Her fingers bleed from beneath the nail beds, but sitting at her workstation, filing Yemeni gemstones on a spinning wheel, Safaa al-Faqih is at peace in a country for too long at war.
In green canvas trainers and a black niqab, the young artisan — one of the few Yemeni women in her field — runs a blue Yemeni agate through a hot flame, turning it slowly with her bare hands as she fits it into a mold.
“Every day, these stones tell me a different story,” Faqih said. “I discover something new every day.”
While the stone is still hot, she gathers her long black abaya and moves to a grinding wheel, where she runs her finger over the deep blue edges every second to feel for their smoothness.
The stone slowly morphs from an uneven sphere to a perfectly symmetrical emerald-cut agate that gleams in the light.
“I love this craft,” the young, brown-eyed artisan said. “Sometimes my fingers are all cut, and sometimes I get sick, but I love sitting among precious stones. I love the stones themselves. It’s a true passion for me.”
That passion is part of a long love story between Yemen and precious stones.
What is today modern Yemen was once home to the legendary Queen of Sheba, and it was there that she found her famed jewels and gold, which she later gifted to King Solomon in Jerusalem.
Thousands of years later, war threatens to erase that history.
Yemen’s rich cultural scene is slowly being eroded by a brutal war, with the historic town of Zabid, the old city of Sana’a and the old walled city of Shibam, known as the “Manhattan of the Desert,” now on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list.
Yemeni agate — or aqeeq in the local dialect — is a trademark of the traditional silver jewelry the country is famed for, adorning rings, necklaces, women’s bracelets and, for men, curved daggers worn tucked into a belt.
The traditional Yemeni men’s dagger, or jambiyya, has for decades been embellished with locally quarried agate.
The stone carries particular significance among Muslim communities, as the Prophet Mohammed is said to have worn a silver ring bearing the stone, which is hard, chemical-resistant and takes on different shades around the world.
Yemen also has a tradition of jewelry-making that dates back hundreds — some historians even say thousands — of years, joining both the country’s Muslim communities and the minority Jewish population, known for their craftsmanship.
Until the war brought the country’s rich crafts industry to a halt, Sana’a in particular was famed for its silversmiths and embroidery artisans creating Yemen’s trademark shawls.
In 2015, the country’s northern Houthi rebels — who today control the capital, Sana’a, unchallenged — drove the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi south, prompting the intervention of a regional military coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
Just a quarter of artisans are still working in Sana’a’s old market, where the majority of gemstones were sold, while the men who previously dominated the industry have mostly gone elsewhere in search of other work.
Faqih has lost most of her clients, who are unable to afford gemstones in wartime, and now sells her wares to a few family members or neighbors.
It is in Sana’a that Faqih first learned her craft and where she continues to practice, creating pieces to meet whatever demand is left.
The artisan credits her father for encouraging her to fight for a place in her field.
In 2011, Faqih and a few of her peers pushed for women to be allowed into the male-dominated government vocational school. They succeeded and joined the graduating class of that year.
“There was some opposition, from men especially, that I do this job. My parents were supportive, though,” she said. “I went on because I love this. I love this craft. That’s the truth.”
The Yemen war has claimed nearly 10,000 lives since Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the government’s war against the Iran-backed Houthis.
The conflict has triggered what the UN says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Millions are trapped in a country at the brink of famine, as ports remain blockaded and the country’s main international airport is largely shut down.
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