By Erika Solomon
SANAA | Wed Oct 5, 2011
Even as Yemen’s crumbling capital shudders from machinegun fire, cars line up, covered in lace and blinking lights as if for some fairytale gala.
It is high season for weddings in Yemen.
Along this ramshackle, dusty stretch of bridal shops, brothers and uncles puffed with pride decorate wedding cars and brides are ushered into beauty salons. They share a note of unexpected optimism in Sanaa, where more than 100 have been killed in one of the bloodiest episodes of an eight-month revolt against the president.
The country seems to become more fractured by the day.
“Well, yes, the situation is bad. But so what? We’ve booked the hall, the musician. Stop the wedding? No — it has to be done,” says Abdelwahab al-Mansour, decorating his white SUV with red roses and glitter before escorting his niece to her wedding in style.
Tens of thousands of protesters have struggled unsuccessfully to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh from his 33-year rule and have now sparked a bloody, on-off battle between his loyalist forces and troops backing the opposition.
That all seems a world away to the short, bearded Mansour. The 50-year-old is dressed impeccably in traditional tribal attire — a starched white robe, his ornate half-moon-shaped Jambiya dagger tucked into a green patterned sash.
Mansour puts the finishing touches on his car when more rat-a-tat of gunfire bursts out. Mansour and some friends stand calmly and watch with amusement. “It’s no big deal, relax,” they laugh.
Sanaa’s “coiffure street,” as locals call it, is dotted with hair salons and shops overflowing with sparkling white gowns and long trains. Others sell decorations — draping the family car with plenty of sequins, lace and bouquets of flowers is de rigueur.
For many, a dark gloom hangs over the city as it becomes increasingly divided by checkpoints and roadblocks. Some were cooped up at home for days after their street became a war zone of rocket propelled grenades and gunfights.
Naji Saweiry, 23, decorates a white van for his two sisters who he says weren’t very enthusiastic about having to wedge one of the happiest days of their lives into one of the darker chapters of their country’s history.
“It’s a double wedding and I’m doing my best to make it special,” he said. “The wedding hall is packed with guests, everyone is coming, despite the problems. Maybe right now people wanted something to find a little joy in.”
For shopkeepers, there is little good cheer to find despite the small crowds gathering on their street. As night sets in, some crank up generators to keep the lights on in a city where electricity has become scarce.
In the storefronts of less wealthy businessmen, the dresses glitter by candlelight.
“This year was a disaster. We’ve lost 60 percent of our business. Some of the shops next door have lost so much money they can’t pay rent,” says Amar Rafai, 26, shaking his head. He works at a bridal shop where rows of frothy, sequined dresses hang from the ceiling.
“It’s not that customers are scared of the violence, they’re scared of losing their livelihood. Most want to save their money, or they’ve lost their jobs.”
Yemenis were already scraping by before the turmoil, with unemployment above 35 percent and nearly half living on less than $2 a day. Food prices have skyrocketed, more than double sometimes, while fuel and water shortages are widespread.
“Normally we make about 10 million rials a year (about $44,000). The wedding dresses would fly off the shelf,” says shopkeeper Nishwan Shamiri, 26. “This year the owner is putting in money out of his own pocket. I don’t get it, things had calmed but then all the violence came back. God help us.”
Later, the sounds of gunshots taper off and a few bridal parties speed away. Though they insist on holding a wedding, most say it’s best to quickly wrap up celebrations that once lingered late into the night.
Abdulwahab al-Mansour, jumping in his truck to fetch his niece, says it is the uncertainty Yemen faces that fed his determination to carry on with the wedding.
“No one knows how long things will stay like this. Will it take a year or two years? Another day or a few months? We don’t know. So we have to celebrate, in spite of it all.”