Monday, August 24, 2009

The Cult of Khat

“Khat makes you happy. Khat makes you crazy. It can also make you cry.”
- Hisham al-Khamisi, taxi driver

Any travel to Yemen nowadays, particularly by those for whom the Middle East is something of a novelty, tends to include dabbling in the popular Yemeni pastime of chewing khat Рa locally grown flowering plant that contains an amphetamine-like stimulant causing a mildly euphoric, uplifting effect. Trying khat and reporting on its subtle, amorphous effects to friends back home has become so de rigueur that it is now almost something of a clich̩ Рnot to mention a kind of right of passage or experiential badge for aspiring Arabists travelling the Middle East circuit.

Not that they can be entirely blamed. For this socially-sanctioned drug is employed ritualistically and en masse in Yemen, with a large portion of the day being allocated to its use. It is an omni-present fact of life as well as a tool of social cohesion that is difficult to avoid for any visitor seeking an easy inroad into the local culture.

This widespread practice of chewing khat, which in recent decades has grown to become a national addiction, was neither always the problem that it is today nor is it an issue confined to just one or two dimensions of consequence. It can even be said that the future of Yemen and its development as a nation is powerfully impacted by the question of khat use and the implications surrounding it.

The plant is believed to have come to Yemen around 400 years ago from Ethiopia. Similar geographic and climatic conditions made it a perfect transplant location. For centuries, it was only the very rich and the elderly who chewed the plant, and only occasionally; often during official meetings and political discussions to empower and enliven debate. Otherwise use of the drug was strictly confined to only a few hours in the early afternoon.

It was only in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, when approximately 4 million Yemeni workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia for their government siding with Iraq against the international coalition, that the khat industry exploded. Many of the unemployed repatriated Yemeni workers took to the khat fields to find work, while others, with little to do, began to use the drug themselves. The wave soon spread to university students, women and children (some as young 7) - traditionally non-users of the drug.

Today, khat production constitutes a major industry in Yemen with powerful vested interests. Countless people are employed in the business of growing, delivering or selling khat – around 10% of the population. The Yemeni government itself derives money from the taxing of wealthy khat merchants and the slapping of tolls on the transport of the drug, by way of checkpoints along the roads on which they’re delivered.

The plant is mainly cultivated in northern Yemen, especially in and around the towns of Sana’a, Haja, Taiz and Ibb. Numerous varieties of the plant are grown, and like all fruit or vegetable produce can be divided into superior and inferior strains reflected by price and availability. The “best” quality khat can be described as having the smallest leaves and is light green in colour, with thick, whitish stems. Red stems reflect a lesser quality plant which translates into lesser or negligible psychological effects.

Less known or discussed are the numerous problems associated with the growth and consumption of the drug, which include:

The large-scale use of pesticides which have been known to cause disease and in some cases has poisoned and even killed consumers

The loss of precious arable land which is used to grow khat – land which could be used to grow other important staples lacking in Yemen

The loss of even more precious water resources used to cultivate khat. Estimates are that 40% of Yemen’s water supplies are being used to grow the drug.

Too much money being spent on khat by an underclass that has very little income to begin with, thereby helping to perpetuate poverty in Yemen.

Human inactivity and a productivity drain attributed to whole afternoons and evenings being lost to chewing khat

The negative physiological effects, chemical dependency and long-term changes to the brain resulting from prolonged use of the drug

The environmental cost – millions of clear plastic bags used to bag khat can be found strewn across the Yemeni countryside

With millions of Yemenis using khat on almost a daily basis, it is easy to see how any discussion about the future of this ancient country (one of the oldest and most culturally intact in all of the Middle East), will depend upon the ability of Yemenis to end their dependency on, and reduce to the most moderate levels, their use of this powerful plant.

All images and text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hobeika - Super Agent

The Middle East is full of intrigue, or so we are told. Dens of spies, spymasters, vast conspiracies - these are the warp and woof of the place, we imagine. On January 24, 2002, Super Agent Elie Hobeika was blown up in his car near his home. His body was flung 60 meters by the blast, possibly landing on a nearby balcony - so far that was he expelled from his previous spy status.

