Few items wholly embody the essence of Omani culture quite as the Khanjar does. For hundreds of years, this ornamental dagger has been a tool, a weapon, a craft, and a symbol of Oman.
Over the ages, culture and technology have evolved drastically, and yet the art of making Khanjars persisted. It is a craft which has been carried on by families for generations.
Yassir Nassir Al Farsi is a silversmith who belongs to a family that has crafted khanjars for more than a century.
“In our family, it started with three brothers, each with a different craft. One of them repaired weapons, another made gunpowder, and the third, my grandfather, worked with silver.”
Yassir’s grandfather, Abdullah Ismail Al Farsi, first began crafting khanjars and jewellery more than a century ago in Sur. This skill was passed down to Nassir, Yassir's father, who moved to Salalah in 1970 and started his own workshop. Yassir would eventually take over the shop from his father and operate it to this day. The original shop in Sur is now run by Yassir’s uncle, Mohammed bin Abdullah. The family also has a third shop located in Muscat operated by one of Yassir’s cousins.
“I started working with my father when I was around 14. In the beginning, I would just come with him to the shop and see how he would work, and I naturally started to learn,” Yassir shared.
Although he learned the craft at a young age, Yassir only really picked up the family trade when he was in his mid-twenties.
“Because of studies and work, I didn’t start properly working in the shop until I was around 25. At that time, I started to sell Khanjars that I made with my father.”
Khanjar-making in a fast changing landscape
Yassir works with a variety of materials, most of which are locally sourced. He gets silver, wood, and leather all from Oman. Some other materials, like gemstones and sandalwood, he gets from international sources. He beats and shapes the silver by hand, making rings, bracelets, cuffs for canes, and ornate handles and cases for khanjars. He fashions belts for khanjars out of goat leather and woven fabric and carves the handles from wood and bone.
Yassir’s uncle, Mohammed bin Abdullah wrote an entire book on khanjar discussing in depth how khanjars are made, what materials they are made from, what their history is, and their significance to Omani culture.
The tools, resources, and techniques used to make khanjars and jewellery have changed greatly as the years have passed.
“Before, the work was harder because there were no machines and silver was hard to get. The machines made a huge difference. Also, we can now use gas fires to melt the silver. Before, they only used charcoal, and it was much more difficult,” he said.
Since the tools and methods of the craft have changed, there is a natural concern for maintaining the integrity of the tradition.
Yassir said that “when these changes come, they definitely make a difference in the products,” but that “one thing we need to be careful about is to not change the traditional way of the khanjar.”
This is one reason why Yassir believes that it is important for Omanis to carry on this tradition.
Not only has the craft itself changed over the years, but the market for Khanjars, canes, and jewellery has changed as well.
“The 70s were like a golden age for the craft because when Sultan Qaboos came to power, the economy improved a lot, and more people could afford to get an authentic khanjar... At that time, there was not an Omani house that didn’t have a khanjar in it.”
A lot has changed since then, however.
“The market has changed a lot. The demand depends on the economy. If the economy is strong, people will have the money to buy our goods. Otherwise, they can’t afford them.”
More than just the economy, the craft has faced the additional challenge of needing to compete with shops that rent out khanjars and canes. “These shops have only been around for ten years or so, and they are having a big effect on us. Now, many people see no need to buy a khanjar, because they can rent one for ten Rial from one of these shops.”
Despite all of this, Yassir said that he noticed a growing interest in the craft amongst youth in the past five years.
Challenged by the pandemic
Like many other trades, the khanjar business has been strongly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic has affected us in many ways. The price of silver has gone up a lot. It went from OMR 170 per kilo to OMR 390. Now it has come down a little, but it is still high.”
This trade has been especially impacted by the pandemic, as it is the trade of goods for special occasions, such as weddings and holidays.
“For the past two years, the pandemic had everything shut down. No weddings or gatherings, and so people have not been buying things like khanjars... Now we are in the process of recovering, just making enough to get by and keep the business alive.”
Yassir said that there has been a decline among Omani families getting into the khanjar-making business. With every generation, the number goes even lower.
“It is important that Omanis keep this tradition alive, because it is our culture, and we need to protect it.”