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.

The Yezidis are a Kurdish ethnoreligious group who live largely in northern Iraq (although there are other communities throughout the Middle East and of course now expat communities in Europe and North America). 

A Yezidi boy with traditional braids, Sinjar,
1951. Photo by Wilfred Thesiger.
Their religion is an ancient monotheistic faith with some similarities to Zoroastrianism, Mandaean Gnosticism, and Sufi Islam. In the Yezidi tradition, the world is watched by seven angels, chief of which is Melek Tawwus [The Peacock Angel]. Melek Tawwus is a figure who fell from Divine grace before returning in repentance, and so is identified by some as equivalent to Satan or Lucifer in other traditions.

This is related to a well-established Sufi interpretation of Iblis [Satan] as the paradigm for the lover who has exiled themselves away from the Beloved, and returns through suffering and repentance. We learn from his model that no matter how far we have gone astray, we can always return. 

Ethel S. Drower (1879-1972), a British autodidact scholar who spent two years with Yezidis in northern Iraq, wrote: “the Peacock Angel is, in a manner, a symbol of Man himself, a divine principle of light experiencing an avatar of darkness, which is matter and the material world. The evil comes from man himself, or rather from his errors, stumblings and obstinate turnings down blind alleys upon the steep path of being. In repeated incarnations he sheds his earthliness, his evil, or else, if hopelessly linked to the material, he perishes like the dross and illusion that he is” (1941, pg. 6).

But unfortunately the identification of Melek Tawwus with Iblis or Satan has led to a mistaken reputation of the Yezidis as ‘devil-worshippers’ — this is a large part in their current persecution by the fighters of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS), who have especially targeted them since they do not consider them in the protected category of ‘People of the Book’ (Jews and Christians). I am sure my readers join me in hoping to see a quick end to the violence, and a stable and lasting peace achieved soon.

Yezidis, like other groups, used henna as a regular cosmetic for skin, nails and hair (Drower, 1941, pg. 127), and of course for weddings — the ceremony was known as sheva desthineyê (‘night of the henna’) in Kurdish (Acikyildiz, 2010, pg. 101). 

Yezidi girls in Ba'ashika, near Mosul, 1940 (from Drower). 
Drower describes a Yezidi wedding she attended in Ba Idri, near Alqosh:

Two days before the consummation of the marriage the bride takes a hot bath, and from this moment she must wear nothing but white. The next day, the hands of the bride and of all her friends are dyed with henna. A large dish of henna is prepared and taken round to the houses of neighbours and friends, sometimes to all the village. Women and girls help themselves to the henna and put money into the dish as a wedding gift.

This is still practiced today, despite the geopolitical upheavals in the area. Eszter Spät, a contemporary scholar of Yezidi culture, writes (2005, pg. 24):
I was a guest at a Yezidi wedding in Duhok in January 2003, where the bride - from Behzani (under Saddam's rule) - was smuggled in together with her nearest relatives in four-wheel-drives through the mountains. Unfortunately for the wedding party, the number of persons who could be transported in such a manner was rather limited. Thus the festivities on the ‘night of the henna,’ when the hands of the young couple and of the guests are smeared with henna, symbolising joy and blessing, was somewhat more muted then usual. Traditionally this night belongs to the girlfriends of the bride, but they were left behind on the other side of the border this time.

Yezidis, like other Kurdish groups, also practiced tattooing, especially on the face and hands.

Yezidi tattoo designs recorded by Drower.
Tattooing, known in Iraq as degg or daqq, ‘tapping,’ was done for both therapeutic and ornamental reasons; it was believed to help with joint pain, headaches, and eye disease, and it had protective qualities as well (Smeaton, 1937).

Drower writes that "the women never admit that tattooing has a magic purpose, and tell you that they submit to the process for zina (decoration) or hilwa (beauty). Here and there, however, marks have been tattooed to keep off pain, and the floriated cross and cross with a dot in each arm, both common designs, are undoubtedly magical and health-preserving signs" (1941, pg. 76).

The daggaga [tattooer — almost always a woman] used sheep’s fat, soot and milk, pricked into the skin with one or two needles (Drower, 1941, pg. 76). Drower records that the women believed that it was best to use human milk "fresh drawn from the breast of the mother of a girl-child" — milk from the mother of a boy would cause the punctures to fester (1941,pg. 76). This practice was also recorded by Smeaton, although she notes that one of her informants believed that using milk attracted flies and preferred to use only water (1937, pg. 59).

Drower lists the most popular designs among the Yezidis as: the comb (misht), the moon (qamr), the cross (salib), the gazelle (ghazal), grouse footprints (rijl al-qatal), chevrons (res daqqa), the spindle (dulab katan), and human figures (la‘ibi, ‘doll’). These are similar to the tattoo designs of Iraqi Muslims recorded by Smeaton (1937), especially the comb and gazelle motifs.

Yezidi men's hand tattoos, recorded in the 1930s by Field (1958).

