Subject: شيخ sheikh, سيد sayyid tribal chief
Culture: Yemeni Arab
Setting: Yemen early 20thc
Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)
* Cammann 1977 online
"The Yemeni type of jambiya generally has a curved, double-edged blade, rather broad where it leaves the hilt and gradually tapering toward its tip, with a protruding midrib extending down its entire length. However, I did see a few blades—said to be “very old”—with three such ribs and concave hollows between them. These blades are usually made from a fine steel that does not seem to corrode or oxidize to form rust. Instead, it simply takes on a soft gray patina, like the famous “Iron Column” in Delhi, which has stood unrested for more than twenty centuries. The iron for this is said to come from Ansab in the ‘Aubaqi District, which was long famous for the making of fine daggers. A short tang at the head of the blade fits into the base of the hilt, where it is securely fastened. The usual form of hilt, throughout most of the country, is a flattened piece of horn, having its top, or pommel, either simply rounded or else jutting out in a point at either side, almost as far as the two lower projections at the base of the grip, so that the entire hilt resembles a broad H, lying on its side."
* Cammann 1977 online
"The people of Yemen have two secondary names for the jambiya: ‘asib and tuza. The first refers to the type worn by tribesmen and ordinary people in the towns, while the second is applied to those worn by the aristocrats or chieftains. Actually the knives are usually exactly the same in either case, but the two types have different kinds of sheaths, and each is worn in a distinctive way, as we shall see.
"The foundation for the usual (‘asib type) sheath or scabbard consists of two flat pieces of wood, in the general shape of the blade but somewhat wider and longer, slightly hollowed in their inner surfaces and rounded on the outer edges. The two pieces are then fastened together with resin and covered with cloth or leather. Frequently this outer covering is further wrapped with narrow, brightly colored cloth tapes. These are wound around it in horizontal lines, often placed far enough apart to reveal the cloth or leather of the actual sheath but still sufficiently close to impart an overall impression of vivid color. Generally the end of the sheath is bent sharply upward toward the wearer’s right, to terminate in a rounded point. This has a practical advantage: it provides a hook to catch in the belt, so, if the dagger has to be suddenly drawn, it does not pull the sheath along with it. Lastly, the scabbard would be finished off with a backing of coarse white cloth or white leather, where it would rest against the wearer’s body.
"For decoration, the tops of the finer scabbards are often fitted with a broad metal band or collar, technically called the locket, usually of worked silver, engraved or pierced in scrollwork patterns or studded with small granules in geometric patterns. Some sheaths that I saw had locket-bands much wider than usual and set with nine flat, oval carnelians, or substitutes for these in dark red glass. I was told that this form of ornamentation was characteristic of the Bayda District, in the disputed border area to the southeast, a region that is now too politically troubled for foreigners to visit. In fact, the men who were wearing these distinctive sheaths were easily identified as coming from there, because they also had the typical Bayda-style “sitting bands,” recalling the cloth hands of similar function used by Indian yogis as supports during meditation, The Bayda men wore these draped over the left shoulder, as they strolled about in the bazaars of Sanaa or Taiz.
With or without the upper metal mounting, the `asib dagger sheath could be extended up or outward at the lower end, by a metal end-cap called the chape, In some cases a projecting chape would prolong the scabbard so far that its tip might reach nearly to the hilt. The usual type of chape generally terminates in a round knob or cone-shaped point, and they are made of a rather thin, tinny-looking silver alloy, cut through in simple shapes—often triangles—to expose the sheath facing of colored cloth or leather beneath it. The higher quality chapes are of thicker silver, sometimes gilded. Especially handsome are sheaths on which the chape has been carefully designed to complement a locket of similar material and design. This is not as common as one might expect, because often a man buys a chape, and then may have to wait years before he can afford to get a locket, made by someone else in a different style. The best silverwork was formerly done by Jewish artisans, so probably it is because most of the Yemeni Jews emigrated to Israel in 1948 that the delicate work of the older daggers—particularly the granulating—is no longer being done.
"When all the basic work has been completed, and some of the trimmings added, the scabbard is generally permanently secured to a broad dagger-belt. In fact, the full jambiya outfit is not considered complete without such a belt. Some of these are rather simple, of plain leather decorated with metal eyelets. But anyone who can afford it prefers to have a handsome one, made of brown leather, lined with white cloth or softer white leather, like the back of the scabbard, and faced with heavy, colored silk cloth, brocaded or embroidered with gold or silver thread. This rich decoration is worked in bold arabesques, phrases from the Koran, or simple repeated designs. The belts that I saw being worn, or displayed in the bazaars, varied from three to five inches in breadth and were generally about three feet long. A small metal strap, pierced with holes, was fastened near one end to match a small buckle at the opposite extremity, so the wearer could adjust it to his comfort. This belt also helps to secure the knee-length skirt which in most districts is worn over the lower end of a European-style cotton shirt. Most men of any means wear over this a European jacket, left unbuttoned in front to display the jambiya. But the men of the lowlands, on the Tihama Plain, often leave off the jacket, and the belt as well, because of the heat, simply tucking the sheathed dagger into the top of their sarong-type skirt, called futa.
"After the Revolution of 1962, which overthrew the rule of the hereditary Imams and created a republic, the old class distinctions were officially abolished, and theoretically, at least, any man can now dress pretty much as he wishes. But one still finds surviving relics of past sumptuary laws or long-accepted customs. One of these old traditions insisted that ordinary townsmen or men of the tribes should wear daggers of the ‘asib type set vertically at the front of the belt.
"Most tribesmen, in particular, choose to wear these with the hilt and the upper part of the scabbard leaning outward at an angle of some 30° from the wearer’s body. In this position, the dagger can serve as. a convenient peg over which to hang things. We often saw jambiyas draped with a scarf, a towel, or a kufiya—the traditional Arab headcloth, which also serves many other purposes. With the sarong-type futa in the Tihama District, or the knee-length men’s skirt in the Yarim-Dhamar area to the north—both of which somewhat resemble a kilt—these dangling cloths, hanging down in front and coming together below the sheath, often recalled a Scotsman’s sporan.
"In contrast to the commoners, the townsmen of high degree—seyyids and qadis, who were also set apart by their differing styles of formal headgear—traditionally wore their daggers and sheaths of the tuza-type set diagonally at the front of the belt, so that they slanted from the wearer’s upper left to his lower right. Though the knives themselves were often quite plain, having the usual horn handle without undue extra ornamentation, the upperclass dignitaries generally wore them in rather ornate scabbards. These might be dark velvet with metal fittings, as previously described, or else made entirely of silver; but, whatever their substance or form of decoration, they were conservative in shape, lacking the exaggerated uptilt at the lower end. However, there may have been some exceptions in the past; because I did see in the Sanaa souq some antique examples in solid silver that had a highly abrupt curve and a long extension for the tip. It is possible, though, that these might have been brought in from beyond the frontiers, where people had other customs.