It's easy to see why tour guides conjure up tales of the Arabian nights when trying to draw visitors to Yemen. It is a country that seems somehow enchanted. Bright courtyards mingle with dark corners and veiled figures flit through the alleyways connecting tall storybook buildings in the capital of Sana'a.  

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In Yemen, people of all ages chew khat. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

But not all spells are benign. And in reality Yemen is a troubled place, overrun by guns, corruption and warring tribes. It is also the poorest country in the Middle East and one fast running out of its life's blood — water.   "In the 1970s, the general water level in Sana'a could be reached by hand dug well at 10 metres," says Kyle Foster, an American hired by Yemen a few years ago to raise awareness about the country's disappearing ground water. "And now the municipal authorities are finding water at 800 metres to 1,000 metres in depth."

Today, Foster works as a private consultant.  He says the majority of Yemen's underground water reserves are being depleted far faster than they're being replenished.

All the more surprising then to discover that an estimated 80 per cent of agricultural irrigation in Yemen goes to a single crop and one that does little to put food in bellies or bring in hard currency from abroad. It's called khat and the whole of Yemen is mad for it — a nation bewitched indeed.  

City full of Dizzy Gillespies

Khat is a mild narcotic. You chew it, stuffing khat leaves in one side of your mouth until your cheek balloons out like a blowfish. A typical session can last up to six hours.

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Khat leaves are sold at a khat market in Sana'a, Yemen. A bag this size sells for about $10 US and will last three to four hours. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

You have only to stand on a Sana'a street corner to see just how popular it is. It is a city full of Dizzie Gillespies in full blow — huge cheeks popping out at you everywhere you look — on buses or passing cyclists and in the souks, sellers almost impossible to understand because their mouths are full of khat. 

Foster says farmers can get a quick turnaround with khat crops if they're irrigating, unlike other crops such as coco that can take years to cultivate. The amount of land being turned to khat is said to be expanding by more than 10 per cent a year in Yemen.

"Either the irrigation practices need to be changed quickly, or a tariff has to be put on water so people are encouraged to use less, or they need to switch to another kind of cash crop."  But how do you wean an entire nation off a plant that is part of the social fabric? Over half of adult Yemeni males chew daily and people regularly spend beyond their means to buy it. A small bag costs about $10 US. Most Yemenis earn less than $2 a day.   

So what's the attraction? Many enthusiasts describe a similar arc — euphoria followed by earnest conversation and problem-solving followed by depression about those problems followed by a deep sense of sadness. Choose your poison.

One man I met, a Yemeni pilot on vacation, told me he chews because his mind feels more nimble. "Sometimes when I chew khat I can read a lot," he said. "You know we can go and work and think a lot. It (raises) the imagine (sic) of the human being. It's very close to hash, you know."

But the plant has its critics. Washington recently introduced rules stipulating that anyone hoping to emigrate from Yemen must prove they've been khat-free for three years. And the World Health Organization calls it a "habit-forming" substance if not necessarily addictive. 

Riches of Happy Arabia run low

Sami Noaman is a Yemeni journalist who says that if Yemen is indeed bewitched … then Khat is a curse. 

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Often, khat traders chew and sell the leaves at the same time. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

"Khat in Yemen is one of the biggest problems," he says, "and there is no political effort to fight this plant."

Noaman says the plant is creating a nation of sloths, noting that even protests against the government have been known to end early so people can go home to chew. And there's an oft-told tale of the warring parties in Yemen's 1994 civil war arranging daily ceasefires so soldiers on both sides could indulge.

"In the afternoon, people in Yemen go home and eat khat only and stay five, six and some of them 12 hours at the same place without doing anything, only watching TV. In Yemen it even damaged our agriculture. We become a state or a nation which imports its food from outside Yemen."

The territory that is now modern Yemen was known in Roman times as Arabia Felix or Happy Arabia. Not, presumably, because of the euphoric effects of khat, but because of the region's riches, including water with sophisticated farming and irrigation techniques. Today, experts warn that Sana'a could be the first city in the world to run out of water and clearly khat is part of the problem.  

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh apparently swore off khat years ago, but there's been little official effort at encouraging his people to do the same. Government fuel subsidies continue to mask the real cost of pumping water to the fields and khat sellers have become powerful players in their own right in Yemen. It's not clear if the government could take them on even if it wanted to.  

So an enchanted nation chews and chats and dreams on. Is it mass psychosis,  mass addiction … or simply one of life's pleasures not to be denied?