The Flower of Paradise: The Role of Qat in Yemeni Society and Beyond
August 28, 2008, 2:19 pm
Filed under: Economics, Middle East | Tags: , ,


“No one in the world would desire to introduce the khat habit into civilized communities, where there are too many similar habits already”
American Consul in Aden Charles Moser
(Varisco, 2004: 115)

Yemen is endowed with energy, but unlike its regional neighbors blessed/cursed by ‘Black Gold,’ two major cash crops stimulate Yemen and its people. The first is coffee, a vital export commodity for an underdeveloped nation of nearly 18 million people ranked 153 out of 177 in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. The second is qat, which has the same ecological demands as coffee (Wenner, 1967), but dominates agriculture in Yemen to the point where the country is becoming ‘less and less able to feed itself’ (Held, 2007: 434). A mild stimulant, ‘closer to coffee than to opium’ (Varisco: 102) qat, is seen by some as an iniquitous drug that places tourniquet-like pressure on vital resources and causes chronic morbidity while for others qat is ‘a flower of paradise’ (Anderson, 1987).

A common joke in Yemen goes like this-when the government had had enough of qat and its deleterious effect on Yemeni society, it decided to ban its use. Because of the vital role qat serves in Yemen, a creative plan was essential for success. The government decided that such an innovative idea could only come about during a qat chewing session.

So ubiquitous is qat in any discussion of Yemeni culture yet so little is qat understood beyond Sana’a or Aden and within the growing Diaspora in the United States. Qat (Catha edulis) is both the taproot of Yemeni society and a contributing factor to the social and economic decadence that has made Yemen the poorest nation in the Arab world. Once serving a medicinal role in the Islamic world and China, the tender leaves and stem of the small tree/scrub are widely chewed as a mild narcotic, chiefly because its principal active components cathinone and cathine induce physiological effects similar to the stimulation of the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ (Cox & Hagen, 2003). In an increasingly transnational world, more and more Yemeni call the Puget Sound home and like other immigrant groups, holds on to their traditions and customs. Yemenis (and Somalis, Ethiopians and Kenyans) surreptitiously consume qat and are unfazed by attempts by the federal government to reign in on the market.

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Despite Overwhelming Electoral Victory for Morales, Bolivia Still at an Impasse
August 26, 2008, 4:14 pm
Filed under: Latin America, Politics | Tags: , , , ,

Despite an overwhelming victory in the August 10 referendum, Bolivian President Evo Morales continues to rule over a country in social, political and economic disarray. The opposition, which is seeking regional autonomy, intends to cripple the economy as a means to get Morales to capitulate to its demands. For instance, the nation’s beef producers, who dominate in the opposition controlled western parts of the country, have declared a boycott.

Jim Shultz, from the Cochabamba based Democracy Center puts it like this:

Bolivia is a divided nation, to be sure. But it is not a nation divided in half. It is a nation divided by 2/3 on one side and 1/3 on the other, each demanding that the country be steered its way. Put more simply, imagine three people in a car on a road trip, arguing over directions at a fork in the road. Two people in the front seat want to go left, and the guy in the back wants to go right. Allowing sufficient time for discussion and argument of all views, at a certain point, do we really think that the guy yelling alone in the backseat ought to dictate the decision? Neither do most Bolivians.

The opposition’s tactic seems to closely mirror that followed by the Venezuelan opposition after the 2002 failed coup against President Hugo Chavez. That boycott severely crippled the Venezuelan economy. However, the campaign backfired on the opposition as the strikes emboldened Chavez. For his part, Morales, thus far, as responded to the opposition very diplomatically and has refused to use force to counter opposition protests.

From The Real News:

As the tensions between the Morales Government of Bolivia and autonomists continue, Forrest Hylton states that “the basic issue comes down to who is going to get the money from the exploitation of hydrocarbon resources, and these autonomists want to make sure that they get the money, and they’re going to carry out their completely illegal agenda, regardless of whether Evo wants to dialog with them or not.”

