Friday, December 19, 2014

Say Yes to the Dress: Jewish Henna Clothing

I often get emails asking me what to wear to a henna ceremony, or if I provide traditional costumes for henna ceremonies. I don’t yet (I wish I did!), but I thought I would devote a blogpost exploring some of the traditional clothing associated with Jewish henna ceremonies.

Here are some examples of the traditional clothing worn at Jewish henna ceremonies across the world. Some of this was generally similar to the festive clothes worn by their Muslim, Hindu, or Christian neighbours, depending on the area, although much of it was uniquely Jewish. Often the “henna dress” would be worn for the wedding as well, and often at festive celebrations thereafter, but sometimes it was worn only on this one occasion.


Keswa kbira, Rabat, late 19th century.
In the Jewish Museum, NYC.
In most of northern and central Morocco, the henna night was the time of the traditional festive dress, known in Judeo-Arabic as el-keswa el-kbira, “the Grand Dress.” In Haketía (Judeo-Spanish), it was known as the traje de la berberisca, “the dress of the Berberisca,” a term for the henna ceremony; the dress itself was also sometimes called berberisca

While this is derived from the word Berber, it is clear that the dress came with the Sephardi megorashim [exiles] to Morocco — it was not worn by the Amazigh Jewish communities of southern Morocco. I'm still not sure where the word berberisca became attached to the henna ceremony... I wonder if they called it berberisca because it was modeled after, or was seen as resembling, the henna traditions of the indigenous Moroccan Jewish toshavim.

The dress, which shares some similarities with medieval Spanish clothing, actually has eight parts: a skirt (zeltita), a bodice (ktef), a short-sleeved jacket (gombaz), separate long sleeves (kmam), a woven silk belt (hzam), a silk scarf (panuelo or fechtul), embroidered shoes, and a headband. The fabric is velvet, usually red or blue, with gold and silver embroidery. The various motifs (suns, roses, trees, birds, etc.) all add to the significance of the dress and its symbolism on this ritual of passage. It would continue to be worn after the wedding on holidays or other celebrations, and of course it would be passed on in a family from mother to daughter.

Simy Monsonego in her keswa kbira,
Fes, ca. 1941.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bon Appetit: Jewish Food for Henna Parties Around the World

I am in the middle of writing another blogpost, but I was shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Rabbi Gil Marks, a prominent scholar of Jewish food history, in Jerusalem this past Friday. 

Gil Marks receiving the James Beard Award, 2005.
His books have not only enriched my own cooking, but have inspired me to think about how to combine scholarship, public outreach, and active practice in my own academic work — his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food in particular is a model for the kind of book I dream of writing about Jewish culture. In his memory I decided to devote this post to some of the food associated with Jewish henna ceremonies.

Around the world, Jewish communities developed a rich culinary tradition that braided together Jewish values and practices around cooking and eating with local foodways and ingredients, along with those acquired along their migrational history (this same dynamic, by the way, is at play with Jewish henna traditions as well!). Of course henna ceremonies, being significant lifecycle moments and community celebrations, were accompanied by food — sometimes a whole meal, sometimes just snacks and sweets. Here are a few recipes that might have appeared at a Jewish henna ceremony a century or so ago:

Sunday, November 9, 2014

No Paisleys? A History of Indian Henna Designs

What Do You Mean, No Paisleys? A Short History of Modern Indian Henna Designs

I had a great time participating in HennaCon, a conference for henna artists, in Camarillo a few weeks ago, and now at the Windy City Mehndi Meet in Chicago (and next week at the Polar Sling in Minneapolis!). One of my presentations covers the history of henna until the present day (an ambitious task, I know!) and I mentioned that the style that we think of today as “Indian” henna, with flowers, paisleys, scalloped fill, and other motifs stacked one after the other, is a modern innovation post-1970s. People were surprised to hear this, so I thought I’d share a few interesting early images of Indian henna. And I’m always happy to see more — readers, if you have any old photos lying around, or memories of henna in India before the 70s, send them my way!

It is not clear (to me, at least) how long henna has been done in India. Parashuram Krishna Gode, a Sanskrit scholar, suggested several identifications of henna in medieval Indian literature, although none are particularly certain (Gode 1948). Whether it predates the Muslim conquest of Sindh in 712 CE, the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206, or even the arrival of the Persian Mughals in 1526, is difficult to say. I admit that I have no training in Indology so I am completely out of my field here, and I would welcome any assistance or constructive critiques.

