Jambiya Sellers of Sana’a

Sana’a, Yemen.

Jambiya 3     Yes, I can proudly say I have been to, survived, and thoroughly enjoyed Yemen. What a country. So different from any other place I have been too. Exotic isn’t even the word for it. Mythical may be a better word for it. Cut off from the world, almost seemingly to be lost in time in places. Adventure, you got it. Excitement, around every corner. History, Culture, Nature …everywhere. The capital, Sana’a, one of the highest capitals in the world, founded somewhere around the 6th century BC (yes, BC), with a city center that I can only equate to looking and feeling like a life-size gingerbread house city, is simply outstanding. Walking these streets is an unexplainable feeling. Here is a place where you actually could almost be walking through time. Small alleyways in-between ancient mud brick houses which resemble ancient skyscrapers, tipped with elaborate friezes and white alabaster covered window frames framing out intricate stained glass windows. Turn a corner, a group of camels tied in the street. A man in “full garb” riding around the next, crossbow on his back, Jambiya in his belt, at full gallop, sword flailing at the camels side, face and head covered in cloth. Simply fantastic.

     Ok, this post isn’t simply about Yemen, or Sana’a. They will come over the next few weeks. This post is about the Jambiya, and the Jambiya sellers around Sana’a. Maybe getting ahead of myself already, you may be asking yourself “What the heck is a Jambiya?” A Jambiya, well, basically its a thick, around a foot long, dagger which Yemeni men carry strapped to the waist. The Jambiya positioned right in front on the belt. Pronounced JAM-bee-yah, this is often a man’s prized possession, historically passed down from father to son for generations. Historically, it was a weapon, a symbol of regional origin and social status, and an informal investment plan, since the daggers nearly always appreciate with time. Maybe the first thing you will notice strolling through any town in Yemen, and always displayed with pride. I gotta say, it is quite an intimidating and spectacular display too. …and if you haven’t noticed yet, I love this stuff. This is real manly man, no BS, I carry around a foot long razor blade sharp knife like it’s the 5th century kind of stuff… Love it. Adventure at its finest!!! Alright, back to reality. You can’t miss the Jambiya, and although quite intimidating, I found the sellers of these knives to be quite a cordial bunch. Head to Bab al’ Yemen, the Gate of Yemen, the main entrance into old Sana’a, and beyond you can find shop after shop of Jambiya sellers. PS: make sure you are still looking up as you pass through the gate. I don’t condone it, and it may not be right, but they still occasionally hang the bodies or heads of child molesters, thieves and other law breakers on the gate there. …suffice it to say, not much crime in Yemen when I was there. …and I told ya, like stepping back in time.

     OK, head past the gate, through the square, and into the markets. Past the Qat dealers, the sweets and candy shops. Intertwined throughout the market streets and alleyways. A little yell here, an Asalaam Alaikum there. Don’t worry about all the guys with AK’s over their shoulders, it’s just normal here. Three guns for every man, woman and child in the country at last count. It’s an honor thing. Everyone is nice enough, actually one of the “nicer” people I’ve met. Respond to some of those greetings, don’t worry that the man behind the counter is wearing a foot long knife, surrounded by foot long knives, as people with foot long knives try to make their way around you, as you are knocked by the butts and barrels of their Ak’s 🙂 It’s just how it is here. Did I mention I love Yemen?

     Give it your best shot. “Let me see that Jambiya”. Na, don’t like that one. “How bout that one”. Don’t be shy, don’t be intimidated. It’s just a market, just like any other market, souk, mall or shopping center in any other country. This is the true adventurers mall! Don’t like this shop, move to the next. Smile, be happy, don’t offer if you’re not happy or really don’t want. It’ the market game. They’ll try to get you to offer, but you don’t have too. There are plenty of Jambiya shops and sellers, each one just a bit nicer and accommodating than the last …I’ve seen this game before. Have fun, ask questions, laugh, joke and exaggerate. Accept and enjoy the tea offered …yes, this is the Arabian Peninsula remember. Drinking the tea doesn’t mean you have to buy. This is just Arabian Peninsula hospitality!!! Thank them for the tea. They will almost always let you walk away unscathed by words …this isn’t one of those tourist markets either. Go to the next stall. Look, smile, communicate and learn and have fun. If you want to know the history of the Jambiya, just ask. From what I saw and heard, these guys are almost always just plain happy to explain their culture and the meaning of the Jambiya to foreigners, and almost always just as interested in you as you are in their wares. “What country are you from?”. “How do you like Yemen?”. “I hope you find Yemen is a great country”. All too often I had to answer yes to that last question. A great country. A truly honorable people. A place I thought only existed in dreams. A word of advice – if you don’t want to buy, just say so up front. No harm done. You have to remember this is still an economy, and market, driven by commerce. I found that these guys were actually more willing, more than any other country I’ve been too, to just talk. They were actually just interested in talking to a western foreigner more than anything else even after you told them you didn’t want to buy. Their business based on honor, like just about everything else in the country. Would they try to sell you a Jambiya during, or after, the conversation, even after you said this? Of course. But it would come with a smile and not the kind of exchange often encountered with more travelled kind of countries? …most definitely yes. You just laugh, smile and point out that you said you didn’t want to buy, and the seller almost always just poured another cup of tea and laughed back, continuing the conversation without another word of sale forthcoming. That said …I bought that one in the middle in the picture on the right. I also bought two more. Hmmm, maybe I did get had… If so, all in fun, and souvenirs I will never, ever, ever, regret buying. These guys were great, and Yemen was just outstanding. I can only hope to go back one day, considering it the most exotic country I have ever visited. Until than, I hope these guys keep selling. The country keeps going, and the world doesn’t encroach on the culture too much, as this is a country truly lost in time. I love Yemen. I have even been made fun of for spending money on visiting Yemen, but I only have to laugh at that. If people only knew, all the while hoping that not too many people find out…

