Yemen’s culture of weapons

Published on 6 June 2013 in Culture
Ali Abulohoom (author)

Ali Abulohoom

What makes you a men? Two friends walk down a Sana’a street, Klashnikovs slung over their shoulders. Throughout the country, weapons are a sign of prestige and a marker of manhood. (YT archive photo by Nicholas Linn)

What makes you a men? Two friends walk down a Sana’a street, Klashnikovs slung over their shoulders. Throughout the country, weapons are a sign of prestige and a marker of manhood. (YT archive photo by Nicholas Linn)

In Yemen, a weapon is a symbol of manhood, power and pride.

Traditionally, it was just the curved dagger, the jambiya, that held this significant position, a symbol of virility and strength.

But in the last hundred years, rifles and automatic weapons have come also to carry this same esteem.

In particular, guns have come to play an important role during certain celebrations, like weddings.

But at what cost?

Nineteen-year-old Yahia Al-Barh has been in Al-Thawra hospital for a month now after catching a stray bullet to the lung.

Yahia wasn’t in a fight or involved in any violent clashes. He was just attending a friend’s wedding.

Originally from Taiz, Al-Barh now lives in Sana’a. He says that tribesmen in Sana’a are known for carrying weapons wherever they go, not like Taiz, a city to the south of Sana’a.

Al-Barh remembers the wedding night. It was festive and people were dancing and firing off guns into the air.

Most of the men held their guns high in their hands and let off shots into the night sky. But one 15-year-old child was having a hard time handling the heavy Kalashnikov rifle that he held in his two hands.

The gun slipped off the boy’s shoulder, Al-Barh recalls and hit him in the chest.

Al-Barh’s brother sits with him at the hospital never attend another wedding where guns are fired in Sana’a,” he says.

Guns first entered Yemen through colonial trade, dating back to the Ottoman entry into Yemen in the mid-16th century.

British colonization of the South of the country, and later Egyptian and Russian attempts to control—in varying degrees—parts of the country meant that foreign powers brought with them their own interests, funding and weapons.

In the large rural swaths of the country, local, tribal law oftentimes holds more weight than state power.

In 1992, a law was passed with the intention of regulating the carrying of fire arms and ammunition. This law allowed for weapons to be carried in major cities, including Sana’a, as long as they were registered.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Qaedi, Director of the General Relationships at the Interior Ministry, says there has been a noticeable increase in weapons use in the capital following the 2011 uprisings.

The protests and the armed clashes that took place within the main cities—largely between state forces and military brigades which defected—led to the further proliferation of arms throughout the country.

Al-Qaedi says that some Yemenis have taken advantage of the state’s weakened situation to use those weapons they may already have had inside their homes. He attributed the resurgence of weapons-use to the fragile state of the country following the crises of 2011.

The uprisings created a “security vaccum,” Al-Qaedi said.

Dr. Omar Abdulkareem, director of Sana’a Security Department, said since the 2011 revolution erupted, Sana’a was divided into two parts: the first defected from the regime and the second staunch supporters of the former-president.

Weapons—varying from pistols to rocket launchers to missiles—appeared in Sana’a as well as other cities.

These weapons came via military camps or arms deals and were later distributed on the streets by different parties, hoping to further boost their armed presence and supporters during the revolution.

The clashes that took place between numerous conflicted parties, including the state, in Sana'a, Taiz and other governorates during the past two years brought back the tradition of using weapons in weddings.

The murder of two youth, Khaled Al-Khateeb, 21, and Jafar Aman, 20, on May 15 in Sana'a resident became very worried.

The two young men were passing by the wedding of a prominent sheikh's granddaughter, where when they were shot dead by one of the bride's relatives as their car came near the wedding procession.

Al-Qaedi asserted that the Ministry of Interior has never conducted an official study about weapons proliferation in Yemen because it's difficult to know how many weapons are possessed by people. By some estimates, there are around 60 million arms in Yemen.

Since President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi was elected in February, the state has been trying hard to control this phenomenon. Security procedures have increased throughout the capital—especially in light of the reconciliatory National Dialogue Conference, which was in March.

Still, the sharp crack of celebratory gunfire still sounds almost every weekend, as weddings are held throughout the city.

Certain traditions are hard to shake.  

Sheikh Mohammed Al-Ezi Salah, a tribal leader of Ibb governorate, said that for him the carrying a weapon has is a “Yemeni tradition” which he has no intention of letting go of.

“A home without guns is like a fruitless tree,” he says.