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.

We know that in the Middle Ages, henna was a major economic commodity for the Jews of Egypt, as documented by the Cairo Geniza, a massive archive of Jewish (both Karaite and Rabbanite) documents of all kinds (letters, receipts, biblical texts, philosophy, poetry, community records) from the 9th-19th centuries, kept in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo. In fact, several families are recorded in Geniza documents as having the name al-Hinnawi, “henna dealer” (Goitein 1967: I.155). Henna was used medicinally, appearing in medieval prescriptions, materia medica lists, and other medical documents found in the Cairo Geniza; Maimonides mentions henna as a beneficial compress for insect stings (Amar and Lev 2008: 183-5).

Ketubbah [wedding contract] for mixed
Karaite-Rabbanite marriage, Cairo,
mid-11th century.
We also know from the Cairo Geniza that Jewish brides were decorated with henna before their weddings. Several legal documents mention the henna ceremony as part of the costs that the groom’s family paid for, along with the bride’s dress, and jewelry. For example, the following marriage contract from the thirteenth century testifies that the groom will pay for the henna and bridal costume ‘as customary’ (Goitein 1967 III.71; fragment no. TS 12.121):

We, the undersigned, testify that the following happened in our presence on the tenth of Nisan, 1554, of the Era of the Documents [April 2, 1243 CE] here in Fustat of Egypt, which is situated on the Nile River. Mr. Joseph, the esteemed young man… engaged and contracted a marriage with Rebekah, the bride, the mature virgin… and undertook to pay her 10 dinars [gold coin] as her first installment, plus the cost of the henna [feast], the ‘strings’ [headdress], and other expenses, as is customary. Rebekah confirmed that she had received on account 5 of the 10 dinars as a first installment… We have written down what we have witnessed, and signed and delivered the document into the hands of the aforementioned Rebekah, so that it may serve her as a proof and title of right.

In another thirteenth-century contract from Bilbeis (northeast of Cairo), a father betrothed his minor daughter to “an esteemed, liberal, and munificent elder” who would pay for the henna feast and the bride’s clothing and ornaments; the wedding would take place five years later (TS 8.112). Goitein suggests that “perhaps an aging father wished to make sure that his little daughter would marry into a good family” (Goitein 1967 III.78).

These contracts don’t tell us much about what the henna ceremony was like or how the henna was applied, but they do confirm that medieval Egyptian Jews customarily held a henna ceremony for brides before the wedding, which was paid for by the groom’s family. Unfortunately, while we also have Karaite wedding contracts in the Geniza, none of them to my knowledge mention henna.

But henna was clearly part of Jewish life in medieval Egypt as a cosmetic, medicine, and economic export, and henna ceremonies were held before Jewish weddings. And yet there is scarcely a mention of henna in descriptions of Egyptian Jewish life, even Egyptian Jewish weddings, from the last 200 years. What happened?

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was a heavy colonial presence in Egypt, especially after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Numerous European travelers commented on the prevalence of henna in the Levant, describing the use of henna to adorn the body as (for example) “dirty,” “nasty,” and “to a European very disagreeable” (Russell 1756).

Esther Betito, a middle-class
Jewish woman from Cairo, 1923.
By the mid-19th century, it appeared that henna was already unfashionable, especially in urban centres where there was heavy European influence in fashion. 

James Henry Skene, British consul in Aleppo, reported in the Pharmaceutical Journal of Britain in 1873: “The use of henna is on the decline… Although women are still seen with their hands and horses with their tails dyed with henna, its use is rapidly going out like other Eastern fashions, which are receding as those of Europe advance.”

These trends especially affected Jewish communities, who were particularly attuned to forces of ‘modernization’ and were often among the first groups to adopt Westernized outlooks and adapt European-style customs. Eliyahu Bekhor Hazzan, chief rabbi of Alexandria from 1888-1908, describes how the Jews in Alexandria adopted European clothing and even sent their cuffs and collars to be starched and ironed on Shabbat (1893, 15:2). 

Similarly, American Jewish writer Elkan Nathan Adler observed a Jewish wedding in Cairo in 1888 where the bride wore “[a] bridal dress of some flimsy white stuff, [which] did not seem very different from what one wears in Europe” (1905, pg. 33).

While Egyptians (and especially Jews) adopted European dress, henna was still being done in 19th-century Egypt. There is some description of Egyptian henna in Edward William Lane’s massive work Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), where he records that some women stain just the nails or fingertips, while others add a simple design of stripes or dots. He describes the wedding henna ceremony, leilat al-hinna, among Muslims as follows (pg. 208):

Common Egyptian henna styles, in Lane, 1836.
After the company have been thus entertained, a large quantity of hhen'na having been prepared, mixed into a paste, the bride takes a lump of it in her hand, and receives contributions (called noockoo't) from her guests: each of them sticks a coin (usually of gold) in the hhen'na which she holds upon her hand; and when the lump is closely stuck with these coins, she scrapes it off her hand upon the edge of a basin of water. 

