Naif Mohammed straps a jambiya dagger for the first time onto his 7-year-old son, Bashir. For centuries, these knives have been a symbol of manliness and social status in Yemen.
Naif Mohammed straps a jambiya dagger for the first time onto his 7-year-old son, Bashir. For centuries, these knives have been a symbol of manliness and social status in Yemen. Ivan Watson/NPR
Jambiya blades on display in a shop window of the centuries-old bazaar in San'a.
Jambiya blades on display in a shop window of the centuries-old bazaar in San'a. Ivan Watson/NPR
Knife-seller Abdullah al Azeri shows off a 300-year-old jambiya dagger that he says is worth more than $25,000. Azeri says his family has been in the knife business for more than 1,000 years.
Knife-seller Abdullah al Azeri shows off a 300-year-old jambiya dagger that he says is worth more than $25,000. Azeri says his family has been in the knife business for more than 1,000 years. Ivan Watson/NPR
In the West, clothes may make the man. But in Yemen, the ultimate status symbol is a good knife.
Yemeni men don't invest as much time and money as some American men do in finding the perfect cell phone, car, hunting rifle or flat screen TV. In this society, where tribal Arab traditions still dominate, men have a different method of showing off their wealth and social class — they wear short, curved daggers tucked into the front of their robes, in ornately embroidered belts.
Known locally as "jambiya," these ornamental knives may be the world's most phallic fashion accessory for men.
In the centuries-old market of San'a, Yemeni men who already proudly wear fine daggers, cluster around shop windows to gaze longingly at new jambiya blades.
A Status Symbol
"In Europe, people give importance to the tie or the suit you wear," explains Yaya Mohammed Sariya, a bearded man with wild eyes and thick-lensed glasses, who wears a jambiya worth thousands of dollars in his belt. "Here, people recognize that you come from a good family based on the jambiya you carry."
The men browsing here explain that in Yemen, the jambiya is an important symbol of masculinity.
Mohammed Jassim was hoping to buy a $300 knife for his 14-year-old son in time for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that follows the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Jassim took a moment from appraising new blades to give some friendly fashion tips to a foreign visitor.
"If you wear a jambiya, it will be good," he said. "You will be more handsome and good-looking."
The knives are crafted in the winding back alleys of the Old City in San'a. Late at night, showers of sparks tumble onto the cobblestone walkways, as blacksmiths squat barefoot in cubbyhole workshops, hammering and grinding away at blades.
A Long History Of Knife-Making
According to the locals, the best of these knives are sold at Abdullah al Azeri's shop.
Azeri sits cross-legged on the floor, buffing the handle of a 350-year-old dagger that he says is worth more than $25,000. He says his family has been in the knife business for more than 1,000 years.
"The handle is the most important part of the jambiya," he says. "The best ones are made of rhinoceros horn."
The export of the horns of the endangered rhino was banned long ago — a move that Azeri and his fellow jambiya enthusiasts resent to this day.
"If there is an offer for thousands of tons of rhino horn, I will buy them," Azeri's son Adel vows.
Today, workmen carve the handles out of bull horn and other animal bones.
Some of the stalls throughout the market give off a golden glow at night from the reflection of the magnificent jambiya belts hanging on the walls.
A Marker Of Manhood
In the final days before the end of Ramadan, you can see proud fathers like Naif Mohammed tenderly strapping a new dagger, scabbard and belt onto the waist of his 7-year-old son, Bashir. Onlookers said the gift is a symbol of manhood for Yemeni boys.
Yemeni women toil at home, sometimes for months, embroidering the jambiya belts with golden thread. They then approach the shopkeepers dressed in all-concealing black robes, selling the belts out of plastic bags.
Abbas Ali, 17, says his mother has been sewing jambiya belts since she was 12. Though he has three knives and belts of his own, Ali appears to be one of the few Yemeni men who avoids wearing a knife in public.
"I don't like it," Ali explains in rapid-fire English, while snapping his fingers. "When you have a belt, you can't work, you can't walk, you can't [move] fast around."
Ali also says that in the event of an argument, he wants to avoid the potentially fatal consequences of drawing his knife.
Yemeni knife-sellers say the jambiya should be drawn only as a matter of last resort.
On one visit to the market, a jambiya blade flashed briefly in the sun when a man drew his knife during a scuffle outside the ancient Bab al Yemen gate. Fortunately, no blood was drawn — and several men brandishing sticks chased away the knife-wielding man.