The first impression of anyone arriving to Yemen is probably the massive amount of weaponry carried by civilians. I imagine that children here probably sneer at the plastic “Made in China” toy guns. In a picnic area near Sanaa, I was shocked to see young boys of about 12 years old firing their AK-47s into the sky. They broadly smiled at me and furiously waved their hands with two fingers forming a V — sign for victory and peace.
It is estimated that there are 60 million firearms owned by the population of 25 million. Children and women aside, each adult Yemeni man stocks up to 10 weapons at home or tucked into his belt. And that excludes the ornamental daggers that are part of the traditional Yemeni outfit. Quoting political science professor Ahmed al-Kibsi: “Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun.”
However, despite the deeply-rooted gun culture, it is amazing to see what the Yemeni revolution has achieved so far, with a relatively low death toll (approximately 2000) compared to Syria (at the moment estimated at 30,000 and still rising).
One person who greatly contributed to the transition of power in Yemen is Jamal bin Omar — the UN envoy who orchestrated the negotiation process. One day after the election, I had the honor to meet up with him in a casual private gathering. Looking exhausted but calm, he agreed with me that Yemen stands now at the perfect position to transfer away from its gun culture, as security has to be the most important job for the new government.
In the same evening, I also talked with Cathy who is Jamal’s assistant. Overwhelmed with the very limited violence during the election, she told me that what is happening in Yemen is a miracle, given the country’s complex situation and its extreme gun culture: “There must be something very special in the make-up of the people here!” – Cathy explained to me – “They may scare the hell out of you with the loads of weapon they carry around, but they genuinely want peace!”
Strange but true: for Yemeni, weapons do not necessarily mean violence.
I am co-author of Cultural Detective Vietnam, and am in the midst of a journey that traces the path of Islam from its origins as it spread outward around our planet. Thank you for following!