Tiraz unveils its latest exhibition, transporting visitors back to a time of magic and superstition through silver amulets, talismans and incanted adornments.
“Ya Hafeth, ya Ameen,” summons the latest exhibition at Amman museum and educational organisation, Tiraz – Widad Kawar home for Arab dress. Meaning, “Oh Protector oh Keeper,” this title is taken from a verse filigreed on a Khamsa (also Hand of Fatima, though it pre-dates the Islamic era) pendant in silver. The remarkable amulet features an electric-blue glass bead set at its centre, which is symbolic of the one of the oldest manifestations of human fear: the Evil Eye, and is believed to repel a curse cast by malevolent glare.
The Tiraz showcase looks more deeply into the significance of protective adornments than simply cutting the surface of these two well-known motifs. Ya Hafeth Ya Ameen reflects on the days before jewellery became merely ornamental, a time when it was a source of security in an uncertain world: when a family’s survival was dependent on a fruitful local harvest and minor illnesses were fatal.
“Many jewellery exhibitions have been done locally before, so we thought, ‘lets put it in another form and be more original by focussing on amulets, as well as the craftsmanship of silversmithing,’” explains Kawar. The Jordanian collector and her team had originally thought to title the exhibition “Al hasoud, la ya hasoud,” meaning, “The envious person does not succeed,” taken from another amulet on display. However, they decided that a more positive inscription should front the exhibition, in light of the turbulent times our region is facing.
Photographs from Oman Adorned hang beside “The envious person does not succeed,” in calligraphy
Prolific heritage custodian Kawar originally began collecting jewellery in the 1960s to complete her traditional Arab costumes, a collection dominated by ornate handcrafted textiles from across the Levant and Iraq. This exhibition brings together amulets (warding off evil), talismans (bringing good luck) and other significant adornments from her personal collection with those of Jordanian collector Sami Yousef. Marking Tiraz’s first combined-exhibition, Kawar felt that this partnership ensured it could provide a wider representation as Yousef’s Oman and Yemeni pieces complemented hers from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The broad Pan-Arab scope of her collection became paramount to Kawar following an early exhibition in Germany. “So many Arab labourers came to see it, and these people from Syria, Lebanon and Iraq were upset that I only had Palestinian and Jordanian pieces. From then on I decided I would have a corner in any exhibit representing more Arab countries,” says Kawar. “I prefer this because when all the Arabs come to view my exhibitions, it gives me a special feeling. Maybe we can’t always agree on politics, but we can when it comes to culture.”
Tiraz’s atmospheric joint-showcase opened on November 17, coinciding with its official opening, and was inaugurated by HM Queen Rania Al Abdullah. At the popular event, visitors perused more than 100 jewellery items, including pendants, necklaces, rings, bracelets, earrings and anklets among more unusual treasures, most dating from 1880 to 1960. The display of adornments for women, men and children is curated by Tiraz’s Ameera Al-Zaben who also assisted Salua Qidan, the centre’s art director, with her highly conceptual space design.
Upon entering the contemporarily renovated villa in north Jabal Amman, exhibit-goers first witness the costume displays for which Tiraz in renowned. “We have a full costume from each country or origin greeting you as you enter, with amuletic highlights in the textiles, in addition to the jewellery worn, ” guides Qidan. Flanking these, eye-catchingly adorned mannequins is the first of four zones, corresponding to the geographic regions: the Levant and Iraq, Oman, and Yemen, followed by a final room dedicated to the art of silversmithing.
“The idea behind the design is that you think more than you see. It was very important for me to give the viewer a spiritual journey,” explains Qidan. Her colour scheme spans from pure white to misty grey to dark charcoal in homage to silver’s dynamic shades as light passes across its surface. All silver pieces are presented on geometric, lightweight stands to give them prominence and are backed by black to best showcase their details. “Do you realise you are now in a very triangular space? This is because the geometry of amulets is very significant, the triangle iconically so. Look down and you will see the design of this focal piece reflected in a shadow-like floor transfer,” says Qidan. The space designer wanted to create immersive and mysterious ambience, as well as highlight a VIP piece and its in-depth story in each room.
The centrepiece of the Levantine and Iraqi space is a prize of Kawar’s collection. A bridal back-pieces known as meglab it features a beaded triangular amulet and is covered in the coveted commodity Maria Theresa thaler, a 23-gram silver bullion coin named after the Austrian Empress, which has been used in world trade continuously since the commencement of her reign in 1741. “Before a woman got married, her aunts would get together and they would sew whatever money they had onto this and it would be worn by the bride as she was leaving her home. If she ever needed money she could sell the silver pieces; it’s her bank account on her back!” explains Kawar. She purchased it from Hebron and has never come across another like it again. “All the amulets you can dream of are on this piece, from animal teeth to corals, periwinkle shells, semi-precious stones, glass, coins and items discovered in the field,” adds Qidan.
The vast majority of the exhibited jewellery was used for festive purposes, with many pieces, like the meglab, given to women as part of their dowry, whereby they would have remained solely her property and served as an insurance fund. Though not a dowry piece, another notable Levantine artifact is a young boy’s bejewelled circumcision robe. “They had to protect themselves from all these problems and fears. It was especially true of precious individuals in precarious situations like young boys who would carry on the family’s line. In a circumcision ceremony a son could die, thus the need for all these amulets,” explains Qidan. The garment features a beaded triangular amulet, centred on the back, and is almost completely covered in coins. “Some are Spanish, Austrian, American, Turkish, and others are from all the Arab countries; so many different nationalities have been to the Palestinian village where I bought this,” highlights Kawar.
