Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Yemeni argent

Marjorie Ransom, Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba, 2014, Cairo: AUC Press

If the passing of time is a demon for Yemeni silversmiths, the shiny promise of the youthful women of the country translates into tarnished silver accessories, for only the aged crones, the withered women of the mountain tribes relish the memory of their bridal silver jewelry, occasionally tangibly buried in a tin box under a bed, as the future of silver no longer yawns with the luster of yesteryear. 

This veritable treasure is in a sense an engaging travelogue. Nevertheless, this seminal work’s most entrancing aspect is humanizing the art and craft of silversmiths and by focusing on individual examples, traditional Yemeni tribal couture springs to life. Accoutrements and silver accessories are no longer in vogue in Yemen. Yet there is a nostalgic yearning for the past.

“Wherever I traveled, silversmiths I approached were ready and willing to talk about their craft. Few before me had asked them about their work and they shared their histories with enthusiasm. Old ladies literally grew in stature as I asked about their wedding jewelry. Not many visitors had previously paid them much attention, then suddenly this foreign researcher was there asking them questions. Their eyes shone,” the author expounds.

The photography of the internationally acclaimed Robert Liu is exquisite. The old Yemeni silver, bead and amber necklaces, bracelets and anklets are rejuvenated. Liu has a way with his camera of creating timeless images.

The silverware is reincarnated. Yemen by no means has a monopoly of silversmiths in the region. Ethiopians, North Africans from Tunisia and Morocco, certain parts of Central Asia and India are all noted for their impeccable silver accessories. But, while in most of these countries silver is still the metal of the moment, with perhaps the notable exception of India where gold is king, in Yemen the very future of silver accessories is at stake.

Silver speaks, the title of a 2002 paperback by Ransom, based on an exhibition by the author of her collection at the Bead Museum in Washington DC (October 2002-August 2003) was a landmark achievement. Ransom dis not want her priceless collection of Yemeni silver to collect dust in a storage. She wanted the world to appreciate the fine art of Yemeni silver jewelry. 

Silver is not exclusively the domain of women in Yemen. Men, too, traditionally sport daggers and the sheaths are invariably silver, ornate and sophisticated. The belts sporting the daggers in place are also intricately designed in silver.

Not only did silver jewelry proudly proclaim a woman’s marital and social status, but it also provided financial security in old age and times of trouble. The tragedy, however, is that it is a dying craft.  Contemporary Yemeni women are more interested in gold as an investment and for accessories than in silver increasingly regarded as old-fashioned. Molten silver is the name of the new game.

Priceless silver jewelry is collected and smelted, and the molten silver converted into ingots to be cast for use in purposes other than jewelery or accessories. The Yemeni silversmiths were renowned for their delicate and intricately worked arabesque filigree.

Yemeni silver was often studded with agate, carnelian and very occasionally ruby. Red had a particular appeal, for it supposedly warded off the evil eye and protected women in childbirth, or so the superstitious tribal matrons presumed.

The lazim, or “a must” is a special necklace donned by the bride on her wedding.

“In 1960, when I was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, I obtained a study grant to visit the Middle East for the first time. This area subsequently became my late husband’s and my area of professional specialization over our thirty-year careers as United States diplomats,” Ransom concedes.

Critical reputation is a curious conundrum. She had the opportunity to travel to other countries of the Middle East and North Africa, which indeed, she did and collect selections their own silverware traditions. So, why Yemen?

The reason for this focus is straightforward, Yemeni silver remains grossly undervalued in relation to its thriving North African, Ethiopian and even Central Asian and South and Central American counterparts.

“Five years after that introduction to the Middle East, I married David Ransom, whom I had met in a summer Arabic class at Princeton University. As we embarked on our tandem diplomatic careers, Arab silver jewelry became a joint pursuit,” Ransom recalls.

Bridal belts in Yemen were an essential and the unique styles of the different Yemeni provinces are bewildering. Yemeni silver is literally considered a family heirloom in the eyes of older tribal women. Yet, contemporary young Yemeni women know that not all that glitters in gold, but the go for gold. The purpose of Ransom’s scrupulous collection and seminal work was not simply to display her nostalgic memorabilia.

Would her endeavours rescue a dying art? Our would the world derisively dismiss these once cherished and treasured works of art as tribal trinkets? Few Westerners today would dare say that the sheer variety of  Ransom’s silver collection would become a bit wearing.

“Our two postings to Yemen, in 1966 and 1975, proved pivotal to our study of silver and to the expansion of our collection.

Yemeni Jewish craftsmen were known throughout the Middle East for their delicate work: they had comprised much of the silversmithing craft in North Yemen prior to their 1949 exodus to Israel. Although there were many fine Yemeni Muslim silversmiths, the art for was clearly threatened when the Jews departed. Preservation became for us a principal goal,” the author tells the tale, the commencement of her infatuation with salvaging Yemeni silver accessories. Eventually she had so many precious pieces that she was unable to display them all simultaneously.

Ransom’s seminal work is not guilelessly divided into “North” and “South” Yemen. That would have been nothing short of obscene and unbecoming for a collector with a keen eye for precision.

The author took pains to distinguish the peculiarities of regional stylistic variations. From Saada and Amran in the far north of Yemen, regions that have recently been embroiled in civil wars to the Tihama on the Red Sea coast and the capital Sanaa, Taiz, Aden, sprawling Hadramout, Mahra and even the the enigmatic island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, off the African continent.

“Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, is one of the oldest cities in the Arab world and one of the best preserved traditional Islamic cities in the Arabian Peninsula. It is also the highest capital city in the Middle East, situated at 2,295 meters above sea level.

In the heart of the old city is the salt market, or Suq Al-Milh, where the silver market, or Suq Al-Fidhdha, is located. It is where I lived for most of my time in Yemen and did much of my research. Silver dealers and silversmiths opened their homes to me as they shared valuable information about their craft,” Ransom recollects.

The craftsmanship of the indigenous Jewish  silversmiths in Yemen was stunning even with the most mundane everyday objects featuring highly intricate and alluring distinctive designs.

And, Yemeni women of yesteryear never bought silver jewelry on a whim. Ironically, Muslim Yemenis countenanced the Jewish silversmith’s ingenuity and inventiveness even if it subtly displayed uniquely Jewish religious imagery and inscription such as the Star of David. Silver jewelry was traditionally brought for a specific purpose, invariably as bridal appurtenances.

Contemporary Muslim silversmiths have scrupulously adhered to the age-old Jewish classical styles. “Although most Jews left Yemen in the late 1940s in Operation Magic Carpet, which took Jews from Aden to Israel, silver dealers to this day will use as their best sales pitch that the piece is shughl Yahoudi, or Jewish work,” Ransom extrapolates.

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