Sometimes, the raw material of Ali Ghomari’s work comes screaming from the skies over Yemen. For nearly four years, Yemen has been under fire from a coalition of Iranian and Saudi-backed Muslim groups. Missiles fired by coalition jets rain down on militia and civilians alike. But in the middle of chaos and destruction, peaceful metalsmiths try to forge a living.
Children, farmers, and others collect shrapnel from the bombings. They find it in fields and dirt alleys in impoverished neighborhoods. They offer it for sale to artisans like Ghomari.
Isaiah 2:4 speaks of a time when the world will finally know peace. God will rule in perfect justice. Men then will “beat their swords into plowshares . . . nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Sadly, the metalsmiths in Yemen are not yet able to convert implements of war completely into items of peace and prosperity. But the knives they forge from the shrapnel are ornamental—not for combat. These traditional daggers are worn by Yemeni men as symbols of prestige and courage. They are called jambiyya (jam-BEE-yah), and they were once made of imported steel. But high prices have forced craftsmen to repurpose the refuse of war.
One kilogram of steel fragments (about 2.2 pounds) costs less than one dollar. That’s less than half the price of first-run Turkish steel. In the current economic state in Yemen, it makes sense to work with the remnants rained from the sky by the nation’s enemies.
Ghomari learned his craft from his father, who learned it from his father. Currently, seven households in the Ghomari family work as blacksmiths. They sit in huts made of cinderblocks or tree branches. They beat and shape glowing metal around open fires.
Knife-making was once a profitable business. But the father of six laments that the market has weakened since the war. Fewer men have extra money to spend on jambiyya.
The daggers Ghomari crafts have elegant curved blades. They slip into decorated, hook-shaped sheaths that fit on ornate belts. The hilt shape often refers to the city, region, or tribe of the person carrying it. The hilt typically is carved from wood or buffalo horn. New daggers range from $100 to $150. Old ones inherited from ancestors might be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Working with war-time materials is nothing new for Yemen’s blacksmiths. Ghomari’s father used tank treads and rockets from Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war, in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia participated. Today, Ghomari points to the anvil he beats his work out upon. It’s an empty mortar shell—from the 1960s.