Prized in Yemen, made in China

SANAA, Yemen — Step out into the narrow streets of Yemen's capital and likely one of the first things you'll notice is that nearly every man carries a knife — a thick, foot-long curved dagger, in fact, that is strapped to his waist, just over his bellybutton.

The dagger is called a jambiya (JAM-bee-yah) and was a part of the traditional Yemeni dress long before Islam hit the scene. Historically, a man's jambiya was his prized possession, passed down from father to son for generations. It was a weapon, a symbol of regional origin and social status, and an informal investment plan, since the daggers nearly always appreciated with time.

Nowadays, a large number of those jambiyas displayed in Sanaa are actually Chinese-made imitations — plastic approximations of the elegant, hand-carved originals — and they're selling like hotcakes.

“You started seeing them all over about a year and a half or two years [ago],” said Abdullah Swaid, who has owned a jambiya shop in Old Sana for 15 years. “People like them because they're inexpensive. And, of course, to someone who doesn't know, they look like the real thing.”

The real thing is usually made of cow or giraffe bone, or the (famously endangered) black rhinoceros horn. Depending on the quality of the horn and the craftsmanship, these authentic jambiyas can run between $50 and $15,000, and no storekeeper will forget to remind you that the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, owns a jambiya worth a million bucks. 

It should be no surprise then that in a country like Yemen — the poorest in the Arab world, and getting poorer by the year — people would be hankering for a cheaper alternative. Cue Chinese-made imitation jambiyas, which usually cost between $2 and $15 a pop.

While there's no good measure of how many jambiyas the Chinese are importing to Yemen every year, an informal survey suggests that over half of all jambiyas for sale in the souk in Sanaa's Old City are Chinese-made.

“I don't even sell real jambiyas anymore,” said Uday Harazi, a young clerk in Old Sana, who mans a shop lined with glittering plastic imitations. “People don't want to pay that much, so they come to me.”

Once you know what you're looking for, Chinese-made jambiyas are easy to spot, primarily because they appear to be made of black rhino horn — a delicately pock-marked material that can range in color between blackish-green and yellow — which, if real, could be worth more than the average Yemeni will make in his lifetime.

The effect of the influx of imitation jambiyas on the market is mixed and, perhaps not surprisingly, those selling the authentic jambiyas are not exactly raving about the invasion of a cheaper alternative.

“I wouldn't say [business] is horrible yet,” said Khaled Abdul Aziz, whose small shop features about 20 authentic jambiyas. “But it's not as good as it was before. It's definitely down.”

Kamal Rubaih, who has traveled to the United States four times to show traditional Yemeni handicrafts, says the Chinese-made jambiyas — not to mention Chinese imitations of traditional Yemeni jewelry, prayer rugs and souvenir key chains — are “a real problem” for sellers with authentic inventories.

“People come my shop and they say, 'why would I buy that for $400 when it's $10 dollars outside?'" he said, laughing a little under his breath. "I say, 'You want a plastic jambiya? You want a lead necklace? OK, then go buy it out there.'"

Jambiya sellers who have embraced the Chinese-made imitations say that sales are up. Way up.

“Maybe people really want a real one, but these are cheaper, so they sell better,” said Mohammad Sabana, whose small jambiya stall in the souk in Sanaa's Old City is lined with row after row of small Chinese-made jambiyas sheathed in golden plastic.

Hisam Gellani, a Yemeni American who's been visiting Yemen this past summer, laughs sheepishly when he's asked about his Chinese jambiya. “I bought it because it was much less expensive than a real one,” he said. “Sometimes if people see it's fake, they'll take note, but only in Yemen. In America, people are like, what's that? A sword?” 

Sheikh Shahalan al-Habari, who manages the portion of the Old Sana souk that houses all the jambiya stalls, says the problem doesn't end with Chinese-made jambiyas. Yemenis themselves are churning out their own cheap jambiya imitations, which, in the parlance of the souk, sellers also refer to as Chinese jambiyas. “At least they are made by Yemenis,” Habari said, shrugging.

As for now, the jambiya market is hardly dying. Swaid, the long-time jambiya storeowner, said that with prices down, more Yemeni men and boys can afford to buy a jambiya, or sometimes two or three. And of course tourists, mostly from other Arab countries, are still snatching them up.

“They come here looking for a souvenir from Yemen,” Swaid said, his eyes twinkling behind his black-rimmed glasses. “I say, you're not buying a souvenir from Yemen. You're buying a souvenir from China!”