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Daggers drawn in Yemen

There’s disagreement in the dagger market.

The old man with the gold-threaded turban and magnifying glass has set a price, but the younger man examines the curved blade, shakes his head and walks away into the shadows that play off awnings in the late morning light.

“He’ll be back,” says Shalan bin Yehaye Hbubari, a merchant of supreme patience, sliding the magnifying glass into his blazer pocket and brushing dust from his tunic. He offers a sweet.

Another man makes an inquiry and conversation turns to the black rhinoceros, whose horns for centuries were carved into dagger handles. Today molded plastic and horns from lesser beasts are used.

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“I refuse to sell those knockoffs. I get sad when I see them,” says Hbubari, gripping the rhino-handled dagger, known as a jambiya, stuffed into his belt. “This will endure forever. Those cheap plastic ones last only a few months, like a pair of shoes. This dagger has been in my family for 800 years. It’s a symbol of honor, and besides, we Yemenis like our weapons.”

Yemen began losing its stake in the trade in 1982, when international regulations were strengthened to protect the endangered animal from poachers. Since then, rhino horns occasionally appear on Sana’s black market, but daggers these days are mostly made with other materials, which Yemenis refer to as “Chinese products,” even though none of them come from that far away.

“If something bad pops up in the market, we blame the Chinese,” he says. “My business has dropped 1,000% over the years.”

A traditionalist

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To purists like Hbubari, the pervasiveness of knockoffs has damaged the majesty of the dagger and degraded tradition in a land where a man’s identity and standing can be gauged by the shape of his sheath, the quality of his hilt. It has also inflated prices of rhino-handled knives, which can sell for tens of thousands of dollars; there are reports of thieves blowing spices into the eyes of old men and vanishing with daggers in the alleys around the 1,400-year-old Grand Mosque.

Slip through the old city gate, past spice, salt and linen sellers to the spot where steel glints in the sun and boys in workshops soften leather and hammer gold studs into sheath belts. Dagger handles catch the light; their colors, ranging from brackish green to lighter shades of mixed yellow and shallot onion, are examined by men who hold the jambiya as if it were as delicate as a bird’s wing.

They feel the weight, the balance of metal and horn. The bargaining begins, and men, sometimes their sons trailing, traipse from merchant to merchant, offers and counteroffers echoing through the souk. Those who aren’t buying ask for estimates of their jambiya’s worth, discussing its age, who wore it, whose father’s father bought it and where, in the mountains or along the sea.

Sparks flying off his grinder, the scent of plastic hanging over him, Abdullah Kaidami is not so wedded to tradition: “The rhino dagger is decreasing by the day,” he says. “The prices rise and rise. It’s good for our business, though. We make handles out of plastic and cow horns from India. Look at it, it looks just like a rhino horn, except if it falls and hits the ground it’ll break.”

He smiles, gives a reassuring nod.

“We add chemicals to make the rhino color.”

His daggers sell for $15, well below the rhino jambiyas priced from $1,500 around the corner. Yemeni men like to say that President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s dagger is worth $1 million, made long before anyone thought of protecting the rhino, or sprinkling the powder of its horns into aphrodisiacs.

“A lot of people have been deceived by jambiya knockoffs,” says Kaidami, a slender 17-year-old with a shopkeeper’s quick eye who has been selling jambiyas since he was 10. “Many tribesmen still believe in the power of the rhino. They think if a snake bites you, you put the rhino dagger on the bite and you will be healed. The kings used to have rhino cups and if anyone tried to poison them, the cup would absorb the poison and the king would be saved.”

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One for daily use

Kaidami begins smoothing the edges of another imitation handle. “I wear my rhino jambiya at weddings,” he says, “but in everyday life I wear this one made of cow horns.”

A woman dips her hands into sacks of cashews and pistachios, a holy man hurries toward the mosque, and a few men try on sheath belts at Luft Abdullah Sanubani’s shop on the corner, a crossroads of commerce, lore and gossip. Sanubani says his rhino dagger is 150 years old, worn proudly over his belly like a huge belt buckle shaped like a glittering crescent moon.

“I was 15 when my father gave it to me. It was then I became a man,” he says. “I was married quickly after that, the same year, in fact. I had 14 children, but seven died. My wife is a strong, good woman.”

He doesn’t say how they died, and nobody presses him. He goes silent for a moment and then comes back to himself. His son, Abdulmalik, sits nearby surrounded by shiny threads and studs, a small hammer in his hand, rows of belts hanging from the ceiling.

“A good jambiya handle has three colors, for morning, afternoon and night,” Sanubani says. “The morning color is yellowish. In the afternoon, it is green, and by night it deepens close to black. That’s because the rhino horn was created by God, not man. There’s something alive inside the horn, inside the handle. It grows and changes colors.”

He slides his dagger out of its sheath. It is worn, the way a river smooths a stone; the handle’s gold and silver designs and speckles have faded. It may have been a weapon years ago, but these days it is an ornament, a link to who he is, and sometimes, when he passes other men, he recognizes in their daggers a tribal flourish or the blade of an honored elder.

In the next alley over, the man who walked away from Hbubari returns like the old man knew he would. More bargaining; men gather to listen. A radio is turned down, and even passing women, loaded with bags in the way that men are not, take a quick glimpse.

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“What can you afford?”

The man purses his lips, consults a whispering friend.

A brief silence, a bit more haggling. The price is agreed at $29,000. A certificate is drawn up, hands shaken. Hbubari is happy, another rhino dagger sold amid the knockoffs.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com


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