Dienstag, 14. Juni 2011

Stephen Gracie (2010): Jambiya. Daggers from the Ancient Souqs of Yemen (Review) - Updated

I find it fitting to start this blog with the janbiyah (pronounce: jámbiya), the Yemeni dagger that is of major concern for my PhD thesis in-the-making on Yemeni weapon culture.  The janbiyah is one of the most prominent cultural markers of Yemeni manhood.  It is especially widespread in the northern highlands of the country and in some regards also in Hadramawt and the Tihama, but you will rarely find it worn by men from Aden.  The janbiyah features prominently in certain (tribal) rituals such as the bar‘a (a dance-like ritual practice performed by men at many different occasions) as well as in ‘urf, i.e. customary law.  The dagger as part of the ancient warrior's as well as of the nobleman's dress can be dated back to sixth century B.C. and over the past few decades it has become a symbol of Yemeni national identity.  Even though most Yemenis would claim otherwise, insisting that it is zīnah [adornment] only, the dagger also continues to be used as weapon in short-range fighting.

The janbiyah is one of the most prominent objects of Yemeni material culture.  Despite this fact, hardly any research has gone into studying its various forms and socio-cultural dimensions.  Its manifold types and variations have thus never been more beautifully documented than in Stephen Gracie's illustrated book Jambiya. Daggers from the Ancient Souqs of Yemen with photographs by Uri Auerbach.  We are introduced to Yemen's long and varied history and the first archeological artifacts documenting the history of the Yemeni dagger.  Gracie shows how the janbiyah as male adornment was strengthened with the advent of Islam and provides us with some interesting theses in regard to when and why the janbiyah acquired its bent shape.  He also documents the impact of the Ottoman Empire, which occupied parts of Yemen in the 16th and 17th and again in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Eastern Yemen's long-standing ties with India on South Arabian weaponry as such as well as on the manufacture of the janbiyah scabbard and the hilt.  Due to the limited lifespan of the different dagger parts, janābī (pl. of janbiyah) older than 200 years are very rare indeed.  The more fascinating is the find of a thūmah (a variation of the janbiyah) presented to us in chapter 3, whose silver scabbard can be dated back to 1707 AD and whose belt can be dated to 1729 AD by way of a paper scroll found in an amulet case sown onto the belt.  It thus predates the janbiyah bought in Sanaa in 1763 by the Danish traveler Carsten Niebuhr, which is one of the earliest known specimens to exist today, by over 50 years!

The social relevance of the janbiyah is documented by Gracie in his chapters 1.1 Cultural significance, manhood and social class as well as 1.2 The cult of the Jambiya.  Different types of janābī denoted the belonging to different social groups with the ‘asīb, for example, being worn by tribesmen and the thūmah by the religious elite of the Zaydī North, the sāda and quāt.  The sāda (or "Sayyids", as Gracie calls them (p. 33)) were however not, as he claims, of tribal origin.  Since the revolution against the imamate in the 1960s, the strict rules as to what type of dagger could be worn by which social group were relaxed and "most in Sana'a have since adopted the Assib style".  Unfortunately, we do not learn why the ‘asīb has taken such prominence over other janbiyah styles.

Accompanied by the beautiful photographs of Uri Auerbach, Gracie takes us through a day in the Old City of Sanaa, starting from the Morning Prayer.  We are introduced to a number of men involved in the manufacture and trade of the different dagger parts in chapters 4 and 7. Chapter 8 provides a fascinating and well-documented overview of the different regional scabbard and hilt styles.  I know of no other source that provides such a detailed account, accompanied by so many beautifully photographed specimens of the different variations.  Gracie and Auerbach truly provide us with a wealth of information here and it becomes clear why Yemenis refer to the janbiyah as "treasure trove" [khazīnah]!

Unfortunately, Gracie's fascination for the janbiya and his efforts in documenting its diversity meet their limits in Gracie's lack of knowledge of the Arabic language. We meet numerous misspellings, of which “Assib” instead of “‘asib” is maybe the most bearable one. But “qanum” (p. 206) instead of “qanun” [law, statute] is less tolerable, although “Meuzzin” (p. 121) instead of “Muezzin” may just be another of the numerous typos we encounter on many pages of the book. More significant, unfortunately, are the mistakes he makes when documenting the manufacture of the dagger hilts (pp. 187‑193), which can either too be attributed to his lack of knowledge of Arabic or to the numerous pitfalls of disinformation one encounters when doing research in the Suq al-Janabi, the dagger market in the Old City of Sanaa. “Al‑Zerraf” is therefore not, as Gracie claims (p. 193), a family known to manufacture black rhinoceros hilts. Instead, zurraf or zurrafa is Arabic for giraffe and has—for unknown reasons—come to denote rhino horn hilts in their earliest stage of maturation when the horn is still of a greenish-black color. Neither is “Al‑Saifani” a family name (p. 191), but “sayfani” stands for the best stage of rhino horn hilt maturation (60 years and older), which can only be reached if such hilts have constantly been handled and treated with special care.

From my knowledge, Gracie has financed his research, the work of the photographer, and the layout and printing of this book out of his own pocket and without any funds from outside.  This justifies the relatively high price of 95 USD for this beautifully illustrated and exceptional book.  A better binding and fewer spelling mistakes would have made the price even easier to bear.  Nonetheless, Gracie and Auerbach have provided us with a gem of a sourcebook on the Yemeni dagger that ought to be in the possession of everyone fascinated with Yemen and its material culture!

Full bibliographical details:
Stephen Gracie (2010): Jambiya. Daggers from the Ancient Souqs of Yemen, with photographs by Uri Auerbach, Sydney: Stephen Gracie Pty. Lt.

The book is available via the author yemenjambiya[at]gmail.com.

Update (March 2013): Some of the mistakes I claimed to have identified in Steve's book turned out not to be mistakes after all. For example, whereas the origin of the term "zerraf" is still unknown today (although it might have come from a family involved in dagger production), the term "sayfani" indeed is a family name that has come to denote mature rhino horn hilts. I have recently published a glossary on dagger-related terms in which I provide more details and which I have compiled amonst others with the kind support of Steve. 

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