Her silver adornments from the Levant and Iraq meld a rich alloy of styles, but also feature a significant uniformity in design due to the fact that production predominantly took place in a limited number of cities. Typically bequeathed heirlooms, they often feature inscriptions of names and many of the Iraqi pieces embrace ancient Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian styles. Several notable necklaces and pendants are triangular, while others are dominated by a khiara (cucumber) shape that is amuletic in form, but is also often hollow and used to encase a message. “These were written scripts of your desires: to be pregnant, married or to have ample money to feed your children. You would go to the priest or sheikh and have them prepare the text,” tells Al-Zaben, the exhibition’s curator. On the other hand, in times of prosperity, purchasing silver and semi-precious stone designs was a sound investment.
Passing by an alcove installation presenting the Evil Eye and the Hand of Fatima motifs, one arrives at the Omani display. The shape profiled here is the circle, which has dictated the setup, floor art and an in-depth centrepiece. A magical square shape known as Hirz and Qur’anic verses are also prevalent among the eye-catchingly large and weighty items. These include an innovative mishill (headband), which was used to help support heavy earrings, headpieces and even masses of hair. Oman’s former territories in Tanzania, Kenya, Iran and Pakistan, as well as its history of seafaring, in particularly to India and The Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Laos and Thailand), strongly influence the designs. The demand for silver pieces in the developing Sultanate declined as quantities of gold became more readily available from Saudi Arabia and Dubai in the late 20th century. As a result, the exhibition also presents a few pieces accented in this more lavish element.
The neighbouring Yemeni collection is conceptualised by the crescent moon, which is believed to offer safety from harm. Designs feature an array of reddish coral and amber offering amuletic protection, and often jingle to frighten away evil spirits. Interestingly, the jewellery reflects the fact that Yemen was two countries up until 1990, with Turkish-style filigree employed among several northern Yemeni pieces. “They are the masters of this craft,” tells Kawar. She believes the superiority of Yemeni silversmithing is tied in with the countries conservatism; jewellery remained an important commodity to families and craftsman continued to use traditional, intricate techniques rather than modernising as quickly as other countries. Yemeni silversmiths also moved throughout the region teaching others and influencing styles. “Even when HM King Abdullah I came to Jordan with the Hashemites, he brought a very famous Yemeni silver jeweller with him. This silversmith produced special amulets with a unique chain, which is now called Karaki Chain,” tells Kawar.
As the education room next-door details, the Al Afghanis are one of the Kingdom’s most respected silversmithing families. Originating from Afghanistan, they arrived to Jordan by way of Damascus and today own a chain of antique and souvenir stores throughout Amman. Though their local production is now minimal, they still possess a wonderful collection of silversmithing tools, which are displayed beside examples and explanations of specific techniques used to create silver jewellery. One can see the results of: sakib (sand casting), whereby liquid metal is poured into a sand mold; tariq (hammering), whereby silver is hammered and cut into desired shapes; and habbiyat (granulation), whereby a sulfate is covered in granules of metal soldered onto a bar. There is also jewellery featuring: mushabak (filigree), the ornate metalwork of silver wire involving twisting and soldering; mhabar (niello), the black mixture of copper, silver and lead sulfites used as an inlay on etched metal and brought to Jordan by the Circassian people; naqsh (engraving), the superficial cuts made on the smooth surface, in the form of words or symbols; and darab shakosh (repousse) the technique of hammering outward from the reverse side of a thin piece of silver.
Nearby is one of the more intriguing pieces on display: fear cups, for drinking from as you awake from nightmares. Their inscriptions have been enlarged onto the banners that encircle the exhibition space. One can also take a closer look at some jewellery elements employed in addition to silver namely: lapis lazuli, used for relieving tension; amber, to remedy infant jaundice; and agate, to heal arthritis and increase blood coagulation after giving birth.
On the wall leading to Tiraz’s permanent collection and concluding the loop back around to the entrance is a fascinating painting by the late Ali Jabri, who was seen as a leading contemporary artist dedicated to Arab culture. It combines the Khamsa, multiple Evil Eyes and serendipitously features the title phrase, “Ya Hafeth.” While people may not be as superstitious as they once were, protective adornments continue to hold an important place in the collective history of the Arab peoples.
“There are specifications that give a piece or place its own identity, but then there are also strong similarities across the cultures of the Arab world; this is what makes me more and more interested in collecting,” tells Kawar. She cannot stress the value of promoting cross-cultural awareness enough. “Instead of nowadays scrutinising over the differences and common factors in our regional politics, I find the common beauty in our cultures – in what it means to be an Arab and in the aspects of the Arab, Bedouin and villager cultures,” she adds. “I think not knowing about theses is one of the main factors that leads young people to grow up with so much frustration; they don’t feel they have an identity. Today, learning to understand and respect our cultures is of great protection against the wrong kind of thinking and even against acts of terrorism.”
In preparing this exhibition alone, Tiraz bought together the expertise of Jordanians – Christians and Muslims alike – as well as consultants from Switzerland, Denmark and even as far as Chile. “Many people say that ‘they are fed up with Bedouin things,’ but they haven’t learned to appreciate the work and effort that goes into them,” says Kawar. “I would like such topics to become a little more serious in Jordanian curricula and homes too. Anything ethnic and inherited should be saved and registered to record our way of life. Our history should hold have some kind of value for people.”
Ya Hafeth, Ya Ameen is sponsored by the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation, Kawar Group, Ard Canaan, Mazaj FM, Trendesign, InterContinental Hotel Amman and Al Aydi. It is on display until March 28. For more information and to stay up-to-date with the future exhibitions, which are slated to focus on the traditional costumes of Al Salt and Nablus, visit Tirazcentre.org.
Photography: Amer Sweidan