SANAA, Yemen — It’s wedding season in Yemen and traditionally, that’s meant three things: music, dancing and joyously firing an array of pistols, assault rifles, rocket-launchers, anti-aircraft mortars and grenade launchers into the air to celebrate the occasion.
But in the past few years, that last part has been nixed from the program.
In 2007, the Yemeni government began implementing an ambitious disarmament and weapons-registration campaign in Sanaa, the nation’s capital, and in many other cities around the country. The upshot is that Yemenis can no longer carry, brandish or fire weapons of any sort in urban and semi-urban districts — even on their sons’ wedding nights.
“People still [fire guns] in the villages. You’ll see it all over out there,” said Muammar Abdul Jaleel, who runs a wedding supplies store in Sanaa. He mimes firing an AK-47 in large half-circles above in head and laughs out loud. “But in the cities? No, no, no. Not any more.”
For the most part, urban Yemenis are in favor of the disarmament campaign, and are willing to simply adapt their old traditions to a new, gun-less environment. Most urban weddings now feature deafening fireworks displays, which are said to sound remarkably similar to an assault rifle being unloaded into a cement wall. Most urban grooms now pose for pictures with an ornamental assault rifle instead of the real thing. (A least one particularly entrepreneurial vendor in Sanaa has begun renting out bedazzled, gold-inflected AK-47s for just that purpose, Jaleel, the store owner, said.)
“It’s a lot better now — it’s safer, at least. Before, people would sometimes get hit by bullets accidentally,” said Mufudh Said, who sells bouquets of fake flowers for weddings from his small store in Sanaa. “It was terrible.”
But a handful of Yemenis say the government’s anti-gun campaigns are an affront to not only wedding traditions, but also to a deeply revered sense of autonomy among tribal and community leaders.
“Firing guns for celebrations has been a tradition passed on from father to son for generations,” said Abdullah Hassan, who has lived in Sanaa for the last six years, but grew up in a small village, where owning a gun is a symbol of social status and manhood. “Guns are a part of being Yemeni,” he said.
While there are no good statistics on how many guns are in Yemen today, a United Nations-sponsored study from 2007 indicated there are up to 17 million firearms in Yemen, a country of only 22 million people. Other internal studies and media reports put the number of guns around 50 million.
“Every man in Yemen has a gun. Every single man,” said Mohammed Said, a student in Sanaa. “That will never go away.”
But the government is doing its best to change that mentality, in part because of the growing strength of Al Qaeda in Yemen, and in part because of concerns over its own ability to effectively govern in vast regions of the country where tribal law dominates. In Saada Province, the government has been waging a war against heavily armed Shia rebels, called Houthis, since August. In YouTube videos, Houthis brandish an arsenal of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft missiles.
“Of course the availability of arms in the hands of citizens provides a base for extremism and terrorism,” said Sheikh Abdul-Rahman Al-Marwani, the president of Dar Al-Salam, a Sanaa-based organization that works to disarm citizens and mediate armed tribal disputes in the Yemeni countryside.
In June, 35 people died in shoot-outs over land disputes, and an estimated 2,000 more die every year from gun-fueled arguments and long-standing tribal vendettas, according to the ministry of interior.
Al-Marwani said the massive proliferation of guns in Yemen is due in part to the fact that many Yemenis have no faith in the judicial system, and so turn to guns to defend themselves.
Other scholars attribute Yemen’s pervasive gun culture to the succession of highly armed regimes — the Ottomans, the British and then the Soviets — that dominated Yemen throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and left their weapons behind when they split town. The problem was exacerbated when Yemen was divided into two warring countries during the Cold War — the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south — both of which were saturated with huge numbers of weapons from Soviet and American allies.
Yemeni officials have proposed two bills in the last four years — one in 2005 and one in 2007 — that would have restricted the sale of firearms or required licenses for existing firearms. Both were met with scathing opposition by tribal leaders in the Yemeni parliament. Neither passed.
The ministry of interior estimates it has confiscated roughly 300,000 weapons since 2007, and tens of thousands more after a 2005 campaign that allowed the government to “buy back” heavy artillery like rocket propelled grenades from tribal leaders.
With or without the celebratory spray of bullets, wedding season in Yemen is in no danger of slowing. One wedding shop owner in Sanaa estimated that there are a hundred weddings in Sanaa every week in the months after Ramadan, and judging by the cacophony of music, fireworks and women’s ululations on the streets of Sanaa, he might be right.
“People shouldn’t worry so much about guns or no guns,” said Bilal Al-Gunade, who has been selling wedding paraphernalia to Sanaa residents for three years. “First, it’s cheaper not to buy bullets. They are expensive, and fireworks are cheap. And second? Dancing is free.”