Posted on October 28, 2011 - by mira
The young woman was draped in black all over, her hands hidden inside black gloves. Others waited behind her. She was collected but in a hurry.
On the wall behind the man, a sign had pictures of qat, a jambiya (dagger), a gun, and a red x on each one.
The young woman reached into her handbag and pulled out a handgun. She calmly placed it on the counter. The man took it and gave her a key. She then proceeded to class like it was nothing.
Another incident, also in Sanaa, stopped me cold in my tracks. A jeep parked abruptly on a main road not too far from me, and out poured man after man with Kalashnikovs hanging from their shoulders. I almost died. Having grown up in the Lebanese civil war, I was jumpy and nervous at the sight of guns of any size.
What was going on? Was a fight about to break out?
It turned out to be nothing. Just a sheikh and his bodyguards. But I just couldn’t get used to the gun culture of Yemen.
Over time, guns became more of a rarity in Sanaa with efforts to ban carrying them in public.
But outside Sanaa, they seemed to be everywhere. On a trip with students through Radaa to meet famed exorcist al-Obali, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch, and oh! Every single man had his AK-47 at his side as he ate. I almost fainted. The students explained that tribal revenge wars were rife in Radaa, and every man lived with the constant fear of a revenge murder.
At a hotel near Qobai, where I tried to talk the hotel manager out of marrying off his eight-year-old daughter, on a hill where a group of us sat and chewed qat and contemplated a sublime sunset, the man brought out his Kalashnikov and posed his very young son with it for the cameras. The AK-47 was almost taller than the child. “He’ll grow up to be a man!” the father beamed.
But with one of the world’s highest per-capita gun ownerships, three to four weapons to a Yemeni, there was very little crime in Sanaa, contrary to expectations. Petty crime existed, but bank robberies, house break-ins and street muggings were mostly unheard of.
Recently in Bangkok, when a taxi driver made off with my groceries, I thought back to all the times in Yemen when taxi drivers had the opportunity to do the same – and get away with it – but didn’t. Many people went hungry every day in Yemen, yet few stole. I’ve seen men walk out of banks with large bags of cash in Sanaa, and no one gave them a second glance. I was the only one who stood and marveled at the sight. How was it possible?
So I put the question to my students. I asked them, when people got into fights and lost their tempers, did they not reach for their guns? Yes, they did, they said. It happened a lot and resulted in many unintended deaths.
But crime, heists and bank robberies? No.
It wasn’t that simple, one student offered. Generally, people knew that if they killed, there would be blood money to be paid, revenge killing, or even the start of an endless tribal war that could almost wipe out both tribes. That didn’t mean that murders weren’t committed, but the consequences did deter people sometimes.
Another student said that house break-ins were rare because everyone knew that there were three or more weapons in each home.
This is not at all to defend gun ownership and use. How could I, when I grew up in a war and witnessed the death and destruction that weapons cause? In fact, a Yemeni organization, Dar al-Salam, worked hard over the years to raise awareness among the public and lobby for more gun control. So, destructive effects of weapons in Yemen? Yes, definitely. Kidnapping of hapless tourists by armed tribesmen? Yes. But overall crime? Not as much as you’d expect, with at least three guns to a Yemeni.
As for Obali, the exorcist of Radaa, did I meet a sorcerer who summoned and exorcised spirits with the wave of a magic wand? And what did he say to me about the Lebanese? Stay tuned to find out.
Read more posts in the series: Yemen Journey: A personal narrative of my life in Yemen.
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