activists across Yemen. It also won support from key figures across the political spectrum, including Tawakkol Karman, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, Mohammed Abu Lahoum, a key opposition politician, and Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who's expected to replace Saleh as president in next month's elections.
"Khat affects everything in Yemen: the economy, politics, social" life, said Hind Aleryani, a Yemeni activist living in Lebanon who initiated the campaign. He said changing the nation's khat habit would be a crucial step to achieving political change in Yemen.
But it won't be easy. Chewing khat is a basic part of the country's cultural life.
Formal chewing sessions are a crucial element of nearly every social transaction in Yemen, from wedding celebrations to business negotiations. A taste for the plant transcends social and class lines.
In the eyes of enthusiasts, many of whom while away hours talking with friends and family as they consume the tender parts of the slow-growing shrub, khat is an essential social lubricant. Many hail its gentle high, saying it aids the chewer's strength and concentration. College students chew to help them study, while many women, conscious of khat's appetite-suppressing side effects, chew to keep tabs on their weight.
Nevertheless, many here — including some dedicated chewers — see khat as a scourge on the already impoverished nation. Many Yemenis willingly admit to devoting large proportions of their household income to the purchase of khat, and even members of the educated classes are prone to complain of the lost work hours engendered by Yemen's collective addiction.
Perhaps most alarming is the growing strain that khat cultivation is having on the country's already diminishing water supply. Hundreds of gallons of water go into the cultivation of a single bag of khat, and even as water tables drop, farmers — driven by khat's high profit margins — continue to expand the amount of land devoted to the thirsty plant.
Activists say they hope that Thursday's boycott will be a step toward raising awareness, though they concede that in a country with so many problems and so much poverty, a drop in khat consumption will hardly be a cure-all.
"We can't forget that khat, ultimately, is a problem caused by other problems that keeps creating new problems," said Alaa Jarban, a youth activist in Sanaa. "Still, even if today was a small step, it is a good start."
(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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