Moving on to another religious minority in Iraq: Christians! Christian communities are some of the oldest inhabitants of Iraq, and are divided into several different affiliations, including the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East. Unfortunately, today Christians as well are facing grave threats from the IS fighters and numerous reports are condemning the abuse and human rights violations perpetrated in this area.

Iraqi Christians, like their neighbours, used henna as a regular adornment; for example, British missionary James Fletcher reported disapprovingly of henna while visiting a Chaldean Christian family near Mosul: “Both the ladies were richly attired, and wore a kind of round silver head-piece, bound round with folds of muslin. Their jackets were trimmed with gold lace, and rich shawls surrounded their waists. Their nails were stained with henna, a most odious custom in the eyes of a European, since it always seems as though the lady had just been digging up the ground with her fingers, and had retained about them some of the mould” (1850, pg. 332). He obviously wasn't too fond of it... Too bad for him!

Warina Zaya Bashou, with hennaed hair
and her certificate of naturalization.
Warina Zaya Bashou, a Chaldean Christian woman originally from Tel Keppe, made the news in 2012 when she was sworn in as a US citizen, at the age of 111. She attributed her long life to drinking green tea, avoiding the doctor, and dyeing her hair every six months with henna.

And of course, henna appeared at weddings as well. Ethel Drower notes the use of henna at Iraqi weddings in the 1930s, describing it being prepared in a large silver bowl for the bride and groom with sweets and candles, and applied first to the couple and then to the children and relatives (1938, pg. 115). 

But she frustratingly writes: “The [henna] ceremony, which is long and precise in its ritual, is too lengthy to be described here.” Arg! If only she had said more.

She goes on to note that it is not only practiced by Muslims, but that “Christians and Jews also follow this custom except when Westernized” (pg. 115) — indicating that already by the late 1930s, henna had begun to fall out of fashion, especially in urbanized religious minorities, who were generally more open to European influence, since they usually attended British- and French-run schools and were often employed by colonial administrators.

And since this is a Jewish henna blog… A little bit about the Jews!

Jews lived for centuries among the Kurdish tribes of northern Iraq — their early history is largely unknown, but they were undoubtedly settled in the region long before Islam had taken hold and probably even before Christianity. In the 17th century, Mosul was a centre for Jewish scholarship and culture, and there was even a yeshiva [learning centre] in Mosul run by a female scholar, Asenath Barzani, whom some consider the equivalent of a female rabbi (long before women started being ordained in contemporary Judaism). By the 1950s, however, the entire Jewish population had emigrated to Israel, and despite calls for them to return to an independent Kurdistan, it does not seem likely that Kurdistan will ever have a Jewish population again.

Kurdish Jews had many wonderful traditions, many of which were preserved in the ethnographic work of Erich Brauer and his student Raphael Patai. I’ve blogged about some of them before — a special henna ceremony for Purim in honour of Queen Esther, a pre-Passover henna night to use up the ‘hametz’ henna before the holiday — and of course henna was an indispensible element to wedding celebrations. In some areas of Kurdish Iraq, the Jews used a dough resist to create patterns with celestial imagery. Interestingly, Brauer reports that Kurdish Jews would henna a small boy and girl along with the bride and groom to act as ’decoys’ for the Evil Eye (Brauer 1947: 102-103), a custom known also among Bene Israel in India.

While Kurdish Jews did not tattoo themselves, they did use indigo (nila) and turmeric (zaira) to create temporary body art, especially for ceremonial occasions such as a child’s birth (Brauer 1947: 137), another custom also practiced by other Jewish communities in Central and South Asia.

I’m currently wearing some henna inspired by traditional Yezidi tattoos, and there’s plenty of other inspiration in the folk art of Iraqi and Kurdish Jewish, Christian, and Yezidi communities. It’s not much, but it is my small gesture of solidarity and expression of my hope for peace in this region which is so dear to my heart.

Henna inspired by Yezidi tattooing, Noam Sienna, 2014.

Acikyildiz, Birgul. The Yezidis: The History of a Community, Culture and Religion. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
Brauer, Erich. Yehudei Kurdistan: meḥqar etnologi [The Jews of Kurdistan: ethnological research]. Completed and edited by Raphael Patai. Jerusalem: The Israeli Institute for Folklore and Ethnology, 1947.
Drower, Ethel Stefana. Woman and Taboo in Iraq. Iraq, Vol. 5, 1938, pp. 105-117.
Drower, Ethel Stefana. Peacock Angel: being some account of votaries of a secret cult and their sanctuaries. London: J. Murray, 1941.
Field, Henry. Body Marking in Southwestern Asia. Cambridge: Peabody Museum, 1958.
Fletcher, James Philip. Notes from Nineveh and Travels in Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Syria. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1850.
Smeaton, Winifred. Tattooing among the Arabs of Iraq. American Anthropologist, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1937, pp. 53-61.
Spät, Eszter. The Yezidis. London: Saqi Books, 2005.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Thank you for all of these informative pieces and your efforts in solidarity and peace. Lovely to read and learn more about the art of henna across the globe.