A Mughal Indian portrait, 1628, possibly of
Mumtaz Mahal — note the hennaed
fingertips. In the Freer-Sackler Museum.
What is clear is that it was only after the Mughal arrival that henna took off in a big way. Henna had been used in Iran already for hundreds of years, as depicted in Persian art and literature, and in Persian paintings of the 13th through 17th centuries we see the development of henna into an elaborate art.

Mughal-era paintings from India often depict women with hennaed hands and feet, but unlike Persian paintings the henna is never shown in designs, but always dipped fingertips or solid palms and feet, as far as I have seen. This doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t doing designs — but if they were, they didn’t depict them.

Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, is often credited with the introduction of henna (or henna designs) to India, although this is impossible to prove. We do know that henna was being used in the royal courts of the time — Shah Jahan’s father, Jahangir, records in his memoirs that the hinna-bandi (the Persian term for the henna ceremony) for his youngest son, Shahryar, was held in the palace of his mother, Maryam uz-Zamani, in 1621, but provides no additional information (Rogers 1914, pg. 202). 

Similarly, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s son, Dara Shikoh, had a hinna-bandi ceremony in 1633 where his hands were hennaed, but apparently without designs (Qanungo 1952, pp. 9-10), and the same was true of his brother Aurangzeb’s henna ceremony in 1637 (Sarkar 1912, pp. 58-59).

European reports of the time also observed that henna was done without designs. Francisco Pelsaert (1595-1630), a Dutch merchant, reported in 1626 that “the women employed for the purpose anoint the bridegroom, and rub his hands and feet with mehndi (a powder made into a paste), till they are quite red; this is supposed to have been sent by the bride, and the occasion is called Mehndi Day in consequence” (Pelsaert 1925, pg. 82). 

"Maiden with Parakeet" (detail), Golkonda
(Hyderabad), 1670, currently in the Met.
Similarly, Niccolao Manucci (1639-1717), an Italian mercenary and writer who spent the last six decades of his life at the Mughal court, similarly wrote (Manucci 1907, pp. 340-341):
All women in India are in the habit of scenting their hands and feet with a certain earth [the translator’s note explains that the word is posso, literally mud], which they call mendy, which colours the hands and feet red, in such a way that they look as if they had on gloves.

All the descriptions of henna in India that I can find, from the 17th century all the way into the 19th and early 20th century, agree with the visual record — they describe henna applied solidly to the hands and feet without designs. For example, Jaffur Shureef, a Hyderabadi Muslim scribe, recorded the following in his book on Islam in India, written for colonial administrators (1832, pp. 102-104):
[For weddings, they prepare] the leaves of the Maynh-dee tree (Lawsonia spinosa, Lin. or Eastern privet), together with a little catechu, areca-nut and the stalks of betel-leaves: triturated with rice gruel, or water… The women call the bride to them, and with their own hands apply the maynh-dee to her hands and feet (i.e. to the inside of the hands and nails of the fingers, and to the soles of the feet and nails of the toes)… The next day, in the same manner as the huldee [turmeric] and maynh-dee came from the bridegroom's to the bride's, it is carried from her house to his [and] the bride’s-women come to apply maynh-dee to the bridegroom.

So when do we start seeing designs? Pictures of Indian henna that I've seen from the 1960s show mainly stripes across the fingers or feet (like alta), or large simple spirals. Some of the earliest records of patterns that I have been able to find come from the work of Jogendra Saksena, a Rajasthani folklorist, artist, and writer, whose sister was apparently a henna artist herself. I have not been able to find much biographical information about Saksena, but according to his own account he first began collecting henna designs at the end of 1948, when I assume he was a young man.

Jogendra's sister hennaing his wife
Prem. From Art of Rajasthan (1979).
In 1954 he was appointed the first curator of the Sir Chhotu Ram museum in Sangaria, and he later worked for the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Delhi. He was also involved in the Albert Hall museum in Jaipur, where at his recommendation they installed a small gallery of Rajasthani henna designs (drawn on what look like ceramic model hands). 

If anyone goes to Jaipur — let me know if it’s still there! For all I know, Saksena himself may still be alive today (he would be at least in his late 80s).

In 1979, he published Art of Rajasthan: Henna and Floor Decorations, a book which he claimed he had waited to publish for thirty years; in it he recorded descriptions of how and when henna was done in Rajasthan, with various folk songs, anecdotes and proverbs… And, most relevant for our purposes, 16 pages of henna designs, mostly drawings but some photographs.

