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Where wedding shots once meant something else entirely

The tradition of firing off automatic weapons at weddings has succumbed to a relatively new concept for Yemen: public safety.

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.)

Wedding party sits with groom in Yemen
Male members of a Yemeni wedding party.
(Paul Stephens/GlobalPost)

“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.”