     As an afterthought – it may sound like a very dangerous country, but just like any other – use common sense. The people I met in Yemen were some of the nicest, kindest, and most accomodating people I have ever met. Yes, there are guns galore. Yes, there are automatic weapons carried around nonchalantly like you would carry around a cellphone in New York. I think you just have to realize it’s not New York. This is what travel is all about, at least to me. Something different, exotic, interesting. Just because you carry a gun, doesn’t mean you use it. I find this to be more of the thinking in Yemen than I see in the US. It’s a matter of prestige, honor and culture. People are people, no matter where. As for Yemenis, I can actually say that they try and hold themselves higher than most. It’s a great country. It’s just as dangerous as any other, if not more, but honestly, sometimes less, even when surrounded by knives and guns.


20 comments on “Jambiya Sellers of Sana’a

  1. John, Yemen is one of the countries in my top list! and I cannot wait to read more stories about Yemen. By the way, when I visit Yemen someday, I also want to go to Socotra Island. It is the place where dragon’s blood trees grow, the most alien-looking plant on earth!

    • Bama, thanks for the comment and Yemen is just spectacular. Make sure you spend some time in and around Sana’a. I never did make it to Socotra, and didn’t spend nearly enough time in Yemen, but hope to go back one day. I did see a few dragon’s blood trees in Ethiopia though …and they are funky.
      Thanks again,

      PS: more articles coming on Yemen, but I have to finish off at least my Myanmar beforehand. I was going to save this one until than, but just couldn’t help myself. 🙂

      PPS: here is a link to some great pictures from one of my favorite photographers (in case you haven’t seen them) – Yemen

      • What? They also have dragon’s blood trees in Ethiopia? Ethiopia is also in my list by the way 🙂 I always imagine it as a country with ancient culture, and as a matter of fact, it is the oldest country in Africa, if I’m not mistaken. I want to meet Ethiopian people (many say they are pretty) and ancient churches. Do you have pictures of those churches, obelisks, etc?
        I have viewed the link you gave me, and you’re right! The pictures are great!

        • Yes …although it may be a different species than the ones in Socotra, still an awesome sight though.

          As for Ethiopia. Fantastic country and hghly recommended. So different from any other african country I’ve been too. I would really, really suggest, if possible, to plan a trip around Ethiopian Christmas – when I went is was on Jan 8 – and be in Lalibela at the time. That is definitely a once in a lifetime kind of experience. Tens of thousands of people walking for days to be in Lalibela. Almost all living on the streets there. It’s unbelievable, especially at night, when you have to tiptoe through thousands of white swaddled bodies sleeping everywhere. The women are gorgeous, with a lot of Italian heritage and mixing…

          Here are some of my older, smaller, and mostly bad pics. (some of the notes need a bit of humor to understand). …and again, most of these are pretty bad.

      • I was wondering if you remember what part ,region or city in Ethiopia, did you see dragon blood tree. I like to do some research on this particular tree. I would really appreciate if you can point me to the area that you have seen the tree.

        Thanks a lot


  2. Yemen looks like a place I’d like to visit.
    The Jambiya looks very interesting — an impressive symbol of power, eh?

    • Thanks for the comment IJ.
      It is an impressive symbol of power, and I gotta say these guys are quite intimidating when walking up to them, but after you start talking to them, it becomes less a symbol of power, and more of a symbol of their culture – even though it is a very large curved knife, these guys are sweethearts, and they almost don’t even see the Jambiya as a weapon, but a symbol of their heritage, tribe and family. Quite refreshing actually…

      Thanks again.

      • You’re welcome, John.
        Each time I read your blog, I feel like chucking it all and taking to the road. But I suspect I’m too much of a chicken so until I pluck up the nerve and find someone to travel with, I’ll live vicariously through you (and the 2 other bloggers whose blog I subscribe to who’re doing the same thing).

        Oh yeah, and Ethiopia’s on my list.
        Thanks again,

  3. Great to know of your positive experiences in Yemen and with the people there. I knew a Yemeni once, and he was such an incredibly sweet and humble and calm person. So great to see that he was representative of his people as well.

  4. Excellent pictures. Lovely stuff.
    As for the dagger – can you use it? Presumably carrying suggests it might have to be drawn at some point?

  5. Oh sure, you can use it. I mean, saying, it is a real knife. The thing I found with Yemen though, is that there are so many weapons that hardly anyone uses them. Almost like a deterrent to some effect. If you pull it, you better be ready to get into a knife fight, and be ready for twenty other jambiyas to be pulled…

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