Thursday, September 25, 2008

"The world's most phallic fashion accessory for men"

From NPR: (h/t EBoZ)
Yemeni men don't invest as much time and money as some American men do in finding the perfect cell phone, car, hunting rifle or flat screen TV. In this society, where tribal Arab traditions still dominate, men have a different method of showing off their wealth and social class — they wear short, curved daggers tucked into the front of their robes, in ornately embroidered belts.

Known locally as "jambiya," these ornamental knives may be the world's most phallic fashion accessory for men.

In the centuries-old market of San'a, Yemeni men who already proudly wear fine daggers, cluster around shop windows to gaze longingly at new jambiya blades.

The men browsing here explain that in Yemen, the jambiya is an important symbol of masculinity.

Mohammed Jassim was hoping to buy a $300 knife for his 14-year-old son in time for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that follows the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Jassim took a moment from appraising new blades to give some friendly fashion tips to a foreign visitor.

"If you wear a jambiya, it will be good," he said. "You will be more handsome and good-looking."

The knives are crafted in the winding back alleys of the Old City in San'a. Late at night, showers of sparks tumble onto the cobblestone walkways, as blacksmiths squat barefoot in cubbyhole workshops, hammering and grinding away at blades.

According to the locals, the best of these knives are sold at Abdullah al Azeri's shop.

Azeri sits cross-legged on the floor, buffing the handle of a 350-year-old dagger that he says is worth more than $25,000. He says his family has been in the knife business for more than 1,000 years.

"The handle is the most important part of the jambiya," he says. "The best ones are made of rhinoceros horn."

The export of the horns of the endangered rhino was banned long ago — a move that Azeri and his fellow jambiya enthusiasts resent to this day.

"If there is an offer for thousands of tons of rhino horn, I will buy them," Azeri's son Adel vows.

In the final days before the end of Ramadan, you can see proud fathers like Naif Mohammed tenderly strapping a new dagger, scabbard and belt onto the waist of his 7-year-old son, Bashir. Onlookers said the gift is a symbol of manhood for Yemeni boys.

Yemeni women toil at home, sometimes for months, embroidering the jambiya belts with golden thread. They then approach the shopkeepers dressed in all-concealing black robes, selling the belts out of plastic bags.

Yemeni knife-sellers say the jambiya should be drawn only as a matter of last resort.
Notice how NPR equates the Yemeni status symbol of a weapon meant to kill people with Western status symbols of cars or TVs, as if they are equivalent.

While it is an amusing article, it shows a serious shortcoming of Western perceptions of Arabs and Muslims.

People cannot understand Arab societies without understanding their obsession with the perception of manliness. So much of Arab and Muslim politics are affected by this mindset, and for gullible Westerners to pretend that "they are just like us" is to embolden them to not only use their symbols of violence in a symbolic manner.

No, they are not just like us.

It is not racism to point out that different societies think differently and act differently, that they have different priorities and different goals. The French and British do think differently than Americans, but their differences are tiny compared to the differences between the Western and Middle Eastern mindset.

This does not mean that all aspects of Arab culture are inferior to Western culture; there are some things that are admirable. The point is that they really are different and this fact must be taken into account when deciding how to negotiate with them.