Unfortunately, he notes that “it is regretted that as most of the mehndi designs reproduced here have been collected from various sources, it is not possible to mention the place of their collection” (pg. 201). It seems that he re-drew them all for publication from various notes of his and other sources. All his sketches are dated 1976 (and some of them appeared in an earlier article of his, in 1977). So basically, any design in the book could have been recorded anytime between 1948 and 1976.

Saksena does divide the designs into ‘Old Mehndi’ and ‘New Mehndi,’ indicating that the 'Old Mehndi' designs were those he collected from 1948 onwards into the 1960s, and the 'New Mehndi' were those that he had collected recently (i.e. the 1970s). For him, the differences in design are that the old style encloses the palm in a square to cover the whole hand and fingers, while the new style covers only the centre of the palm, or even forms an assymetrical strip (pg. 78-79). In his description of ‘Old Mehndi’, he names a wide variety of designs, including:

  • lahariya — ‘waves,’ a design with chevron, fishbone, or zigzag fill, symbolic of surging emotions and the joy of the rainy season
  • chunari — ‘tie-dye,’ a design done in reverse with a lime resist
  • ghevar — ‘disk-shaped sweet,’ a design centred around a circular shape, symbolic of the devotion to family shown during the Teej festival
  • chaupar — ‘board game,’ a design featuring a checkerboard, symbolic of the meeting of lovers

"Old Mehndi" designs from Saksena (1979), probably collected
in the early 50s. He identifies them as: bichura ("scorpion," top left),
katvan phulya ("floral grid," top right); lahariya ("waves," bottom
 left) and chah-dankiya ("hexagram," bottom right).

He does provide some examples of ‘New Mehndi,’ describing them as “trendy” or “modern fashion designs,” which include large paisley shapes, mandalas surrounded by empty space, and floral strips which go across the hand.

An example of what Saksena terms a "New Mehndi" design,
featuring a large keri (mango-paisley), late 70s.

Thus it seems that the style that we know today as ‘Indian’ begins to emerge only in the late 70s. By the 1980s, the henna patterns in photos and design books correspond to what we would expect from Indian mehndi — but the historical evidence reminds us to be careful in calling it “traditional” without any caveats. And of course, Indian henna (like all henna traditions) has continued to develop and evolve. A henna design that was top-of-the-line even only 15 or 20 years ago would today be seen as terribly old-fashioned.

Henna art by Shenaz Hooda, featured in the film Painted Bride, by
Susan Slyomovics and Amanda Dargan, 1990.

But to me, that’s the wonderful thing about henna, the ever-changing, always-beautiful, ephemeral art! It lasts for an instant, and its memories last forever. What do you think henna styles will look like decades from now? What will 'traditional' henna look like? What will the trendy "modern fashion designs" be? Only time will tell.

Gode, Parashuram Krishna. Studies in the History of Indian Plants: History of Mendi or Henna (Between B.C. 2000 and A.D. 1850). Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol. 28, 1948, pp. 14-25.
Manucci, NiccolaoStoria do Mogor, or Mogul India, 1653-1708 (translated by William Irvine). London, John Murray, 1907.
Pelsaert, FranciscoJahangir’s India: the Remonstrantie of Francisco Pelsaert (translated by W. H. Moreland). Cambridge: W. Heffer, 1925.
Qanungo, Kalika RanjanDara Shukoh. Kolkata: S. C. Sarkar, 1952.
Rogers, Alexander (trans.). The Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, or Memoirs of Jahangir, from the Thirteenth to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Year of his Reign. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1914.
Saksena, Jogendra. Henna for Happiness. The UNESCO Courier, February 1977, pp. 18-22.
Saksena, JogendraArt of Rajasthan: Henna and Floor Decorations. New Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 1979.
Sarkar, JadunathHistory of Aurangzib, Mainly Based on Persian Sources. Kolkata: M. C. Sarkar, 1912.
Shureef, JaffurQanoon-e-Islam, or the Customs of the Moosulmans of India, Comprising a Full and Exact Account of their Various Rites and Ceremonies (translated by G. A. Herklots). London: Parbury, Allen, and Co., 1832.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book Review: Nomi Eve's "Henna House"

A few years ago, I got an email from a woman who was interested in Yemenite Jewish henna traditions. We corresponded for some time but after our last email I forgot about the encounter… Until a friend sent me a link to a new book coming out about a family of Jewish henna artists in Yemen, and I was thrilled to see that my old correspondent had in fact finished her book! I finally received a copy and read it through, and I’m delighted to be able to share my thoughts here.