Having collected in this manner from all her guests, some more hhen'na is applied to her hands and feet, which are then bound with pieces of linen; and in this state they remain until the next morning, when they are found to be sufficiently dyed with its deep orange-red tint. Her guests make use of the remainder of the dye for their own hands.

It’s possible that Egyptian Jewish communities held a similar henna ceremony during this period but I haven’t been able to find any evidence or examples. It seems likely that they would have at least preserved the ceremonial occasion, even if the henna itself had become merely symbolic (as, for example, in much of Israel today).

British traveller Samuel Bevan describes a Jewish pre-wedding celebration which may have been a henna ceremony: he writes that after stumbling across a long Jewish bridal procession he followed them into a house, where a party was taking place. The bride appeared at midnight, when “there was a great commotion at the other end of the room: the bride was introduced, and placed on a chair in the middle of the floor, covered with a very thin veil of pink gauze, and resplendent with jewels. All her attendants were more or less shrouded in veils, most of them weighed down with rows of gold twenty-piastre pieces, by way of fringe” (1849, pp. 103-104). 

Bevan then describes how the guests came up to the bride and presented her with coins: “No sooner were the company gathered round the trembling girl, than two of the attendants held up the corners of her apron, to receive the contributions of such as were inclined to make her a wedding present… Keeping close to the side of a jolly old Alexandrian, who was fumbling in his girdle, and seizing the moment when he ostentatiously let fall a shower of gold coin, I suddenly put forth my hand and dropped my modest donation” (1849, pg. 104).

This ceremony, with the gifting of coins to the seated bride, seems very similar to the henna ceremony described by Lane, and so it’s possible that in the crowded and dark room Bevan hadn’t noticed or understood fully what was happening and the bride’s hands were also being hennaed while she was receiving these coins. 

Jewish quarter, Alexandria, 1898.

In conversations with elderly Jewish immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, my interlocutors could not remember seeing henna even in their childhood. Egyptian Jewish writer Colette Rossant records in her memoirs that her grandmother hennaed her hair in Cairo in the late 30s (1999, pg. 51), but I have not been able to find any descriptions of Jewish henna ceremonies in Egypt from this period. In Mourad El-Kodsi’s description of Egyptian Karaite weddings of the early 20th century, he mentions an engagement party with presents of jewelry and trays of sweets, and a pre-wedding feast where the trousseau was displayed, but he does not mention henna (1987, pp. 177-179). It appears that by the early 20th century henna had already disappeared from the Egyptian Jewish community, Karaites and Rabbanites alike.

So it’s high time to bring it back! An Egyptian Jewish pre-wedding henna party could include some of the historical traditions connected to Rabbanite and Karaite henna ceremonies: the guests coming up to the bride to offer a small gift or blessing before the henna is wrapped up, the presentation of the traditional gifts of a carpet and/or kitchen utensils, a silver tray of candies or chocolates, and the room decorated with rue or myrtle and coloured ribbons. And the henna patterns could be drawn from the beautiful textiles, architecture, or manuscripts from Egyptian Jewish history. 

Rabbanite ketubbah from Alexandria, 1836.

A Karaite ceremony could include recitation of the Song of Songs, especially the parts which mention henna, or Karaite poetry (such as Moses Dar'i), while a Rabbanite ceremony could include some of the poetry of medieval Jewish rabbis, such as Yehuda haLevi or Shlomo ibn Gevirol.

Of course, I'm not satisfied with this meagre information — I'm sure there's more to find about Egyptian Jewish henna traditions... So I guess I'll have to keep looking. In the meantime, happy hennaing!

Adler, Elkan Nathan. Jews in Many Lands. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1905.
Amar, Zohar, and Efraim Lev. Practical materia medica of the medieval eastern Mediterranean according to the Cairo Genizah. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
Bevan, Samuel. Sand and Canvas: a narrative of adventures in Egypt. London: Charles Gilpin, 1849.
El-Kodsi, Mourad. The Karaite Jews of Egypt, 1882-1986. New York: Wilprint, 1987.
Goitein, Shlomo. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, vols. I-IV. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967.
Hazzan, Eliyahu Bekhor. Neve Shalom: Minhagei No Amon [Oasis of Peace: Customs of No Amon]. Alexandria: Farag Hayyim Mizrahi, 1893.
Lane, Edward William. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. London: Charles Knight and Co., 1836.
Rossant, Colette. Memories of a Lost Egypt: a memoir with recipes. C. Potter, 1999.
Russell, Alexander. The Natural History of Aleppo and Parts Adjacent. London: A. Miller, 1756.
Skene, James Henry. “Aleppo Drugs.” Pharmaceutical Journal of Britain, Saturday September 6, 1873, pg. 189.

1 comment:

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