By Jihan Anwar
Qat consumption in Yemen is widely-discussed. It has become a mainstay of gatherings and is likely the most popular social activity regardless of social and economic class. Recent movements, however, have begun to challenge qat’s role in society. The effects of qat on Yemen’s future and the danger it poses to the nation’s potential and scarce resources are being voiced more loudly as campaigns against the controversial narcotic have gained popularity.
Hind Al Eryani, Yemeni journalist, blogger, activist and Co-founder of the Eradah Foundation for Qat Free Nation speaks to National Yemen about the No Qat campaign she initiated.
What is the purpose of the campaign? Why was the 12th of January chosen?
On 12 January 2012, the first step in a series of campaigns was undertaken. The No Qat 12 January campaign was a small initiative calling people to quit qat for one day.
I started the campaign to see how people would react to the idea. The object I had in mind was to send a message to my fellow citizens and the world: we want to change ourselves if we believe that it will make our country a better place.
The slogan of the campaign was very simple and to the point: I’m Yemen. I want change. I will not chew qat the 12th of January.
The first campaign that I start was #ShameonReuters, which was primarily lead through Twitter and questioned the news agency’s integrity in choosing news sources.
Following the positive outcome the campaign witnessed, I thought it was about time we did something about qat also. This issue has been haunting and annoying me since I was in Yemen.
I first discovered how qat effects water consumption and economy when reading a message that Amr Khaled sent to the Yemeni people. I did my best to spread the message in the universities and let other people know about it as well, confident that the students would stop chewing after that shocking information was conveyed to them by a person as influential as Amr Khaled. Instead, I was surprised when they started laughing at me.
After I left for Lebanon, I always felt embarrassed when anyone asked me about qat. Even on Twitter I was distressed at the insulting comments as a consequence of qat. I started to recognize at a deeper level how qat is preventing Yemen from moving forward.
So I thought, ‘why not start a campaign against qat?’ All it took to spark the fire was a tweet I wrote. The activists on Twitter got excited, everybody helped as much as they could with posters, videos, etc. It went viral on Facebook as well and eventually reached the Yemeni media. It didn’t stop there. It gained momentum and spread to Change Square in Sana’a and Freedom Square in Taiz.
Do you have estimates of how many people participated last year and how many are participating in the campaign this year?
I can’t give definite statistics, but indeed, the success of that first campaign inspired and prompted us to follow it up with others.
There was Government Offices without Qat Day, where we organized five groups in five cities in Yemen and they each visited schools and offices to raise awareness about the subject.
We then started the Eradah Foundation for a Qat Free Nation which gathered most of the activists who were working to eradicate the qat plant from our society. The foundation organized a protest on the 18th of November in front of parliament. That was my first protest ever and it pushed parliament to discuss a law dealing with qat.
Our third campaign was qat-free weddings. I attended the first one which took place in Sana’a.
Recently, we started the Alternative Campaign. It focuses on giving alternatives to qat for every aspect of Yemeni society, from agriculture to social gatherings.
The number of the people who are attending the qat-free weddings has reached 800. So far we’ve had eight weddings in different cities, aside from the weddings that we didn’t organize. This is an indicator that the idea is spreading and this is what we care about.
Recently, the citizens of Haraz village uprooted almost 3000 qat trees after Sultan Albuhrah supplied them with alternative plant seeds. The farmers are now growing almonds, coffee and olives instead.
We were eager to bring attention to that event so as to encourage more people to do the same. It ultimately led the Minister of Agriculture to recreate the model in Bani Matar about a week ago.
Do you think it’s possible for Yemenis to live without qat? And what would it take to make that happen?
The problem is that qat has become the most important thing in daily life for many Yemenis. Sadly, it has became more important than food, health, economy or water. It wouldn’t be unusual to see even a poor man spend thousands of riyal on qat over fruit and vegetables for his children.
But I do believe that the day will come when Yemenis will choose to have good health, proper nutrition, a better economy and real water management and usage. The day will come when every Yemeni citizen will realize that all these elements are more important than qat.
How will this happen? We just need the will. We need Eradah.