Reading Henna House, with henna,
of course! (My henna by Darcy Vasudev).
Henna House begins in Yemen in the early 1920s, and by the end has taken us to the early State of Israel in the 1970s. It follows Adela Damari, a Temani girl whose life is changed when she meets relatives of hers who are henna artists. It is a story, as the back cover describes, “of love, loss, betrayal, forgiveness, and the dyes that adorn the skin and pierce the heart.” 

The book is well-researched, and peppered throughout with references to significant items, events, and traditions of Yemenite (or Temani) Jewry. The gargush [Temani headdress] and jahnun [savoury pastry], the Jewish refugees in Aden and the confiscation of Jewish orphans, the lulwi dress for burial and the martial arts of Habbani Jews, all make appearances. 

And of course, the henna! Henna is the central motif of the book and is a constant thread from beginning to end. Jewish henna traditions get such little press, and I’m so thrilled to have this wonderful novel devoted to them. I’m not thrilled with the occasional appearance of the word ‘tattoo’ to describe henna designs, especially in a Jewish context, but this is more of an editorial quibble than a deep criticism. 

Henna House does an excellent job of describing the complex process of the wax-resist technique used by Yemenite Jews, where the designs are drawn not in henna but in hot wax over the background of lightly-hennaed skin. It also includes lots of tidbits about the way that henna was integrated into Jewish life; for example, how unmarried Jewish girls were generally discouraged from wearing patterned henna (pg. 73).

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ya Mashta: A Moroccan Jewish Henna Song

I helped facilitate a wonderful henna ceremony last week for a mixed Yemenite-Moroccan Jewish couple. One of the things we included was the singing and reading of several chants for the henna ceremony from various Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish communities. The bride’s mother was particularly moved by one of them and I thought I would share it on the blog.

I call the song “Ya Mashta,” after its opening words — although, as we shall see, there are several versions — which means, “O Dresser.” 

A Muslim woman having her hair braided, Ida Ou Blal
(southern Morocco), circa 1934. Photo by Jean Besancenot.
The mashta or masta (derived from the formal Arabic mashiṭa, ‘hairdresser’) was the woman who was responsible for the bride’s adornments, including her hair, her cosmetics, her jewelry, and of course, her henna. The mashta was already established as a respected female profession in the Middle Ages, for both Jews and Muslims (see, e.g., Shatzmiller 1994, pp. 171 and 354, and the fatwas of al-Wansharisi discussed here).

I have been able to locate several published texts of this song; Joseph Chétrit claims that “it is likely the oldest and most widely-spread Judeo-Arabic wedding song among the Jews of Morocco” (pg. 260). It appears for the first time in a manuscript written by Shlomo Tuv-Elem, a rabbi from Tétouan in northern Morocco, circa 1827. 

It was also published by Ruben Tadjouri in the version of Rabat-Salé in 1923, and of Fes in 1946 by Elie Malka (unfortunately only in translation). Two versions of it as recalled by elderly informants appear in Chétrit’s collection, both from southern Morocco: one from Taroudant, and one from Ighil-n-Ogho (Chétrit 2003; Dar'i 2003).

The longest version being Tuv-Elem’s, I have numbered its stanzas 1-15, using letters A-H to indicate additional or variant stanzas in the other versions. I don’t want to assume that the oldest version is the ‘truest’ (a problematic methodology, which ignores how traditions evolve within communities) and I actually prefer some of the verses of the later versions, but Tuv-Elem’s is the longest and it made the most sense to number it that way. All versions begin with the same opening (with some dialectical variation, i.e. the pronounciation of mashta as masta or even maṣta):

Stanza 1:
Ya mashta, mashti dlalha / l‘arosa rayḥa ldarha
O dresser, dress her hair / the bride is going to her house.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Plus the Cost of the Henna": Traces of Jewish Henna in Egypt

I had a request from a client whose family are originally Karaite Jews from Egypt, and wanted to know if I could offer any specific information on what henna traditions might have looked like for them.

[Side-note: the Karaites are a sect of Judaism which attempts to live only according to the Bible/TaNaKh, and does not recognize the legal/halakhic authority of the Talmud and later Rabbinic thought. In modern times, there were large Karaite communities in Egypt, Iraq, and the Crimea, which now live in Israel or the United States. Non-Karaite Jews are referred to as Rabbanites].

