The tribal war over the Marai Mountain in Yemen's Al-Bayda province has claimed more than 150 lives over a decade. Which is why Sheik Abdul-Rahman Al-Marwani, chair of the Dar Al-Salaam Organization for Combating Revenge and Violence, is steering his SUV one-handed through Sanaa's traffic, while using his Nokia phone to negotiate a possible settlement to the conflict. By the time Marwani hangs up, he's brokered a shaky truce between the two main warring groups : a year-long cease-fire during which there'll be more talks.
Negotiating peace in Yemen can be lethal. Since 1997, when Marwani founded his non-profit organization to work against gun violence and revenge killing, 15 of his volunteers have been killed — most of them caught in the crossfire of tribal battles. Government officials estimate that there are around 60 million guns in the region — three for every person. "A poor man will save on food, just to buy a gun," says Marwani. "A man in Yemen without arms has no value."
Dar al-Salaam (which translates as House of Peace) is trying to change that, negotiating tribal truces — 185 to date — and preaching tolerance and reconciliation. The organization runs training camps for tribal leaders and offers internships to the sons of tribal sheiks, hoping to create a more peaceful mind-set in these future leaders. To bolster the point, the organization's office is decked with bloody photos of gun victims. Using funding from Yemen's banking and telecom sectors, and grants from Western governments as well as its own, the Dar al-Salaam sends theater groups and poets to enlighten tribes and schools. It also runs awareness campaigns, emblazoning water bottles and street signs with an anti-gun logo — a Kalashnikov with a red slash drawn through it.
There's a hint of the showman about Marwani, a handsome former lawyer in a snow-white robe, with a traditional dagger in his belt. His eyes well with tears as he describes how a tribal woman, wounded when a gun misfired at a wedding celebration, was deemed unmarriageable by her tribe. She sought sanctuary at Dar al-Salaam, later marrying one of the organization's 3,200 volunteers.
Gun culture still rules in huge swaths of Yemen, where tribal traditions are strong and the judiciary is weak. Many "don't believe in the law, so they take revenge using their own arms," says Marwani. Blood feuds over anything from a pilfered cow to a perceived slight account for an estimated 1,200 revenge killings a year. Entire families become targets for retaliation, leaving parents scared to send children to school and farmers afraid to till their crops. Revenge killing is "a main obstacle for investment, for development and for democracy," says Noor Mohamed Baabad, Yemen's Deputy Minister of Social Affairs and Labor.
The war on terror has made Yemen's gun problem a global issue — evidence suggests that Yemeni arms dealers have supplied Islamic militants in Saudi Arabia and beyond. After 9/11, the Yemeni government, a U.S. ally, cracked down on the local gun trade and began buying back guns from tribes. Last year, it closed arms markets and banned Yemenis from carrying guns in cities.
Marwani, meanwhile, has widened his organization's remit from tribal violence to Islamist extremism. "The terrorists convince people that if they blow themselves up, they go to paradise," he says. "We sell people paradise through peace."
A recent morning found him talking with hard-line Islamists about the Danish cartoon issue. "I told them that in Europe people can criticize anything, even Christianity and Judaism," he says.
A Sufi, Marwani uses the messages of Islamic mysticism to convince militants that Islam preaches peace. But on the subject of extremists, he can sound like a Washington hawk. "We need to capture all the scholars who are preaching violence, and, if we must, even kill them," he says. "Their danger is that they can affect the whole country." Recently, he confronted a firebrand preacher who had exhorted Muslims to kill Christians. "Do you believe Allah is wise and that all things come from Allah?" Marwani asked. The preacher did. "Even that Mercedes you drive?" the sheik pressed on. "Because if you kill all the Christians, there won't be any of them left to build Mercedeses."