JEDDAH: The short, curved dagger known as the janbia is one of the most recognizable symbols of Arab heritage among much of the population of the Arabian Peninsula.
It is usually worn by men, attached to a belt at the waist, as the main accessory of their traditional clothing. The intricate carvings on the dagger’s hilt and scabbard reveal clues to the wearer’s social status and tribal origins, details of ancestral roots, and information passed down from generation to generation that offers a fascinating glimpse into an era long gone.
The origins of these small, curved iron blades date back to pre-Islamic times, but in the modern era, they have become a symbol of national pride worn by men throughout the region as a tribute to a colorful tribal past that continues to resonate with modern social traditions.
The janbia’s status as an emblem of tribal identity in parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen is such that some examples can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. The owner of the janbia carefully guards it and wears it all his life; for many people, it is an integral part of their personality.
When the Bedouin tribes roamed the vast expanses of the Arabian Peninsula, the dagger usually hung at the waist, accompanied by two crossed belts with ammunition on the chest, and the sword at the hip.
Janbiya was an important tool for self-defense and road survival as groups moved, often at night, from camp to camp.
In his small shop in Barahat al-Kazzaz, in the center of Taif, Hussein Abdullah al-Malki, a 70-year-old dagger dealer, recalls not so long ago a time when these weapons were an integral part of everyday life. a life.
Men took them with them wherever they went, to the mountain villages and valleys of the southern regions, where attacks by wolves and hyenas posed a constant threat to the inhabitants, he says, but adds that the world is now very different.
“Janbiya allowed our fathers to defend themselves,” Al-Malki tells Arab News, referring to times past when men in a household were required to stand ready to protect their home from thieves and protect their family.
The length and exact shape of the daggers vary by region and even within Saudi Arabia, as do the features of the hilt, blade, scabbard, and belt. Some even look more like swords than daggers.
With his expert eye honed by decades of experience, Al-Malki can quickly determine the age and origin of the janbia. For example, the Emirati version is thinner, longer, and more curved than versions from other places such as Oman, Yemen, and the Levant. In general, it is also smaller and the inscriptions found there are completely different from those found in other places.
In Saudi Arabia, the janbia is now mostly a ceremonial accessory, while in other parts of the region, including Yemen and Oman, it is still part of everyday wear. Similarly, in Syria and Jordan, in some areas, men can be seen with the traditional dagger, known in these countries as the shabriya.
One of the ceremonial uses of the janbia can be seen when tribesmen or Arab rulers, including the royal families of the Persian Gulf, wear it as an accessory during the arda, a traditional sword dance that once served as a call to battle.
In many families, janbia are family heirlooms that symbolize the rite of passage for boys from childhood to adolescence.
Ibrahim Al-Zahrani, a historian and anthropologist, said that daggers now serve as a “symbol of courage and courage” and show pride in ancestral traditions.
While an inexpensive janbia costs only 20-50 Saudi riyals (€4.90-12.25), more elaborate and ornate ceremonial decorations can cost tens of thousands of dollars. At the Al-Janabi Bazaar in Najran, one of the Kingdom’s most famous markets and renowned for its skilled janbiyah craftsmen, daggers can fetch 250,000 SAR or more, depending on the materials.
For the wealthiest clients, blades can even be fashioned from gold or silver and adorned with inscriptions and ornaments, and a belt can be woven from gold and silver threads, according to the rules of the most complex art.
Early copies can fetch high prices at auctions, especially those whose previous owners are known. Given over a century ago to British intelligence officer T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, Janbia set a record when it went on sale in 2015. The Ottoman army in Aqaba in 1917 was sold for $105,000 and donated to the National Army Museum in the UK.
Salem Al Yami, a retired teacher, said the janbia remains a powerful symbol of the region’s ancient heritage.
“The best daggers on the market are those with rhinoceros horn hilts and silver-encrusted scabbards,” he told Arab News.
Rhino horn hilt daggers are traditionally the most sought after for their aesthetic beauty, durability and grip, but they have become rarer as the species is endangered.
Wearing a janbia comes with heavy social obligations, and any misuse can come at a price, which is seen as disrespectful to the father or grandfather from whom the dagger is inherited.
“The hostile use of janbiya, even in the context of a minor dispute, can subject the violator to tribal reprimand and serious social responsibility for infringing on the traditions and customs of his tribe,” Al-Yami said. Such behavior is considered shameful and cowardly, especially when directed against an unarmed opponent.
According to Jobara Al-Khothali, another dagger dealer in Taif, the weapon is now considered a symbol of peace, in contrast to its past use.
For example, during tribal rituals, when two parties involved in a conflict or dispute are called for reconciliation, each of them lays down their dagger in a symbolic act of peace. In some cases, criminals may be forced to return their dagger to their victim as an act of reconciliation.
“In such a case, the offender has no choice but to respect the decision,” Mohammed Musaifer, another dagger dealer, told Arab News.
“This is the worst punishment a member of the tribe can receive because the janbia represents a symbolic social value for its owner.” However, reconciliation efforts continue to persuade the other side to return the janbia to its former owner, and the reconciliators usually manage to keep the peace. »
This text is a translation of an article published on Arabnews.com.