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Prized in Yemen, made in China

Despite a centuries-old tradition, more Yemeni men are opting for price over prestige when buying their ceremonial jambiya — or dagger.

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.