Prayer at the Karaite synagogue, Ashdod, Israel, 1985.
Photo by Ira Nowinski.

Unfortunately, there’s not a huge amount of information about Jewish henna traditions in Egypt, and they appear to have largely died out by the early 20th century. In this post I’ll try to collect what we do know about henna in Egypt, why it disappeared, and what we can do to revive it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Master of a Queer Profession": Charlie White and Toronto's Early Tattoo History

I recently met a local Toronto historian and artist, Teresa Casas, who is working to reconstruct the visual and social atmosphere of Toronto in the early 1900s through the photography of William James, combined with the text of the Toronto Daily Star (the precursor to the Toronto Star).

She pointed me to an image depicting a tattooed man, and a fascinating article in the Star on a tattooist working in Toronto at the turn of the century. I thought I would put together a little research to feature this important piece of local Toronto tattoo history. And don’t worry, regular readers, we’ll be back to henna in our next post!

Magic lantern slide of tattooed man, Toronto,
photo by William James, ca. 1910-1920.

The beginnings of professional tattooing in Canada have been hard to trace, especially due to the historical lack of scholarship devoted to tattooing. Some scholars of tattoo history have laid important ground, especially the crucial work of collecting oral histories; I have benefitted in particular from the work of Anna Felicity Friedman, Matt Lodder, Lyle Tuttle, Vince Hemingson and Lars Krutak, Bob Baxter, Charles Eldridge, and Clément Demers.

Maud Wagner, an early American tattoo
artist, ca. 1911.
Some context on turn-of-the-century tattooing: while tattoos had always been present in North American and European culture, they had become very popular by the end of the 19th century among all social classes, with nobles and royalty displaying tattoos acquired abroad (especially in the Levant and Japan) as well as at home. The Who's Who With Tattoos list includes King Edward VII and his son King George V, Czar Nicholas II, Charles Longfellow (son of Henry Wadsworth), and (according to legend) Lady Jennie Churchill (Winston's mother).

In 1891, Irish-American tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly patented the first prototype of an electric tattoo machine, which was refined by his student Charlie Wagner in 1904. Tattoos rapidly improved in quality and dropped in speed and price. The Harmsworth magazine wrote in 1898 that there were 20 tattoo artists working in London alone, with 100,000 tattooed clients. 

But what was happening in Canada? There are a few well-known names associated with early Canadian tattooing: Fred Baldwin, a former British soldier, and Vivian “Sailor Joe” Simmons both began tattooing in Montreal around 1910 — they were still using the old method of tapping tattoos with hand-held needles. 

Baldwin switched to the electric machine in 1916, and Simmons followed suit in 1918. In 1920 Baldwin opened the North Street Shop, on Barrington St. in Halifax, joined by another ex-Brit, Charlie Snow. Snow trained Sailor Jerry Swallow, another one of Canada’s legendary tattooists, who is still working today!

“Sailor Joe” Simmons eventually migrated to Toronto, where he died in 1965. In 1948 Simmons tattooed a young Toronto teen named Ken Cotterell, who became a famed tattoo artist in his own right under the name “Beachcomber Bill.” Simmons was featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the most heavily tattooed man in the world, with 4,831 distinct tattoos.

Friday, August 29, 2014

How do You Say Henna in Yiddish? A Russian Jew Discovers Henna and Other Encounters

I am super excited to be offering henna at the Toronto-based Ashkenaz Festival, a celebration of contemporary global Jewish arts and culture, and spreading awareness of the long and rich history of henna in Jewish communities around the world.

Ashkenaz began as a festival of Yiddish music; Ashkenaz literally means ‘Germany’ in Hebrew and refers to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, known as Ashkenazim. While my own family is of Ashkenazi background, my work with henna has led me to the Jews of North Africa, Yemen, Central Asia, and elsewhere — that is, the non-Ashkenazi world.

When people think of "Ashkenaz", the first images that usually come to mind are Yiddish (the Judeo-German language historically spoken by Ashkenazi Jews), klezmer music, the shtetl, the Lower East Side, Fiddler on the Roof... But usually not henna.

Thus, some of my friends thought it was surprising that I would be offering henna at a festival called “Ashkenaz,” and one even asked somewhat sarcastically, “Well, how do you even say henna in Yiddish?” 

