Elected sheikh by the tribal elders only a year before, the handsome, 28-year-old Othman has gained high repute for the fairness and rapidity of his judgments, so much so that among the throng are members of other tribes, drawn by his burgeoning reputation. As the morning wears on, the petitioners, a few dozen at a time, check their automatic rifles at the front door and enter a comfortable, cushion-strewn holding room to wait their turn.
Upstairs in the mansion, under the chandeliers and the pastel pink stucco work on the ceiling of the long, whitewashed hearing room, Othman is considering the tricky question of one Basher, a tribesman who a few months earlier killed a man while attempting to collect a debt. Arrested by the police, Basher escaped from prison and raced to seek asylum at the sheikh’s house, slaughtering a number of sheep and oxen on the doorstep and placing his Kalashnikov assault rifle in the blood, a traditional invocation of sanctuary. Othman escorted him back to jail; making it clear to the police that Basher was now his prisoner to dispose of as he wished.
“It’s a difficult case,” explains the sheikh. “A lot depends on whether this money really was owed. When Basher went to collect the debt, the man’s family fired in the air to drive him off. He fired back and killed one of them. Now the rest of the family is demanding the death penalty:’
As the headmaster of the local school, who doubles as court secretary, kneels at the sheikh’s feet to record the deliberations, Othman confides that he will leave the killer in jail for another year or so until the victim’s family has calmed down and lost some of their thirst for revenge. “Then I can negotiate a deal on the blood money, Basher will go free, and everyone will be satisfied?’
“Suppose,” I ask, “the government was to insist on applying the law and punishing the man for murder?”
The sheikh’s uncle, father-in-law, and chief bodyguard gaze at me in astonishment. “But he is under the sheikh’s protection! If they tried to do that, it would be an insult. The entire tribe would take action against the government:’
Elsewhere in the Middle East powerful police states rigorously enforce the stern authority of central governments and ruling families. In Yemen, home to 17 million people, 50 million guns, and a tradition of prickly independence, they do things differently. This is a country where passengers arriving at Sana International Airport are met by friends inside the customs area and where the government habitually switches off the cell phone system to prevent its use by restive tribes for battlefield communications. Little wonder that there is a free market in justice.
Tucked away at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, south of Saudi Arabia and west of Oman, Yemen has largely escaped the outside attention directed at other Middle Eastern states that are richer in oil or periodically involved in regional wars. “Yemen is 16th-century Europe,” said the Dutch ambassador, proffering a can of Gross beer, a welcome relief in this Muslim country where alcohol-free beer is king. We were sitting on the roof of his residence in Sana as a huge pale moon rose from behind the mountains that circle the city. “You have dukes and counts and wars, blood feuds and ghosts?’ with a widely circulated story that a modern apartment building on the road from the airport could not be rented because it had been taken over by jinn—spirits that Yemenis consider a third group of rational beings, along with men and angels.