Sunday, September 8, 2013

Resistance is Futile: Henna in Reverse, Part I


Inspired by a comment in an online group for henna artists, I thought I’d explore some of the historical records we have for what might be called “resist henna”: using a impervious substance to create patterns on the skin and then applying henna thickly over it, so that the pattern remains unstained against a darkly-hennaed background. This technique creates bold and striking patterns, since the thick henna ensures a dark stain, and is especially helpful if the henna is grainy or not well sifted.

This post is divided into two parts. In this week's installment I’ll offer some sources for sap and wax resists, and in the next part I’ll look at string and dough resists.

For sap and wax resists, designs are usually drawn on the skin with a stick dipped in some liquid mixture that, when dry, will block the henna stain. M. Vonderheyden observed in the 1930s that Ouled-Naïl women in Algeria patterned their henna by dropping candle wax on their hands and covering it with henna, so that they had “white spots against the brown stain” (1934, pg. 46). 

In 1949 Raymond Mauny, a French researcher at the Institut Français d’Afrique Noire in Dakar, published a brief comment in Notes Africaines, explaining that on his way to Kiffa, Mauritania, he saw women who hennaed their hands “not with a simple application as is the custom in most Islamic countries, but having made geometric motifs to a most beautiful effect” (1949, pg. 116). One of them described the process to him as follows:
We take a stick with ash, mixed with gum or the sap of euphorbia, and we draw with that mixture the spots that we want to stay white. Then we apply the henna over the whole hand, which we then wrap with the large leaves of the tourja (Calotropis procera).

Mauny supplies the following photograph, noting that the left hand had been doubly hennaed, and the right hand only once.

Woman with hennaed hands, Kiffa (Mauritania). From Mauny 1949, pg. 116.

It looks like the designs here were made with multiple techniques: sap resist for the stripes and triangular pieces on the sides of her hands, while the diamond/cross shapes on the top and bottom of the right hand appear to have been drawn on directly, probably with a stick; her fingers, of course, have been solidly dipped (with a nice sharp line from the resist defining them at the bottom). The designs are clearly visible and very striking — anyone want to give them a try? Maybe I'll recreate them for another post.





In the 1960s, resin resists in Mauritania began to be supplanted by use of adhesive medical tape (sparadrap in French), cut into thin strips; this will be explored further in next week's post, "Dough, String, and Tape Resists".

Wax and sap resists were also used in the Levant and Arabian peninsula. Sarah Barclay Johnson, daughter of a prominent American missionary, described her visit to a bathhouse in Ottoman Jerusalem in the 1850s, and explained in detail the process of henna dyeing with a wax resist. The mixture was warmed in a small bowl and then drawn on with a small metal rod that she compares to a knitting needle — likely a kohl stick (1858, pp. 211-212):
Silver kohl stick and pot,
Oman, mid-20th century.
British Museum
During the bath, slaves had busied themselves in making preparations for dyeing the hands of their mistresses with henna. A vessel of melted wax, rosin, and other ingredients unknown to me, was at hand, with which, by means of a steel wire resembling a knitting-needle, the slave traced the outlines of flowers and all kinds of curious figures on the outstretched hand of her mistress. The spaces between the figures were then filled up with this softened mixture, and after allowing it to be hardened, a large lump of henna made into dough was pasted over her hand, and the whole bound up, mummy-like, with several thicknesses of linen. The poor creature must allow her hands to remain in this helpless state a day and night; but no doubt feels amply rewarded for her pains on beholding the delicate orange-brown tracery on removing the dough, wax, and bandages. The feet are dyed in the same manner; and in summer, great pride is felt in the display of these unique slippers.

She adds that the stain lasts for about a month, and as soon as the henna begins to fade the process is repeated!

There is one cryptic reference to what might be resist henna among the Halabi Jews (Aleppo, Syria): Sima Oster, in her article (1972) on wedding blessings among the Jewish communities of Aleppo and Urfa (Turkey), records a sample henna blessing among Halabi Jews: bring the zalābiya and the henna / so we can henna the parents and the bride (1972, pg. 18) and glosses zalābiya [Judeo-Arabic זלאבּיה] as “the name of a fragrant plant, that was put on the hand with the henna, and after the henna was removed, designs remained on the palm” (ibid., no. 10). This may have been some kind of sap resist, or perhaps the leaves of the plant were placed on the hand to block the henna. Unfortunately I am unable to determine what plant she is referring to, and no other source on Halabi henna records anything similar.