The truth is that I myself never imagined that I would come across Yiddish in my henna research… Wrong, as usual! In honour of the upcoming festival I thought I’d bring up a few fun points of encounter between henna and Yiddish. If you've always wondered how to say 'henna' in Yiddish, wait no longer! And feel free to stop by this weekend if you're in Toronto.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Henna For Peace: Body Art of the Yezidis, Christians, and Jews of northern Iraq

With all the terrible news coming out of Iraq these days I thought I’d take a departure from my research on Jewish henna and North Africa to cast a quick spotlight on some of the body art traditions of Iraq’s ethno-religious minorities.

The news is difficult to bear, and it’s especially hard to feel helpless when faced with so much violence and destruction. If you’re moved to donate to aid organizations working in the area, I know that the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East has been doing amazing work in the refugee camps, as has UNICEF and the Iraqi Red Crescent. Of course, if you feel political action is necessary, you may wish to reach out to your local member of parliament, senator, or other government official. And if you’re looking for some more background, I found these maps very helpful.

A map of ethnic groups in Iraq (purple = Kurdish, yellow = Sunni Arab,
green = Shi'a Arab, and others), by Dr. Michael Izady.

But this is a blog about body art, so I thought I would devote some space to body art traditions in the region among minorities in northern Iraq: Yezidis, Christians, and Jews.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Henna, Hamsas, and Eyes, Oh My: The Eye as Motif in Moroccan Henna

I’ve settled back from Morocco but I’m still going through my henna photos… One interesting thing I’d thought I’d post about is the use of the eye symbol — l‘ayn — in Moroccan henna.

The eye is a well-known symbol of protection across North Africa, the Mediterranean basin, and Central Asia, appearing on jewelry, textiles, ceramics, amulets, and other crafts. It is an ancient motif, appearing on objects and crafts from ancient Egypt (especially as the eye of Horus) as well as Greece, Rome, and other ancient sites throughout Europe and the Levant.

The symbolic idea is that the eye looks back and breaks the stare of the Evil Eye. The Evil Eye, known simply as l‘ayn among Muslims, and as ‘ain hara‘ among Jews, is an ill-defined negative negative energy which can cause problems ranging from financial problems to physical ailments and even death. There are actually different aspects of the eye — a general, powerful negative spirit which exists independent of human action, which is attracted to certain objects or behaviors (which one might term "The Evil Eye"), and a sort of curse or spell which can be placed (purposefully or inadvertently) on someone by another person (which one might term "an evil eye"). People can invite an evil eye with prideful and boastful behaviour, or have an evil eye cast on them by a jealous relative or spurned neighbour.

An eye amulet for sale in a jewelry store in Meknes.
The Eye was feared by all, and people would go to great lengths to avoid being given an evil eye. Both Jews and Muslims have proverbs to the effect that the Evil Eye is the most frequent cause of death (cf. Stillman, 1970, pg. 82, and Stillman, 1983, pg. 487). 

It can be avoided or deterred in a number of ways — amulets, rituals, prayers — and of course, henna is an especially powerful deterrent, especially when depicting the image of an eye.

Westermarck writes: “Besides the fingers of the hand, there is another means of throwing back the baneful power, l-bas, which emanates from an evil eye, namely, the image of an eye. If baneful energy can be transferred by the eye, it can obviously also be thrown back by the eye. The image of an eye, or a pair of eyes, is therefore very commonly used as a charm” (1926, pg. 459). Sometimes even actual eyes — birds’ eyes or fish eyes — were used as protective charms (Stillman, 1970, pg. 89).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hahiya jat! Lalla ‘Aisha! [She Has Come! Lalla ‘Aisha!]: Henna and the Jnun

It feels strange, but my Moroccan summer adventure is over, seemingly as fast as it begun. I learnt so much and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity… And of course, I can’t wait to go back! I still have so much to learn. When I said goodbye to the secretary at the Arabic program, I told her, "I hope to come back soon, inshaAllah [G!d-willing]!" She looked at me and said, "Oh, you'll be back." InshaAllah!

I’m still sorting through the material that I collected this time, so even though I’ve left Morocco you can expect at least a few more Moroccan posts. And of course, if you have any specific questions, ask away!

For my last weekend in Morocco, I took a trip to a few pilgrimage sites around the Fes/Meknes area, including one with particular resonance for henna artists — the mausoleum of Sidi Ali ben Ḥamdush (or Ḥamdouche), the founder of the Ḥamadsha Sufi brotherhood, and the grotto of the jinniyya ‘Aisha Qandisha, the Ḥamadsha’s feared and revered spirit-interlocutor. In this post I’m going to explore the henna connection to ‘Aisha Qandisha and the Ḥamadsha, and more broadly, the relationship between henna and the jnun [spirits] in Morocco.

