Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Pearly tales

How can you tell if a pearl is fake?

Mohammad Raja, a Yemeni trader with a khanjar (dagger) tucked into his belt, has a ready answer: “Burn it.”

Then, popping a cigarette lighter, Raja starts to heat up a string of pearls before curious onlookers in his stall.

“Nothing… nothing happens because these are ‘asli’ (real). Fake pearls made of plastic turn dark or melt when burned. If you bite a fake pearl, your teethmarks will be left in it,” said Raja, 25. He belongs to a family from Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, with four generations of involvement in the pearl trade.

His pearls, mostly uneven in shape, are just some of the interesting items one can see — and buy — at the Yemeni national pavilion at the Global Village.

The more adventurous can check out old but razor-sharp swords, worth between Dh2,000 and Dh20,000.

The age, history and value of these weapons depend on a number of factors, such as inscriptions near the hilt. To illustrate, Ali Hussain, a stall owner in the pavilion, unleashed his prized sample: a 500-year-old metre-long sword.

“The inscriptions on the sabre tell a story. This one is a product of backyard foundries of Yemeni Jews, who have been living in Yemen for thousands of years,” explained Hussain.

A 200-year-old sword goes for about Dh5,000.

The khanjar-toting Yemeni salesmen may seem intimidating to first-time visitors. As soon as the men repeat the greeting ‘Marhaba’ (welcome), however, apprehension turns into smiles.

“We Yemenis wear khanjars as part of our traditions,” explained Ahmad Yahya, another antique trader at the pavilion.

Turning to his collection of old guns, Yahya said: “These Arabian guns have seen many wars in the past. They’re the favourite of private collectors.”
Some of his old “bundoghia” (rifles) were witnesses to Turk-Yemen conflicts in 1500s and were used until the early 1900s.

“But,” Raja was quick to add, “they don’t work anymore. They’re just for decorative purposes.”

Don’t the traders have problems taking these pieces out of Yemen to be sold?

“Not really. Many Yemeni families have been collecting and selling rare items for hundreds of years,” said Hussain.

The really valuable ones are kept in museums in Yemen, he said.

“Our main customers are a special breed of people. They have a good sense of history. They are sophisticated people and value old pieces,” he said. “It is not easy to find antiques. We have scores of members of our family scouring different parts of Yemen, especially in the highlands, looking for these rare pieces.”

Besides weapons, there’s also a glittering array of traditional silver jewellery and perfumes.

Mark of manhood

“We no longer wear the khanjars to defend ourselves, but as an expression of an ancient culture and tradition,” said Awsan Othman Al Qabati, organiser of the pavilion, which has 51 stalls in a 1,000-square metre area.

The shape and type of Yemeni khanjars represent the place where they were made and the way in they are worn.

Khanjars (also called djambia) can vary according to a man’s profession. (Even the Yemeni president wears a khanjar in official functions.)

Not only the shapes vary, but also the value, based on the material. The blade is usually made of steel, while the sheath can be made of wood inlaid with semi-precious stones. Sometimes, it is made from silver or gold.

A regular dagger may takes three to four days to create, but those with intricate designs take up to two months (and also cost more).

Souvenir khanjars cost about Dh30 at the pavilion, but a khanjar with a handle made of rhino horn may command as much as Dh4,000.

Those with handles made of cow horn are much less expensive. Compared to the Omani version, Yemeni khanjars take much more curved “J” tip, Yahya explained.

Other shops sell spices, honey (from Dh200 to Dh500 per kg), incense and myrrh.

This year, a replica of traditional high-rises in Shebam, in the Hadramaut province, offer a facade to Yemen’s pavilion.

“Some of these buildings rise up to 12 floors, and have been there for 500 years. They form the so-called ‘Manhattan of the Desert,’ and people still live in them in Yemen,” said Al Qabati.

Performers flown in from Sana’a welcome visitors to the pavilion with traditional songs and dances.

Each region or village in Yemen — from the fisher folk, the Bedouin tribes, and the mountain dwellers — have their own folk dances. "We’ve brought some of them to Global Village to give visitors a taste of our homeland, right here in Dubai,” said Al Qabati.

Attractions:

Khanjar (daggers), swords, old guns, silverware, honey, Yemeni crockery, incense burners, spices.
Cups, plates, and saucers made of Al Harth stone from Yemen’s Sada city.
Yemeni traditional bands also perform at the Yemen pavilion, inside the Arabian Bedouin Life Festival area in Shindagha Heritage Village.

Pavilion Fact File
Country name: Republic of Yemen (Al Jumhuriyah Al Yamaniyah)
Capital: Sana’a
Pavilion products: Silver handicrafts, traditional knives (djambia), special waist belts for men and women to carry kohl, silver crowns for brides, a cluster of traditional necklaces studded with semi-precious stone as amber and murjan, spices, honey.
Area: 527,910 sq km
Climate: Mostly desert; hot and humid along its west coast; temperate in western mountains affected by seasonal monsoon; extraordinarily hot, dry, harsh desert in east
Population: 18.7 million
Ethnic groups: predominantly Arab; but also Afro-Arab, South Asians, Europeans.
Religions: mainly Muslim, including Shaf’I (Sunni) and Zaydi (Shi’a), small numbers of Jews, Christians and Hindus
Language(s): Arabic
Currency: Yemeni riyal

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