x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Blades of glory

Feature As their country becomes increasingly modernised, young Yemenis are turning their hands to the ancient handicrafts of the elders.

Hassan al Saigal crafts a jambiya, the dagger worn by Yemeni men, at the Souq al Janabi market in the old city of Sana'a, Yemen.
Hassan al Saigal crafts a jambiya, the dagger worn by Yemeni men, at the Souq al Janabi market in the old city of Sana'a, Yemen.

As their country becomes increasingly modernised, young Yemenis are turning their hands to the ancient handicrafts of their elders. Sarah Wolff reports A Yemeni craftsman wearing a dingy thobe sits over his tools, carving into cow horn while sitting cross-legged and chewing his afternoon khat leaves. His family has been making jambiya knives, the traditional curved daggers worn by nearly all Yemeni men, for more than 500 years.

This craftsman, too, has been practicing his art for years. But he isn't the old, grizzled artisan you'd expect to see toiling away in the souq, his knotty hands whittling and sewing almost out of memory. Instead, Ali al Saigal is 22 years old and one of the educated young men and women who have chosen to carry on the tradition of making the unique handicrafts of their country. The tradition of wearing the jambiya dates back to the Sabaean and Himyarite kingdoms of the Arabian peninsula more than 2,000 years ago, and to be sure, there are a quite a few of the old-timers scattered around the Souq al Janabi, the market for jambiyas in the city of Sana'a.

Younger craftspeople, including Saigal, are leaning towards manual, labour-oriented careers for history and pride. However, others choose the job for the hefty profits certain handmade crafts can bring in. Ali al Saigal and his brother Hassan have been working in this trade for around 15 years, and were taught by their father, also named Ali. The elder Ali al Saigal learnt jambiya-making techniques from his father, the late Rizq al Saigal, who is still famous in the business for being one of the first jambiya makers in the souq to import what would now be millions of dollars' worth of rhinoceros horns, a practice that was legal in his day.

Still, Hassan and Ali aren't your typical business scions. They don't holiday on yachts with their friends. Actually, they don't take holidays at all. Instead, Hassan and Ali work in a small workshop off an alleyway in the Souq al Janabi. The origin of the name jambiya comes from the Arabic "janib", which means "side". This seems particularly poignant when visiting Hassan and Ali's stall. The brothers sit side by side all day, every day while the smell of cardamom tea mingles with the metallic tang of metal being heated by blowtorch.

The brothers shape the daggers' handles and then attach them to stainless silver blades they buy from the Dhamar region of Yemen by heating the metal and inserting it into a slit in the horn handle. They make piles of sturdy jambiyas in time for the Ramadan rush, when they can sell up to 300 of their knives each day. The Saigal men work in stages for months, buying hundreds of cow horns from India to make the handles of the daggers, and then buying hundreds more blades to insert into them.

Their father also works in the souq, and he taught his boys everything they know. He sometimes stops by his sons' stall to remind them of a filing or colouring technique. "I teach them how to make [the horn handles] small and use the instruments," says Ali al Saigal Senior. "And I teach them to do it right." He says he is extremely proud that his sons are continuing the family business. The idea that young people in Yemen such as Hassan and Ali would want to practice these ancient crafts now, when Yemen and especially its capital city of Sana'a are beginning to develop educationally and industrially, might seem somewhat unusual to the casual observer.