Candles and henna leaves for Lalla 'Aisha in her grotto.

I obviously only have space here for a very brief introduction; for more fuller treatments of the jnun in Morocco, the definitive early work is Westermarck (1926), and Crapanzano’s work (1973; 1980) is now a classic in the field. Some good contemporary pieces include Pandolfo (1997), Ma‘ruf (2007), Kapchan (2007), and Maréchal and Dassetto (2014). 

I’ll also take this moment to plug a great source for information on Moroccan henna: the definitive work on the artistry, culture, and significance of henna in Morocco, by renowned artists Lisa ‘Kenzi’ Butterworth and Nic Tharpa Cartier — Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco (2010). If you’re interested in Moroccan henna this book is a must-have.

Monday, July 14, 2014

BshHal [How much]? Shopping in the Henna Market of Fes

With only a week left in Morocco, I'm trying desperately to cram in as much henna as I can. I can't believe my time here has gone by so fast! I still have a number of areas where I'm hoping to do more research, including the relationship between henna and the jnun and the distinctive characteristics of Fassi-style henna. In the meantime, I thought I'd do a feature post on the henna market of Fes, a lovely local piece of henna history hidden away in the medina [old city].

Words used to describe the medina in Fes include bewildering, overwhelming, a maze, a labyrinth, a sensory overload, and a maddeningly enjoyable experience. It stretches for almost 3 square kilometres (280 hectacres), a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the largest car-free zones in the world. Within the medina, goods are transported on hand-drawn carts or by one of the many patient mules and donkeys accustomed to its cobblestone alleys.

The medina is home to over 150,000 inhabitants, and many Fassis who live in the New City still come here to shop or work, not to mention the thousands of tourists from around the world who can be seen on every corner puzzling over maps, photographing the historic buildings and postcard-perfect marketplace atmosphere, and attempting (usually unsuccessfully) not to be hustled out of their last dirham.

The trick to capturing this serene moment:
go to the medina at 8 in the morning when
you can't sleep because it's already 35 degrees.

The medina is actually not a free-for-all sprawl, but is fairly organized and not difficult to navigate once you learn to orient yourself. There are two main thoroughways which run (mostly) parallel through the medina: Tal‘a Kbira and Tal‘a Ṣghira — ‘Great Slope’ and ‘Little Slope,’ respectively, alluding to the angle of the street. Most of the medina is on a slope, and so if you’re walking downhill you’re probably heading east, toward the ‘bottom’ of the medina, Place Rṣif, and uphill is probably toward Bab Boujloud, the main ‘entrance’ of the medina.

The majority of the buildings in the medina today date to the Marinid dynasty (13th-15th centuries), but there are a few even older monuments, including the oldest continuously-operating university in the world, al-Qarawiyyin, founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hey Hannaya: A Moroccan Henna Artist in Action

There's only so much information you can get from asking women on the streets about their henna, so I decided to go to the source and find some ḥannayat ('henna artists' — in Fes they use the word ḥannaya rather than neqasha as in other parts of Morocco). In this post I'm going to feature the work of a local ḥannaya whom I spent some time with on Sunday; hopefully I will be able to see one or two more ḥannayat in action.

A— is the “resident ḥannaya” of Café Clock, a popular restaurant and cultural centre in the medina of Fes (with a sister café that just opened in Marrakech). She has been a henna artist for 17 years, and she began working at Café Clock four years ago. She works there ‘on call’ — if you want henna, you can ask the servers to call her for you, and she shows up within about half an hour. The café also hosts her on Sunday evenings starting at 6:30, when it’s not Ramadan.

A working on a fusion piece.
I first met A one Sunday afternoon at the café; she had come in to henna another client and I asked if I can watch. The client (a young woman from the Netherlands traveling with her father) pointed at a photograph showing two hands hennaed with full bildi (‘old-fashioned’) Fassi henna, but A did a more modern khaleeji/bildi fusion with some open space. The client was satisfied, though, and paid 150 dh (about 18 USD) for both hands.

I wanted to see more of A's traditional Fassi work, however, so I returned with a friend from school who had graciously agreed to be my henna ‘wing-woman’ and help me with my research. 