Elie Hobeika was the incarnation of duplicity in the shifting sands of the Lebanese civil war. He is reported to have executed the Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian refugees after Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel was assassinated by a large detonation at his party's headquarters in East Beirut. Hobeika is even reported to have been behind this very act, killing the President he later revenged by assisting the convicted perpetrator to gain access to the necessary explosives and to the site.

He is reported to have worked with the Syrians to help destroy the Christians' military power which he had previously built up. He was notorious for having been involved in the bombardment of the mainly-Christian town of Zahleh by Syrian and pro-Syrian forces. Finally, he was named as member of the government of President Hrawi - a man from that very Zahleh - and so became Minister of Electricity of Lebanon.

Beyond these major events, Hobeika may have been involved in untold numbers of extra-judicial killings, kidnappings, briberies and blackmail. He exercised each and every one of these crimes with a great passion and a kind of blindness one only sees in saints and the greatest criminals. He was so efficient at the task that every side - Lebanese, Israeli, Syrian - is reported to have gladly drawn on his services.

No one dared touch him until that January 24, a decade or more after his major crimes. Many are convinced that former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon ordered his death after Hobeika agreed to testify against the Israeli leader in a Belgian court over the Sabra/Shatila massacres. Others believe the Syrians took advantage of his expendability to signal that Lebanon remained very shaky and needy of their presence, or to confirm that the Israelis are still meddling in Lebanon. So clear are the muddy waters of Middle Eastern politics. Hobeika's assassination was cloaked in the confusion and duplicity of his very life.

There are some who believe that Hobeika worshipped regularly at the tomb of the Maronite Saint, Mar Charbil, whose corpse remains miraculously uncorrupted by the ravages of time, and that Elie held a bottle of oil in his palm and recited prayers before entering battle, where he would often be seen to laughing like a hyena at times of extreme crisis, shouting "You fools! You don't know what you're doing!".

Some women were also strangely captivated by the green-eyed man, loving him with a desperation suitable to his extreme criminality. Despite the logical pleading of family and friends, these women would gladly go to his bed for the experience of Hobeika. He was greatly feared when he walked his own neighbourhood; all knew of the wrath and vengeance that awaited any who would dare cross him.

There are many who cheered and sighed 'good riddance' when he died. Most of the Lebanese political elite - except the brother of the assassinated Bashir and including many former enemies - attended Hobeika's funeral.

A woman with henna-coloured hair, whose age has only softended her magnificent figure, is reported to be seen placing a red rose at his grave at regular intervals.

(Most of this entry is true; the additional fictions are in line with the general course of events)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Text and photo copyright (c) John Zada and John Bell 2009

“My whole life was preparation for this job,” says Ismail Serageldin, as he sprouts a wry smile and gazes out of his 5th story office window overlooking the Alexandria corniche.

What might otherwise seem like an unusual comment coming from a man who gave up a sparkling career in international development to return to Egypt to take up a job as the head of a library, begins to make sense as the scale of the enterprise to which he heads comes into focus.

Serageldin, a former Vice President of the World Bank and longtime socio-developmental guru is today commandeering of one of Egypt's most ambitious projects: he is the Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a gargantuan library-cum-cultural centre inspired by Alexandria's ancient library of antiquity.

The $220 million brainchild of Alexandria historian, Mustafa al-Abbadi, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (meaning “Library of Alexandria” in Latin), is the modern incarnation of one of the most esteemed institutions of learning and knowledge in history. The Bibliotheca, whose ancient predecessor vanished under dubious circumstances in the late Roman period, took several years to build and first opened its doors to the public in October 2002. In addition to providing Alexandria University with a top-notch research facility, the library was undertaken as part of a larger effort to reinvigorate Egypt's second city by recapturing the same spirit of learning that once made Alexandria one of the epicenters of knowledge in the ancient world..

To read this article in its entirety click here.