Ornate Yemeni Knives Mark Status, Masculinity Known as "jambiya," the knives can cost hundreds of dollars or more, and are handcrafted by artisans with a long history of knife-making. They are the ultimate status symbol in the Arab nation.

Ornate Yemeni Knives Mark Status, Masculinity

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During a visit to Yemen, the mostly Arab nation bordering Saudi Arabia, our reporter made a discovery about fashion. Men in that traditional society wear big knives in their belts all the time. It's not just a fleeting fashion trend. It's a centuries-old tradition of showing off wealth. From the Yemeni capital, NPR's Ivan Watson takes a look at this very male status symbol.

IVAN WATSON: In the West, clothes may make the man. But here in Yemen, the ultimate status symbol is a good knife. Yemenis call it the jambiya, and it may be the world's most phallic fashion accessory for men. In the crowded streets of San'a, most Yemeni men wear one of these short curve daggers tucked into the front of ornately embroidered belts buckled around their robes. Outside the knife shops of the city's centuries-old market, groups of men already wearing fine daggers cluster around shop windows to gaze longingly at new jambiya blades.


WATSON: A wild-eyed bearded man named Yaya Mohammed Sariya says his jambiya dagger cost thousands of dollars.

MOHAMMED SARIYA: (Through Translator) People they look not to their dress and to their clothes, but to the jambiya they are wearing.

WATSON: A shopkeeper slides open a glass case to show the crowd another expensive knife. Mohammed Jassim is shopping for a dagger for his 14-year-old son. Jassim turns to a foreign visitor and offers a friendly fashion tip.

MOHAMMED JASSIM: (Through Translator) You wear dress like this and the jambiya is good for you.

WATSON: I will look handsome?

JASSIM: (Through Translator) You'll be more handsome, good looking, yeah.

WATSON: The knives are crafted in the winding back alleys of the market. Late at night, blacksmiths squat barefoot in cubbyhole workshops, and hammer and sharpen the five-inch long blades in big showers of sparks.


WATSON: This blacksmith tests the timber of a brand new blade.


WATSON: According to the locals, the best knives are sold at Abdullah al Azeri's shop where the walls are mounted with hundreds of knives.

WATSON: How long has your family been in the knife business?

ABDULLAH AL AZERI: (Through Translator) A thousand and eighty-nine years.

WATSON: Azeri says the secret to a good jambiya is not the blade, but the handle. The best ones, he adds, are made from the horns of the endangered Rhinoceros.

AL AZERI: Rhino, rhino.

WATSON: The sale of rhino horn has long been banned, a move that still infuriates Azeri and his fellow jambiya enthusiasts. They now make knife handles out of bullhorns and other animal bones. Women, like the mother of 17-year-old Abbas Ali, make the wide belts for the jambiya which are ornately embroidered with gold thread.

WATSON: How long does it take your mother to make a belt?

ABBAS ALI: Sometimes two months.

WATSON: Two months, wow.

ALI: Yeah, sometimes if she's work very fast and very good, one month. Just like this. It's good, yeah?

WATSON: For most Yemeni men, the jambiya knife and belt are an important symbol of manliness. Still, knife collectors warn that the daggers may only be used as a weapon in cases of self-defense. Like most fashion accessories, the Yemeni dagger is meant to be seen and not used. Ivan Watson, NPR News, San'a.

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