A sat and patiently answered my questions about henna while my friend R— and her boyfriend J— ate lunch, and then she hennaed my friend while I took photo and video.

A doesn’t work at other cafés or public places; outside of Café Clock her henna income comes from private appointments and brides. She told me that she learnt henna art on her own, without a teacher, and that henna artists in Morocco work alone. “We don’t have any associations for henna artists like writers or teachers have,” she told me somewhat wistfully. 

I wanted to let her know about the wonderful networking and camaraderie that we henna artists have in North America, but I wasn’t sure how to tell her, since I was ‘undercover’ and hadn’t told her that I was a henna artist (in Morocco it’s seen as shameful for men to be involved with henna or have elaborate henna themselves). Maybe I should have — I just don’t know how she would have reacted. I think I also wanted the conversation to be about her, not about me; if I see her again, I'll probably tell her.

A looked over some of the photos I had taken of henna on the streets, and identified the different designs for me, classifying them into two types — bildi, referring to the designs I call ‘true Fassi,’ and romi, ‘modern,’ referring both to the few floral pieces I’d seen and to the confusing fusion pieces which were full coverage but not classic Fassi, which she also called mukhallaṭ, ‘mixed.’ As it turned out, one of the pieces that I had photographed was actually her work on a private client! We had a good laugh about that.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Will the Real Fassi Henna Please Stand Up? Researching Henna in Fes

Ramadan mubarak sa'id! The blessed month of Ramadan has arrived with a bang (literally — they fire the city cannons), the fast has begun, and I am, as hard as it to believe, officially at the halfway mark of my time in Morocco. And now, dear readers, your first long-awaited all-about-henna post.

Walking around in Fes, one sees henna all around — although not as much as I had expected. I would estimate that I only see about 2 or 3 women a day with henna, and sometimes that’s just hennaed nails or palms. But the other part that I didn’t expect was how challenging it would be to document. 

When I see people with nice henna, I’ve tried to ask them for a picture but sometimes it’s just someone passing in the marketplace so I don’t have a chance. Yesterday I saw a woman with her hands covered in fabulous geometric henna, but as I was about to ask her if I could take a photo she jumped in a cab. Even when I do ask I’m often refused — sometimes they politely say no, or just shake their heads and walk away; once a tourist with lovely Fassi strips didn't even respond (I'm assuming she thought I was a street hustler).

Every time, I get this terrible feeling of disappointment, mostly at myself — maybe I could have phrased the question differently? Maybe I should just point at the camera quickly instead of trying to engage in conversation? Maybe I should have asked earlier? Or later?

The fact that I am both male and a foreigner only makes things worse. Last week on my way home from class I saw a (religious) woman with hands and feet covered in gorgeous, fresh henna in heavy Sahrawi [southern Morocco / Sahara] designs. I started to ask her if I could take a picture but her friend interrupted saying that she had to go, and they moved to the other side of the plaza, giving me dirty looks the whole time.

A henna artist at work in Fes — notice that her client is
getting a khaleeji design while she herself is wearing
a fresh geometric 'true Fassi' style design.
Perhaps it’s the ‘One That Got Away’ Syndrome... But I feel like the henna that I haven’t been able to capture has been the nicest henna that I’ve seen. Although, it also makes sense that the women wearing the most traditional henna would also be the most traditional when it comes to taking pictures. 

I know I shouldn’t beat myself up but every time I miss an opportunity or bungle a conversation, it eats at me for the rest of the day. Who knew henna research was so emotionally complicated!

But, enough about my failures. Let’s talk about henna! What’s most interesting about the henna that I have seen is that most of it has not been what I think of as ‘true Fassi’ style, which is easy to recognize but hard to describe: a geometric, non-stacked, layout; triangular/diamond internal division; star/cross/tree/herringbone fill; zigzag edging, etc… 

The most popular style that I have seen is the floral style that Moroccans call khaleeji [Gulf], which varies in quality from excellent to incredibly sloppy. And while khaleeji is what is commonly done for tourists, I have seen plenty of local Moroccans wearing khaleeji as well. 

But more interestingly, several different people that I talked to have identified their henna as Fassi style, while their henna ranges from designs that could have been drawn straight from the ‘Fassi’ section of Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco, to people wearing patterns that I would not classify as remotely close to what I think of ‘Moroccan' at all. Is there such a thing as a 'Fassi' style? Is it the same as what we call Fassi style in North America? Is it unique to Fes? So many unanswered henna questions!