The men were firing their Kalashnikovs so close by that I was certain I could hear the bullet casings cascading down onto the roof of the tent. A crowd of women swaddled in black cupped their hands over their veiled mouths to emit a wave of high-pitched ululations a call of celebration familiar across the Middle East. The 16-year-old bride, draped in a sparkly white gown, henna tattoos running up her arms, sat silent and tearful as she prepared to meet her groom for the first time. I hadn't meant to spend the night in this tiny village in a country everyone is pointing to as the next hub of global terrorism. But it's not every day that you get invited to an Al-Qaeda wedding.
To be clear, the town that bears that name has absolutely no relation to the infamous terrorist organization. Al-Qaeda, which means "the base," is named for its position at the foot of a high, rugged mountain range in western Yemen. Still, residents joke that having Al-Qaeda in your passport makes it impossible to get a visa. And in a country better known as Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland, the site of the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000 and, most recently, the alleged training ground for underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the coincidence is lost on no one.
In early December, weeks before Abdulmutallab's abortive attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, the mood on a cross-country bus was friendly. At a rest stop on the road from the capital, Sana'a, to the city of Taiz, a bubbly fellow passenger named Habiba leaned over, lifted her veil and invited me a stranger to her village to attend her nephew's wedding. Of course, she added with a comforting pat on the shoulder, "not that al-Qaeda."
The celebration embodied Yemen's strong traditions of honor and hospitality and its emerging red flags. As a foreign guest, I was given the one bed in the entire house to sleep in. Family members young and old slept shoulder to shoulder, huddled in blankets on the floor. Although there was little food to share, meat was always heaped onto my section of the communal plate. The ceremony was interrupted by rolling blackouts. Like most other things in Yemen, the guests explained, electric service has worsened this year. Much of the country is increasingly lawless and desperately poor; reserves of water, oil and cash are running dry. The groom's brother Bandar, who drove me to Taiz the next day, pointed out new roads along the way all built with foreign donations. "The government here is absent," he said.
At weddings, as in most other aspects of life in this deeply conservative country, women are sequestered from men. Inside the house of Habiba's sister, the women of Al-Qaeda were loud and gregarious, donning slinky gowns and makeup for the all-women wedding party and passing out khat, a mildly narcotic leaf that most of the country chews. Like many other Yemenis, they were strongly opposed to U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the political commentary flowed easily as they offered me perfume and sweets and begged me to show them "Western" dancing when the party got going.
At one point a woman approached me, visibly angry. Her husband is one of the last remaining detainees in Guantánamo, she said. He had escorted his sister to Afghanistan to marry an Arab fighter but was captured in Kandahar by the Americans. Eight years later, she is waiting for President Obama to close the prison and return her husband. Nearly half of the remaining detainees at Guantánamo are Yemeni; their transfers were halted after the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt. Said Ali al-Shihri, one of several former detainees who reportedly returned to terrorism after their release, is now deputy commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In the morning, as I prepared to leave Al-Qaeda, the female wedding guests showered me with hugs and kisses. "Don't forget me," a 5-year-old named Mona said. One of the groom's brothers offered another suggestion: "Be careful. There are bad people out there."