Dream Deferred for Brazilian Immigrants
August 20, 2008, 12:22 am
Filed under: Economics, Latin America | Tags: , ,

For decades, deteriorating economic conditions and instability, have compelled millions of Latin Americans to emigrate to the United States in the hopes of achieving the ‘American Dream’. Nowadays, the faltering U.S. economy has led some to reconsider, and many immigrants, including Brazilians, are leaving the United States and heading back to Brazil, where a strong and rapidly growing economy awaits them.

Al-Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo explores this trend.

As Regional Neighbors Grow, Poverty Lingers in Yemen
August 18, 2008, 11:55 am
Filed under: Muslim World, Poverty | Tags: , ,

Though poverty is a ubiquitous scene in much of the Muslim world, specifically the Middle East, most of the attention if often placed on a few key locations. The dominant discussion often highlights disparities in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Afghanistan, regions that are facing military occupations, displacement and political instability. What is often lost, than, is a look at how conditions are deteriorating in places like Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Surrounded by oil rich nations, Yemen has not developed like its regional neighbors and most Yemenis, for a variety of factors, see emigration as the only outlet. This article from the Yemen Times, the country’s largest English language paper, explores the degree of poverty among Yemeni widows and orphans.

Poverty, illiteracy and lack of skills to earn a sustainable income, coupled with weak social and domestic relationships, all contribute to putting Yemeni widows in desperate need of help and attention.

Every day is a challenge for Jamila, a 45-year-old Yemeni widow who lives with her five children and her elderly sick parents in a very small room on Siteen Street in Sana’a.

Rarely eating three meals a day, the entire family lives in extremely poor sanitation conditions. Jamila has made one corner of the room a bathroom while the other serves as a makeshift kitchen with a small kerosene stove and a few plates.

The occasional aid (food or clothing) she receives from neighbors or local charity organizations is never enough. She forced her three children to leave school to work as shoemakers, while she works as house cleaner, using what little money they all make to buy food and pay their room rent.

Jamila is one of many Yemeni widows who find themselves struggling alone after losing their husbands and their household’s breadwinners.

Although there are no studies or figures on the number of widows in Yemen, Rashida Al-Nusari, director of the Social Affairs Ministry’s women and children unit, affirms that widows and orphans comprise the majority of Yemen’s poor and are its neediest class.

Such women are more likely to face threats to their economic security. “Even those widows who enjoy social insurance can’t get it directly because all insurance documents must be in a man’s name,” she notes.

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Gavage in Mauritania
August 17, 2008, 9:39 pm
Filed under: Africa | Tags: , ,


The nation of Mauritania faces a myriad of social, political and economic problems, which has greatly impacted it’s ability to develop. While most Mauritanians live and work in urban centers, a sizable number still depend on agriculture and animal husbandry, specifically in rural areas where the government has had little influence in affecting policy. One area where this is most apparent has been with gavage, or the practicing of force feeding. In his book Mauritania, Alfred G. Gerteiny wrote this of gavage:

Women are subjected to gavage-that is, forced feeding, in order to gain weight. Fathers send daughters 10 or 11 years of age to live with herdtending dependent aznagui who see to it that the girls gain weight … often by being tied to the ground, and, to expand their stomachs, given nothing by water for three days. Then they are crammed with milk, usually camel’s milk.

Though decades have passed since Gerteiny wrote of the practice, gavage still occurs. In Mauritania, women who are overweight, or in some cases, obese, are considered beautiful and alternatively, women who weigh what we here would consider a healthy weight are shunned. In recent years, the government and NGO’s have forcefully led a campaign to discourage the practice. The forceful feeding of adolescent girls creates a plethora of health complications as the young girls mature into women. In the larger cities, the practice has visibly been cut, both by a changing of the times and by the discouragement of the practice. However, things are different in the desert, where people continue traditional practices.

One woman told the BBC:

“I make them eat lots of dates, lots and lots of couscous and other fattening food,”

But even in the cities, the reduction in gavage has not impacted the allure of obesity, which is still a pervasively dominant paradigm.

One woman told the Christian Science Monitor.

“The real gavage is on the point of becoming extinct. But there’s a new method … They take pills, some of them ones you usually give to an animal.”

While the practice of force feeding has reduced, obesity is still seen as a sign of beauty and women continue to go to great lengths and widths to gain weight. Al Jazeera explores the issue of gavage and the changing psyche of Mauritanians in their Africa Uncovered series.

