In Yemen, the More the Merrier?

May 12, 2011 • Features, Politics and Economy • Views: 1849

by Erin Biel:

It is 10 a.m. and the sports stadium in Sana’a, Yemen is packed. Hundreds of young men swathed in white robes and black and gold headscarves begin to congregate, their long, curved golden swords held at the ready. Local celebrities have turned out for the event; the Yemeni President’s son, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and representatives from 70 other countries are among the spectators. This is no conventional sporting event. In fact, it is not a sporting event at all. It is a mass wedding.

Mass weddings are meant to ease the financial burden that Yemeni grooms incur in paying the conventional, rather exorbitant wedding expenses. In a traditional wedding, the groom presents the bride’s family with a dowry of $5,000 or more in money and valuables, such as gold jewelry. During the ceremony itself, which lasts two to three days, the groom must rent a tent, furnish it with cushions and decorative lighting, and hire a traditional Yemeni band for nights of endless dancing. He must purchase enough lamb, bread, and rice to fill the stomachs of the entire community, and enough qat, a leaf chewed for its stimulant effect, for all in attendance.

It’s quite a fanfare, and the cost of these time-honored extravaganzas weighs heavily upon a country in which half the population lives on less than $2 a day. Mass weddings initially evolved as a response to this conundrum. Lately, however, the innovative practice has taken on a new meaning, as people far removed from the bride and groom have co-opted these mass weddings to serve their own interests.

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On October 21, 2010, the largest mass wedding on record was held by the Orphans’ Development Foundation (ODF). Sixteen hundred grooms, all orphans, took part in the ceremony, the third to be held thus far by ODF. “The mass weddings are intended to help these young people marry by facilitating weddings and reducing costs,” said Bashir Radman, the director of management relations and marketing at ODF. The service is especially beneficial for the grooms, who do not have families to help pay the staggering wedding expenses. Radman continued, detailing the social purposes that mass weddings purportedly serve: “Mass weddings are a means of disseminating chastity among young people,” he said. This is an important value in a country where the concept of “girlfriend and boyfriend” is culturally taboo and where people fear that if men are not married off soon enough, they will resort to prostitution.

In October, 1,600 groomsmen and dignitaries from over 70 countries crowded into a sports stadium to partake in the largest mass wedding on record. (MTN Yemen)

Radman also praised mass weddings for reviving the principle of social solidarity. ODF’s mass weddings have certainly become a social event over the years. When ODF conducted its first mass wedding in 2008, only 250 grooms took part, but in the three years since, the number of groomsmen and the ceremonial extravagances have swelled dramatically.

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The marked increase in the number of grooms who participate in mass weddings is far from coincidental; it is likely the result of politics. Saudi Arabia, the primary source of funding for Islamic organizations in Yemen, has taken a particular interest in Yemeni mass weddings. Saudi King Abdullah’s brother, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, has served as the principal donor to these weddings each year. Many view these seemingly charitable gestures as part of the Saudi kingdom’s efforts to exert its influence in the Middle East. As Oliver Holmes, a contributor to TIME magazine with extensive experience in Yemen, noted, “Saudi Arabia tries to do a lot of PR… They have quite a few oil interests in Yemen.”

Majid al-Kibsi, a journalist for the Yemen Observer, an English-language newspaper published in Yemen, also appeared skeptical of the Prince’s ostensibly altruistic motives. “It is considered one of the shapes of charity to help a man get settled and get married, but the idea of charity is to keep the donor unidentified,”al-Kibsi said. “The way they promote the name of the sponsor is more like a political agenda.”

This sense of Saudi self-promotion is hard to overlook at ODF’s mass weddings. The Crown Prince and other Saudi dignitaries address the grooms from a tall podium throughout the ceremony, and signs plastered around the stadium’s walls herald the Crown Prince’s contributions to the event. Perhaps the most notable contribution is the 200,000 Yemeni Rials, or $900, that the Crown Prince contributes to each groom’s dowry, nearly one-fifth of the expected dowry amount. Such apparent benevolence on the part of the Crown Prince is hardly scrutinized by the Yemeni orphan grooms, who otherwise receive little assistance.

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Mass weddings have also caught the attention of the corporate realm. Businesses have started to hold mass weddings for their male employees as a way of fostering loyalty within the company. In contrast to the humanitarian nature of the ODF mass weddings, corporate weddings are more a form of “corporate social responsibility to raise morale…[similar to] a big office party,” said Holmes, who attended both the recent ODF mass wedding and a corporate mass wedding hosted by MTN, a multinational telecommunications company that operates in Yemen.

In November 2010, MTN hosted a mass wedding for 30 of its male employees. The ceremony was not all that different from ODF’s: Men donned the traditional white robes, chewed qat, listened to instrumental music, and sat on cushions—albeit not stadium chairs—while MTN executives gave ingratiating speeches. MTN posters decorated the room, reminding the groomsmen that the company had made the event possible. Televisions that dotted the walls would suddenly come to life, only to reveal the face of Raid Ahmed, the CEO of MTN in Yemen, who congratulated the grooms as valuable employees of the company. The role of MTN at the wedding seemed “very like Big Brother,” Holmes recounted.

After the ceremony, the groomsmen celebrate and dance to the tune of the sitar and tambourine. (MTN Yemen)

One of the employees who participated in the wedding was Rami Bamashmous, an organizational development specialist in the human resources division. “I really feel [like] MTN is family to me, not just a company I’m working in,” he said. “As grooms in the mass wedding, we share the same memories which are unforgettable, and words can’t describe them.” But the wedding seemed to hold little significance for many of the grooms in attendance. Better off financially than ODF’s orphan grooms, a number of the MTN employees were also planning to hold their own, more intimate weddings. Essentially, the grooms just came for the free party. “Usually the grooms will hold another traditional wedding ceremony after the mass wedding, so he can invite and celebrate with all [of] his friends and family,” al-Kibsi affirmed.

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Mass weddings, originally a pragmatic answer for a country riddled with poverty, may be responsible for the end of private, intimate marriages. The increasing popularity of mass weddings has even made local religious leaders reconsider the traditional concept of a wedding. As mass weddings infiltrate the corporate sector, tribal sheikhs have begun to fear losing their important religious role in wedding ceremonies. In turn, they have attempted to reassert their authority by also conducting mass weddings in their villages. While in the past two brothers would sometimes get married simultaneously, sheikhs are now all too willing to marry 50 men from a single community at once. “In Yemen you must know that Yemeni Sheikhs don’t like to be left behind in any new trend,” al-Kibsi articulated. Yemeni groomsmen want the economic advantages of a mass wedding, and if the sheikhs don’t keep up with the trend, they could find themselves out of a job.

This shift to mass weddings is fairly new, and many Yemeni wedding customs remain resilient to change, for now. Back at the stadium where the 1,600 ODF orphans are getting married, all of the grooms suddenly jump to their feet and burst onto the central dance floor. Moving to the rhythm of the tambourine and Arab sitar, they unsheathe their traditional swords and spin them around their heads. The men are ecstatic, and the air is jubilant. One can only wonder what will happen to this tradition if or when the mass weddings grow any larger. Space on the dance floor could become stifling and, with that, these marked wedding traditions could be stifled as well. Perhaps the Saudi Crown Prince should next invest in the construction of a larger stadium for Yemen.

Erin Biel ’13 is a Global Affairs major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at erin.biel@yale.edu.

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