A coward's guide to Yemen

17:00, May 10 2011
ANCIENT ARCHITECTURE: The old town of Sanaa is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities.

In the lounge of Fahia's home in a fortified mountain village outside Yemen's capital, the topic turned to that emblem of the Middle East: the AK47 Kalashnikov assault rifle.

"So Fahia, how many Kalashnikovs are in this house?" I asked.

"Eighteen," he replied, using the same tone of voice that someone in the West might use to describe how many television sets they own.

"I have three," he adds, attributing ownership of the others to the extended family who share his rambling home.

"One from the Government [he worked part time in the police] and two others I bought."

I already knew a little about the rampant gun culture in Yemen, a nation with 24 million people and a reported 60 million firearms.


This statistic becomes even more alarming when you remember the median age in Yemen is 15.

There had also been a campaign by the Government to reduce the number of guns, so I asked what Fahia thought of this.

He furrowed his brow briefly then added: "It's made them more expensive to buy now."

It's easy to pick on the Kalashnikov as one of the emblems of Yemen. They were nearly everywhere I went in the month I spent there.

At lunch in the village of At Tawila in the uplands not far from Fahia's home, it wasn't surprising to see the man at a neighbouring table had put his Kalashnikov between himself and his plate. The 30-round magazine had another taped to it to double the capacity. Each afternoon in the Tihama region bordering the Red Sea, soldiers would kick back in the shade with the Kalashnikovs strewn around beside them while they pursued the ubiquitous Yemeni habit of chewing qat – the leaves of a mildly hallucinogenic endemic shrub – and putting the world to rights.

At the port of Mukalla on the Arabian Sea, a travel permit was gained from a soldier who had his Kalashnikov leaning casually against his desk, as an office dweller in the West might do with their umbrella. The supposedly free permit involved a fee for which it seemed definitely unwise to ask for a receipt.

In the Hadramaut region, a rare area of fertile canyonlands in the midst of Yemen's eastern deserts, I wandered through the market beside tribesmen who had decorated the butts of their Kalashnikovs with goat skins.

At the hotel where I stayed in the Hadramaut's regional capital, Seiyun, the first rule listed on the sign above the reception desk was that all arms had to be handed in on arrival because they were banned inside.

And it was in the Hadramaut that I was handed a Kalashnikov by mistake. At the time, I was travelling with Kors, a Dutch guy who was taking a few days off from working for an NGO in Yemen, and we were trying to visit Wadi Daw'an, a tributary of the main valley. The wadi is normally off limits for foreigners, possibly because it's the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden. But knowing some basic Arabic and local etiquette, we managed to befriend the soldiers in Seiyun who were in charge of issuing travel permits.

We didn't realise it at the time but the soldiers wrote an authorisation which said, in effect: "These foreigners can go wherever they want." We only became aware of how wide-ranging this authorisation was from seeing the reactions to it by the police and soldiers running the highway checkpoints sited every 20 to 50 kilometres along the main roads. They'd begin reading and within a few seconds there would be a double-take, with a raising of eyebrows and often followed by a shrug as they waved us through.

Although this won us access to the usually forbidden Wadi Daw'an, it came at the requirement that we be accompanied at all times by a soldier, who we collected at a military base at the entrance to the valley. He was, of course, armed with a Kalashnikov.

Mohammed, our soldier, proved to be likeable and quiet, which are attributes I find highly appealing in companions who are armed with automatic weapons. He was also particularly vigilant, riding shotgun in the chartered taxi and keeping a steely eye on everything around us, with the Kalashnikov on his lap.

One of the villages we went through was translated into English as "Rehab". We stopped to have our photo taken beside this sign, although the comedy value of going into Rehab was lost on Mohammed. It was at this point that I gestured towards him and asked: "Suura tammam?" ("Photo OK?") to get permission to take his photo. He misunderstood and handed me his Kalashnikov instead.

For all the fixation on assault rifles being carried by the everyday populace, they had to be seen in the context of the nuances of Yemeni society, which I slowly acquired during the month I spent in the nation.

My time in Fahia's home was particularly instructive, although I only picked up many of the cues in retrospect.

He seemed quietly bemused at the fuss we made about the 18 Kalashnikovs in the house. Owning one was seen as a rite of passage, showing the recipient - almost universally male - was now an adult, just as gaining a driver's licence and buying a first car might do in the West. "When you are a teenager, you get your first Kalashnikov," he explained. "If you don't have one, it's like people think you're not a man."

His had only ever been fired in celebration, Fahia explained, and never in anger. Whenever there was a wedding in the village, the Kalashnikovs would come out and they would shoot into the air on the outskirts of town.

The deeply inculcated gun culture also had to be seen in the context of Yemen's development. It was only about 40 years or so since intertribal raids were a sufficiently frequent occurrence that most people still lived in fortified settlements.

Kawkaban, the village where Fahia lived, was a case in point. It was the biggest village on the plateau but was not particularly conveniently located to access the farming and grazing land.

But with the exception of a narrow isthmus of rock linking it to the rest of the plateau, it was protected on all sides by sheer cliffs. The isthmus featured a massive fortified gate and a series of crenulated battlements, so was eminently defendable from outside aggression and that explained why it had prospered.

That style of life had now been replaced by a more orderly society, but there was still the strong impression that Yemenis placed their allegiances to their family first, then to their tribe, before considering citizens of a nation.

One of the aspects of life about which Fahia showed particular enthusiasm was his connection with Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's embattled president, who had been a guest of Fahia's hospitality. He proudly showed me photographs of the president sitting in the very seat I now occupied.

I also knew Fahia was married, but in keeping with traditional Yemeni culture, she was sequestered away from the public rooms of the house. The closest I had come to seeing her was the briefest accidental glimpse when I first arrived. Fahia later explained that he had married her when he was aged 24 and she was 11. And just as I was adjusting to that news, he said that by the time she turned 20 they had seven children.

But that was far from the full story. The two oldest children were both girls and a few years ago, as the elder one approached the age of 10, the patriarchs of families in the village began to come around to discuss the prospects of arranging their marriages to local men.

"We said 'No'," Fahia explained.

The two older daughters had both expressed interest in becoming doctors because Kawkaban did not have one. So Fahia was supporting them as they worked towards studying medicine at university in the capital, Sanaa.

In one generation, this family had gone from living an almost medieval lifestyle to a remarkably modern one.

That experience reflects the nation as a whole. Yemen was a country still echoing with its lawless history and it is now in the process of going from a nominally democratic country - Saleh had been in power in one form or another since 1978 and the fairness of the elections is disputed - via the violent protests going on now, to one that genuinely reflects the will of the people.

For all that upheaval, many of the important things have not changed, such as the deeply ingrained Arabic tradition of hospitality, which was far more obvious than even the Kalashnikovs. Guests are gifts from God, and we were always treated accordingly.

After I returned to New Zealand, one of my friends who had seen the photographs, including the one of me holding the Kalashnikov, asked if I was ever scared. And I have to admit I was more fearful of going into downtown Christchurch, Wellington or Auckland late on a Friday or Saturday night than anything I encountered in Yemen.

The Dominion Post