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Why the janbiya remains a symbol of national pride and identity in the Arabian Peninsula

JEDDAH: The short, curved dagger known as the janbiya is one of the most recognizable symbols of Arab heritage among much of the population of the Arabian Peninsula.

It is traditionally worn by men, attached to a belt around the waist, as the main accessory of their traditional clothing. Intricate carvings on the dagger’s hilt and scabbard can provide clues to the owner’s social status and tribal origin, revealing details of ancestral roots and information passed down from one generation to the next that offer insight fascinating from a largely bygone era.

The origins of the small curved iron blades date back to pre-Islamic times, but in the modern age they have become a symbol of national pride, worn by men across the region as a tribute to a colorful tribal past that continues to resonate. . in today’s social traditions.

The status of the janbiya as an emblem of tribal identity in parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen is such that some examples can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The owner of a janbiya protects it with care and wears it all his life; for many, it becomes an indispensable part of their personality.

When Bedouin tribes roamed the vast expanses of the Arabian Peninsula, the dagger usually hung from the waist, accompanied by two ammunition belts criss-crossing the chest and a sword at the hip.

The janbiya was an essential tool for self-defense and survival on the open road when groups of people moved, often under cover of night, from camp to camp.

Traditional daggers, or janbiya, on sale in Yemen’s third largest city, Taiz. (AFP/file photo)

In his small shop in Barahat Al-Qazzaz, in the center of Taif, Hussein Abdullah Al-Malki, a 70-year-old dagger dealer, recalls the time, not so long ago, when weapons were integral part of daily life.

The men took them with them wherever they went to mountainous villages and valleys in the southern regions, where attacks by wolves and hyenas were a constant threat to locals, he said, but added that the world is very different now.

“The janbiya was a necessity for our fathers to protect themselves,” Al-Malki told Arab News, alluding to the days when the men of the house were obliged to stand ready to protect their homes against thieves and to defend their families.

The length and precise shape of the daggers vary regionally and even within Saudi Arabia, as do the features of the hilt, blade, scabbard and belt. Some even look more like swords than daggers.

With his expert eye honed by decades of experience, Al-Malki can quickly estimate a janbiya’s age and place of origin. The Emirati version, for example, is thinner, longer and more curved than those from other places like Oman, Yemen and the Levant. In general, it is also smaller and the inscriptions found there are completely different from those found elsewhere.

In Saudi Arabia, the janbiya is now largely a ceremonial accessory, while in other parts of the region, including Yemen and Oman, it is still part of everyday attire. Similarly, in Syria and Jordan, men can be seen in some areas carrying the traditional dagger, known in those places as the sabriya.

One of the ceremonial uses of the janbiya can be seen when tribesmen or Arab rulers, including the royal families of the Gulf, wear it as an accessory while performing the ardah, the traditional dance of the sword that once served as a battle call. .

The janbiya is worn on the waste line and is valued by its hilt, which is usually made of animal horn, indicating the status of its owner, with the most expensive hilts being made of rhinoceros horn. (AFP)

In many families, janbiyas are treasured family heirlooms passed down as a rite of passage to boys when they reach adolescence, symbolizing the letting go of childhood.

Ibrahim Al-Zahrani, a historian and anthropologist, said daggers now served “as a symbol of courage and masculinity”, and to show pride in ancestral traditions.

While a low-end janbiya costs as little as SR20-50 ($5-13), more intricate and ornate ceremonial pieces can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. In Al-Janabi Souk in Najran, one of the Kingdom’s best-known markets and renowned for its skilled janbiya artisans, daggers can cost SR250,000 or more, depending on the materials.

For wealthier customers, the blades can even be fashioned in gold or silver, adorned with ornate inscriptions and decorations, while the belt can be woven from gold and silver threads using the know – do the most complex.

Antique examples can fetch high prices at auction, especially those with notable past owners. A janbiya given over a century ago as a gift to British intelligence officer TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, set a record when it went on sale in 2015. The mounted dagger 30cm silver-gilt, presented to him for his role in the Arab victory over the Ottoman army at Aqaba in 1917, sold for $105,000 and donated to the National Army Museum in the UK.

Salem Al-Yami, a retired teacher, said the janbiya remains a powerful symbol of the region’s ancient heritage.

“The best daggers on the market are those with rhinoceros horn hilts and a silver-encrusted scabbard,” he told Arab News.

Daggers with rhinoceros horn hilts are traditionally the most sought after due to their aesthetic beauty, durability, and grip, but have become rarer due to the animal’s endangered status.

Wearing the janbiya carries heavy social responsibilities and there may be a price to pay for any abuse, seen as disrespectful to the father or grandfather from whom the dagger was inherited.

A Yemeni vendor displays a janbiya (above), a symbol of tribal identity in parts of the Arab world. (AFP)

“Using the janbiya in a hostile manner even in a minor dispute can expose the offender to tribal rebuke and strong social blame for encroaching on their tribe’s traditions and customs,” Al-Yami said. Such behavior is considered shameful and cowardly, especially when directed against an unarmed adversary.

The weapon is now seen as an emblem of peace, said Jobara Al-Hothali, another dagger dealer in Taif, contrary to its historical purpose and use.

During tribal rituals, for example, when two parties involved in a conflict or dispute are called upon to reconcile, they each lay down their daggers in a symbolic act of peace. In some cases, offenders may be compelled to return their dagger to their victim as a sign of reconciliation.

“In such a situation, the offender has no choice but to respect the decision made,” Mohammed Musaifer, another dagger dealer, told Arab News.

“It is the worst punishment a member of the tribe can receive, because the janbiya represents a symbolic social value for its owner. However, reconciliation efforts continue, to persuade the other side to return the janbiya to its former owner, and the reconcilers are normally successful in keeping the peace.