Amongst Bedouins, modern life blunts demand for ancient daggers

In Jordan, desert tribesmen have been using their shibriya daggers for centuries to cut their vegetables, shear their sheep, and kill their enemies. But modern lifestyles and Chinese imports are threatening the livelihood of the few blacksmiths who know how to make them.

Taylor Luck
Traditional Bedouin 'shibriya' daggers come in various shapes and sizes. These are models sold at the Abu Mohaisen workshop in downtown Amman, Jordan, where four brothers run a 150-year-old family business.

Nawwaf Khazaeeya lives each day on a knife’s edge.

From his tent near the livestock souq in Madaba, at the edge of the central Jordanian desert, Mr. Khazaeeya spends his day pounding out steel.

This is more than a knife,” Khazaeeya says. “This is life and death.”

Khazaeeya belongs to one of the last families of shibriya makers, carrying on an ancient craft handed down through generations that has armed Bedouin nomads for centuries.

Yet modern bans on weapons, the Bedouins’ increasingly urban lifestyle and an influx of cheap Chinese imitations are undermining the market for traditional shibriya. Dagger-makers warn they may soon have to pack up their hammers and anvils for good.

Should the dagger-makers disappear, so too will a symbol of Bedouin life, honor, and independence. The daggers are both functional art and potent symbols of Middle Eastern manhood that have underpinned the honor code and culture that once united Arab tribes across the Levant and the Gulf.

The shibriya has also been a status symbol, and until recently was worn by tribal judges, sheikhs, princes, and warriors alike.

“The shibriya was a sign of respect, strength, and stature,” says Nayef Nawiseh, a Jordanian historian. “If you were a man, you wore a shibriya.”

Ottoman knowhow, Bedouin skills

The name shibriya comes from the Arabic shibir, a unit of measurement equal to an outstretched adult hand from thumb to finger – some five to six inches long, the approximate length of the blade.

Unlike the curved, ornate daggers of Yemen and Oman, the shibriya is a straight, workmanlike blade made for the rough-and-tumble of daily Bedouin life. Not a decoration but a tool, it is designed to be easily drawn, to cut through canvas and rope, to shear sheep – and to kill.

Taylor Luck
In his workshop in downtown Amman, Jordan, Abdulrazzak Abu Mohaisen unsheathes a traditional Bedouin dagger of the type that his family has produced for over 150 years.

While Bedouins have been carrying crude versions of the shibriya for centuries, the dagger as it is known today dates back to the 1850’s, when the Ottoman emperor, fighting the Crimean War, conscripted thousands of Arabs into his army.

Among the recruits was Mohammed Abu Mohaisen, from what is now southern Jordan, who was drafted into the Ottoman army’s armaments division and spent years mastering Ottoman blacksmith skills, crafting bayonets, muskets and swords.

When the war ended, blacksmiths like Mr. Abu Mohaisen were sent back to what is today Jordan. There they began producing the shibriya dagger for local Bedouins, updating the desert weapon using Ottoman knowhow.

Abu Mohaisen introduced the now-distinctive angle to one edge of the blade; that made it better for domestic purposes such as cutting fabric, chopping vegetables, or trimming the fat off meat, and also more lethal as a weapon.

In other innovations, he gave his blades copper or silver sheaths, and made handles out of ivory and goat horn.

Today, Abu Mohaisen’s descendants carry on the family craft near Amman’s Roman theater, hammering out blades by hand in the same way the Ottomans did nearly two centuries ago.

Recycling and resourcefulness have been key to the shibriya’s longevity. Abu Mohaisen’s father and grandfather used discarded railroad track from the Hijaz railway for the steel for their blades. Now Abdulrazzak Abu Mohaisen and his four brothers use the coil and suspension springs from old cars and trucks, among other sources.

Working on his own, Abdulrazzak can make two or three daggers a day, and sell each one  - including a lifetime warranty – for up to $50 to tribesmen living as far away as Syria, Iraq and Gulf countries.

There is some art involved.

On the sheath, shibriya makers carve floral or geometric designs; on the pommel they stamp tribal symbols, Allah or the Jordanian royal crown; on the hilt they embed gemstones - blue turquoise to ward off the evil eye, brown aqeeq quartz for good luck. The Abu Mohaisen family engraves customers’ names on the face of the blade, in addition to their family stamp.

But it is, first and foremost, a weapon.

“This is a simple weapon from a simpler time,” Abu Mohaisen says as he swiftly draws a dagger from its sheath. “It was built for strength, toughness and endurance, not for cosmetics.”

An ancient weapon in a modern world

Modern law has reduced the shibriya’s prominence in daily life. In the 1950’s, Jordan passed a penal code barring the carrying of weapons in urban areas; the knife soon disappeared from the streets of Amman and other cities.

In today’s Jordan, only ceremonial palace guards and elite desert forces are allowed to wear them in town in public. Tribal judges and sheikhs wear them at social gatherings.

But outside Jordan’s cities, in Bedouin towns and villages, the shibriya is still very much part of daily life, an accessory second only to the mobile phone.

In the town of Maan, 135 miles south of Amman at the edge of Jordan’s southern desert, grocers sell the daggers from large plastic Tupperware bins next to their cash registers, as if they were candy.

One shopkeeper showed a video on his phone of a man slaughtering three camels with a shibriya to serve for dinner at a recent wedding. It was not pretty, but it was effective: The shibriya made surgically precise cuts, bringing the beasts down instantly.

Today, Jordan’s dagger-makers face a difficult market. Fewer than five percent of Jordanians still live the Bedouin way of life, so most of Abu Mohaisen’s customers are tribal sheikhs or foreign embassy employees looking for a unique gift. US diplomats are particularly good customers.

A flood of imported imitation daggers selling for as little as seven dollars apiece has taken over the tourist market; visitors are often unable to distinguish aluminum Chinese models from the real thing.

Abu Mohaisen and Khazaeeya are reluctant to train their children in the ways of dagger-making. Instead, they want them to go to university and choose a profession offering security, health care and retirement benefits. With many of Jordan’s Bedouins choosing desk jobs over sheep herding, the craftsmen fear their days are numbered.

Once nobody is living the desert life any more, there will be no demand for the dagger, they say.

 “As long as there are Bedouin in this world, there will be a need for us,” says Khazaeeya.

“But if we lose the Bedouin, the world will lose the shibriya."

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