Part 1

Part 2

Bolivia and Libya Establish Diplomatic Relations
August 14, 2008, 8:34 am
Filed under: Latin America, Politics | Tags: , , ,

La Razon reports that Bolivia and Libya have agreed to establish diplomatic relations. The agreement, signed in the Bolivian capital of La Paz by Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca and his Libyan counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohamed Matri, strengthens the position of Bolivian President Evo Morales and his fledgling MAS government, which faces a political impasse as several Departments (states) seek regional autonomy.

A close relationship between the two states would dramatically help the impoverished Andean nation, which has large natural gas reserves and is attempting to draw foreign investment not specifically from multinational-corporations but from oil and gas exporting countries.

‘We have formalized diplomatic relations and this will allow Bolivia to exploit the technological development that this country has achieved in the field, for example, hydrocarbons’ said Choquehuanca.

‘Knowing that Bolivia has huge natural resources, we can exploit them very well and we can also establish a partnership to work together in a proper exploitation’ added Matri.

In the past 12 months, Bolivian leaders have reached out to the international community and have scored some notable alliances with fellow non-aligned member states. Most notably, Bolivia has formed a close relationship with Iran, a point of contention witin the opposition and the United States, which sees Iranian encroachment in its sphere of influence as a threat.

Earlier this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a special enjoy to Bolivia to congratulate Morales on his victory in the national referendum. Venezuela and Iran have also agreed to loan Bolivia 225 million dollars to create a state owned cement company. One of Morale’s fiercest opponents currently controls cement production in the country through a myriad of private firms and the planned state owned company is seen as a way to take some leverage away from the oppostition.

Iran’s PressTV adds:

“Bolivian deputy minister for small and medium business, Eduardo Peinado, said Saturday that the deal was inked between Bolivian leader Evo Morales, Venezuelan envoy Julio Montes Prado and an Iranian business official Hojjatollah Soltani.

Early Referendum Results In
August 10, 2008, 5:49 pm
Filed under: Latin America, Politics | Tags: , , , ,

As expected, Evo Morales has easily won the recall referendum. Early results estimate that Morales received more than 61% of the vote, above the 54% which he received in the 2005 election. While these results, which are not surprising one bit, strengthen Morales, they also indicate that the opposition state governors also received high support.  This means that the political stalemate is sure to continue, as both sides have now been strengthened and will continue to fight.  As always, McClathcy offers the best and objective analysis of the situation and all that has surrounded this tumultuous day in Bolivia.

Morales survives Bolivian election test, but foes also gain

LA PAZ, Bolivia – President Evo Morales scored a split victory in a national referendum Sunday when Bolivians voted to keep him in office but also ratified governors who are his implacable foes, according to television exit polls.

The result will mean continued division along political and geographic lines over Morales’ efforts to push through Socialist policies meant to give greater political and economic power to the indigenous majority, analysts said.

“The polarization will continue,” former President Carlos Mesa said in an interview. “So will the radical policies by both sides. Neither side has enough power to make the changes it wants on its own.”

Morales emerged from Sunday’s plebiscite with a strengthened hand after winning 60 percent of the overall vote, according to ATB television station. Morales received overwhelming majorities in Bolivia’s western Andean states.

In the expectations game, the 60 percent result would reinvigorate the president politically because it would top the 53.5 percent he received when he was elected in December 2005.

But the opposition – which is centered in the more entrepreneurial-minded eastern states – has also emerged fortified. Three of the four states that voted this year for great autonomy from the central government in La Paz rejected the president, and voters ratified opposition governors in all four of the states.

Ruben Costas, governor of the main opposition state, Santa Cruz, won 71 percent of the vote, according to ATB.

Manfred Reyes, the governor of Cochabamba state, was losing, according to exit polls.

Reyes had said that the referendum was illegal and that he would not leave the governor’s office on Monday. That could set the stage for a violent confrontation in a state where pro-government supporters burned the governor’s office 18 months ago in opposition to Reyes.

Besides Reyes, the governors of La Paz and Oruro also appeared on the way to being recalled. Morales would appoint interim replacements before new elections would be called in 90-120 days.

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