But it doesn't surprise Zaid al Faqih, the ­director of studies and research at the Yemeni Ministry of Culture, that Yemeni youths are drawn to their ancestral trades. "The jambiya is a part of the Yemeni ­personality," says Faqih. "It originated in Yemen before it was one country; the Arabian peninsula was all one place. Only in Yemen and Oman do they keep this tradition, because they are the original Arabs." Faqih, who is in the process of publishing a comprehensive study of handicrafts in the fortified old city of Sana'a, says that passing down skills to the next generation is a necessity to keep these trades from vanishing. Historically, jambiyas were made by Yemenis to be worn by other Yemenis, and the daggers didn't have wide appeal in other parts of the Middle East or even the Arabian Gulf. However, when the country opened up to tourists during the 1990s, these emblems of Yemeni manhood became popular souvenirs. Though they can be found elsewhere - mainly wherever Yemeni immigrants have settled and sometimes in roving Bedouin tribes - jambiyas are rarely worn on a daily basis anywhere else. Boys as young as 10 years old get their first jambiya to signify their entrance into manhood, which enables them to act as their families' protectors. Sometimes even six-year-old boys can be seen with miniature and less-dangerous versions of the jambiya, with wood instead of metal blades, strapped to their sides. Hassan has no children, but Ali has a boy who is 13 months old. Will his son also continue the Saigal tradition of ­jambiya making? "First is education. In the morning he will go to school and in the afternoon he will come here and learn the craft," says Ali. "I hope he takes over this business and gets a job in a big company as well." This part about working in a big company is particularly important, since the brothers know how hard their work is and what small dividends it makes them. Most of their work sells for around 800 Yemeni riyal, the equivalent of about Dh15. They make at most Dh7.3 profit on each sale, which is not exactly a huge payoff for their hours of labour. Still, Ali and Hassan say that they are proud of their work and they consider it more than a job - it's a tradition and a craft. The Saigal brothers have a cousin, Fares, 20, who works near them in the souq. Fares shies away from competition with his kinsfolk by selling embroidered belts that hold the daggers, which are called hizzam. He says that he is proud of his family's calling, but he often mentions the dividends. "When I get married, I will make my wife work in this business, too," says Fares. "I will make her work really hard because this [job] earns a lot of money." Fares buys mainly hand-embroidered, tapestry-like muslin cloth thick with gold stitching, which he then fastens on to the wide belts he buys from France and India. When the embroidery is fixed (by glue or by stitching) on to the belt, the hizzam is complete. Fares's father remarried and moved to Aden nearly 16 years ago, never having tried the jambiya-hizzam business. Instead, Fares and one of his brothers started the small hizzam shop by themselves. Though he didn't have the fatherly tutelage that Ali and Hassan did, Fares is no less proud of the Saigal family's heritage and renown in the trade. "As far as the competition between ­jambiya families and sellers, each one wants to be the 'King of the Janabi'," says Fares. "A long time ago, the Saigal family used to be the kings. Now it's the Izairis. These are the two really famous families for this business." If Fares al Saigal is going to be the king, it's not because of his family name - it's because of Nabila al Awami. "I deal with 22 different belt makers, and this girl is the best," said Fares. "Her work is really strong; she can make a hizzam in about one week." Awami, 23, is not exactly what you think of when you hear the word "embroiderer"; her chosen career conjures up visions of grandmotherly Victorian seamstresses ­sitting in the near-dark listening to a ­phonograph. Rather, the energetic Awami could pass for a Yemeni version of Rachael Ray. She explains that she got into hizzam embroidery when she was in secondary school, and was taught by her neighbours on a lark. Though it's no longer a hobby and Awami makes good money selling her embroidered belts, she says that the patience and concentration it takes are really what keep her interested. "I think it is art and I like the challenge of making it beautiful and perfect," she says. "Before, I didn't understand that it was a tradition, but now I know that it is a custom of our country and the financial outcome is good, too." "She is not married, so she just does this for fun - she doesn't do it to be wealthy," says Fares, who sells Awami's handiwork for more than three times what he pays for it. "She does it to waste time; once she is married she will be really busy. Once she gets married she will stop." Though Awami has been selling her wares to Fares for six years, he didn't know she was already married because they rarely interact on a personal level - business is business. Like Fares, Awami also thought she would retire her embroidery needles when she got married. "I thought that when I got married, I could depend on my husband," says Awami. "But later I discovered that my husband's pay isn't that much, so I started working again." With their combined income boosted by Awami's hizzam sales, she and her husband were able to rent a whole floor of her family's apartment building, which is a ­palace in comparison to the poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Sana'a where she and her family live. Profits are nice for Awami, but she dreams of something bigger for the future. She wants to design the patterns herself, since now she only receives the muslin clothes pre-printed with sewing instructions. "I just want to see the first step of how it's drawn on and then I would take it from there myself," she says. By continuing Yemen's artisanal heritage, Nabila, like her young compatriots in trade, Ali, Hassan and Fares, already has taken the next step. She is actively preserving her country's traditions so they can be discovered and treasured anew by the next generation of craftspeople.