National Geographic : 1964 Mar
generous orange turban. As he examines one piece after another, I strain my Berlitz School Arabic to follow the bargaining. "A fine mattock and surely worth the eight buqshah." "The price is fifteen buqshah." "It's well made, true, but iron is iron." "Fifteen, not one buqshah less." "I want it to break soil, not mine gold!" "I'm a busy man. Give me twelve and let me get back to my furnace." "Nine, good smithy, nine." "In the name of Allah...." It may be an hour before, the mattock changes hands for ten pieces of copper. I move on. Commerce is complicated in Yemen. The country has no official currency. Maria Theresa thalers, locally called riyals and worth about a dollar, are used instead. Orig inally an Austrian coin of the late 1700's, the thaler is still minted in Vienna-and dated 1780-for use in Yemen and southern Arabia. Bigger than our silver dollars, the 30 or 40 I carried for gasoline and supplies made a heavy, jingling pocketful. I pulled one out to pay for an ear of roasted corn. Like many, the coin had a small silver loop soldered onto it, for it had once hung as jewelry. Bedouin women often wear the family savings around their necks. A riyal is 40 Yemeni buqshah. The busy vendor grudgingly counted out my change, mostly in half-buqshah coins, piling my free hand full of copper. Now both trouser pockets bulged uncomfortably. The tempo of the busy suq reaches a cli max around midday when the Yemeni comes to buy his daily supply of kat, the "poor man's happiness." The leaves of the kat bush (Catha edulis), when chewed, act as a stimulant and offer a mild kick without intoxicating. From the nearby mountains, where the bushes thrive, a steady supply flows down to the city on the backs of camels and donkeys. Near me a contented merchant, already sold out, had unwrapped the one remaining bundle for himself. "You see," he explained through teeth stained green, "a man can go a long time without food and water-but not one day without his kat." Yemenis "Drink" Strong Tobacco But if the habit stimulates the individual, it leads the country as a whole to languor. By midafternoon all Yemen slows to a crawl- even armies stop fighting-for the hour of kat. A few days later I was invited by a Yemen nobleman, Sultan Fadhl Bin Ali Bin Ahmad, to spend an afternoon with him "at the kat." I came to see him at the former Imam's palace, Puffing a hubble-bubble and chew ing kat leaves, two sultans pass an afternoon in a San'a' rooftop parlor. Man at right plucks leaves from a ten der shoot; discarded foliage litters the floor. Tobacco smolders under char coal in the top of a tall water pipe, whose 20-foot hose cools the smoke. Habit-forming kat competes with coffee as Yemen's leading cash crop. Every afternoon the average Yemeni whiles away hours "at the kat." Wad of leaves swells the unshaven cheek of a kat addict. He will gnaw his plug all afternoon, swallowing the bitterish juices and spitting out the residue. Yemenis spend as much as three-fourths of their earnings on dai ly bundles of the leaves. Sampling kat, the author compared its effect to 10 cups of coffee.