But it is among the Yemenite Jewish community of San‘a (and surrounding villages) that wax resist took its most complex form. To my knowledge, the tradition is unique to them; I have seen no indication of similar techniques or patterns among Muslims in Yemen. Early reports (e.g. de Couret, 1859, pg. 209; Sémach, 1910, pg. 138; Maysels, 1941, pg. 4) indicate that henna was done for Yemenite Jewish weddings in elaborate patterns, but with no information on technique. It is not until the mass emigration of Yemenite Jews to Israel that we get any clear descriptions of their henna ceremonies and the process of their henna patterns. Yosef Qafih (widely known as Rav Kapakh, 1917-2000), last chief rabbi of Yemenite Jewry, gave an extensive description in his book Halikhot Teiman [The Ways of Yemen] (1961). Other descriptions come from Yehuda Levi Nahum (1962), Yehuda Ratzhaby (1963), Aviva Klein (1979), and Zekharia Dori (1982). Put together, we can establish the process as follows: 

On the first day, the bride’s hands and feet were hennaed solidly (without pattern), to the wrist and ankle, or sometimes further up the arm and leg. The henna was left on for a few hours and then removed. The next day, the artist (known as a shar‘e) drew various designs on the skin using a reed, kohl stick, or quill, with a waxy resist made (according to Dori, 1982, pg. 45) of Javanese pine resin, myrrh, frankincense, olive oil, and alum. The wax was kept warm in a brazier over coals, and the burning pain that the bride felt as it was applied was explained as "symbolizing the responsibility of marriage and the yoke of her new life" (Sharaby, 2006, pg. 21).

The designs were similar to those of Yemenite Jewish embroidery: ears of grains on the fingers, various bands of designs on the palms and backs of the hands, and a netted border around the edge of the hand; similar designs were done on the feet (Levi Nahum 1962, pg. 155). Dori (1982, pp. 45-46) describes the patterns as including ears of grain, nets, zigzags, wavy lines, circles and stars. A second coat of henna was then applied over the wax and left to dry (sometimes overnight). The henna was wrapped up in special cloths known as meḥani, to prevent the henna from dirtying their clothes or sheets.


A bride and groom in San'a, ca. 1930. The bride's feet have been
solidly hennaed; this is likely after the first application of henna.
When it was removed, the henna stain was treated with an alkaline mixture of shaḍḍar [ammoniac] and ḥuṭma [potash], which darkened the exposed henna stain to a greenish-black; the hennaed skin protected by the wax, however, retained its original orange-red shade. Thus, when everything was removed, the hands and feet were decorated with orange-red designs against a greenish-black background. Finally, the henna of the bride and other women were often decorated with a black gall ink (known as sukreghe or khiḍab): dots, stripes, and lines on the hands and feet (called teṭrufa or naqsh), and the face (called kheṭuṭ). Brides would have patterned henna done up to their elbows, while other women would have just their palms hennaed. Unmarried girls were allowed only to henna their hands, because hennaed feet were seen as the prerogative of married women. Little girls and widows would decorate themselves only with henna, without resist patterns.

Unfortunately, this complex technique was immediately abandoned upon arrival in Israel, and to my knowledge no photographs of this technique have survived. Personal communication with travelers indicates that this tradition is no longer practiced among the few remaining Jews in Yemen either. While I was in Israel, I tried to find a living shar‘e but I was unsuccessful. I’m still looking! My hope is to document this tradition as extensively as possible before it passes from living memory.

Selected Bibliography
Dori, Zecharia. 1982 Hapukh vehakofer: hakeḥul vehaḥinna [The Pukh and the Kofer: kohl and henna]. Jerusalem: Hemed.
du Couret, Louis. 1859 Les Mystères du Désert: Souvenirs de Voyages en Asie et en Afrique [The Mysteries of the Desert: Memories of Voyages in Asia and Africa]. Paris: E. Dentu.
Johnson, Sarah Barclay. 1858 Hadji in Syria, or Three Years in Jerusalem. Philadelphia: James Challen and Sons.
Klein, Aviva. 1979 Minhagei haḥatuna shel neshot Rada‘ [Wedding Customs of the Women of Rada‘]. Yeda‘ ‘Am, No. 19, pp. 79-90.
Levi Nahum, Yehuda. 1962 Miṣefunot yehudei Teiman [Secrets of the Jews of Yemen]. Ed. by Shimʿon Garidi. Tel Aviv: Afiqim.
Mauny, Raymond. 1949 Décoration des mains au henné [Decorating hands with henna]. Notes Africaines, Vol. 44, pg. 116.
Maysels, Theodore. 1941 Henna Night in Shaarei Pinna: A Yemenite Wedding. The Palestine Post, Tuesday May 6.
Oster [Haruv], Sima. 1972 Miberakhot hahatuna besafa ha‘aravit beqerev yehudi Urfa veHalab [Arabic Wedding Blessings Among the Jews of Urfa and Aleppo]. Folklore Research Center Studies, Vol. 3, pp. 15-31.
Qafih [Kapakh], Yosef. 1961 Halikhot Teiman [The Ways of Yemen]. Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute.
Ratzhaby, Yehuda. 1963 Shirei ḥatuna beRada‘ shebaTeiman [Wedding Songs from Rada‘ in Yemen]. Mahanayim, No. 83, pp. 60-63.
Sémach, Yomtob. 1910 Une Mission de L’Alliance au Yémen [A Mission of the Alliance to Yemen]. Paris: Alliance Israelite Universelle.
Sharaby, Rachel. 2006 The Bride's Henna Ritual: symbols, meanings, and changes. Nashim: a journal of Jewish women's studies and gender issues, Vol. 11, pp. 11-42.
Vonderheyden, M. 1934 Le henné chez les Musulmans de l’Afrique du Nord [Henna among the Muslims of North Africa]. Journal de la Société des Africanistes, Vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 35-61.

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