Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Roaring Twenties: Henna in 1920s Marrakech

I am super excited to be co-presenting at a weekend conference in NYC, Feb. 28-Mar. 1, devoted to Moroccan henna (and tickets are still on sale, until Feb. 20! Sign up here). I thought I’d devote a quick post to an interesting piece of Moroccan henna history that crossed my desk… For more, you’ll have to come to our workshop (FB event here)!

A while back, I received a gorgeous and mysterious postcard from Sarah Corbett, founder of the Henna Cafe Marrakech (a wonderful centre for henna and education), titled simply “Le Henné” [The Henna], showing a young girl sitting outside looking at the camera while having her foot hennaed by another woman.

"The Henna," postcard, Marrakech, ca. 1920, by Félix.

Then this week I came across what I thought was the same photo in Essai de Folklore Marocain [An Essay on Moroccan Folklore], a ethnographic work about popular beliefs in Morocco published in 1926 by Françoise Legey, an Algerian-born French doctor and educator working in Marrakech. Looking closely, though, it is actually a different photo, but taken during the same session.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

O Drom [The Road]: Henna Among European Roma

A friend of mine asked me the other day if there were henna traditions in Europe... Of course! In this post I thought I'd feature one such group (and I welcome your suggestions for others!): henna traditions among the Romani communities of the Balkans and southern/eastern Europe.

I am increasingly concerned about the growing worldwide discrimination against Roma, in Europe in particular (here are some links). Having marked International Holocaust Memorial Day just a few weeks ago, I am reminded of the ways in which Roma, like Jews, have persevered throughout history against racism, xenophobia, stereotypes, and of course, the incomprehensible terror of the Holocaust, sometimes referred to as the Porrajmos (to learn more, I recommend the powerful movie A People Uncounted).

Identity card of Maria Miezi Bihari, a Romani girl from Germany, 
photographed by Nazi officials of the Racial Hygiene Unit, ca. 1940.

In that light, I thought I'd share some of the sources I've collected describing henna use among various Roma communities (and readers are welcome to add more!). I think that it's super important not only to shed some light on a beautiful and often-stereotyped community, but also for people who use and work with henna to remember that henna is very much a part of the story of Europe (like I wrote about in this post), not just India or Morocco. Showcasing the diversity of global henna history is one of the main objectives of this blog, and I feel that there is a special kinship between Jewish and Romani tradition in particular. In many places, in fact, henna was used by both Jews and Roma, but not by the other majority groups of the population.

A Serbian Roma family arriving in Ellis Island, ca. 1905.
Photo by Augustus Sherman, NYPL.
A note about terminology: I'm using the term "Roma" (sometimes also spelt Rroma) to refer to the diverse ethnic group of historically semi-nomadic people found throughout Europe, who were speakers of various dialects of the Romani language. Various subgroups include Sinti in Central Europe, Manouche in France, Kalderash in Russia, and many others. There are also other groups of semi-nomadic people related to the Roma, including the Domari people in the Middle East (with whom I worked when I was living in Jerusalem; see below).

The term "Gypsy," which may be familiar to my readers, has been largely rejected by the community as a derogatory slur, and while some Roma may reclaim the term as an identity label for themselves, it is inappropriate for non-Roma to use the term. Accepted convention is to refer to the overall ethnicity as "Roma," with the adjective "Romani" to refer to the language, culture, etc.

The origins of the Roma, as many know, are subject to vociferous debate, but it seems likely that they originated in India, migrating westward through Persia in the early Middle Ages. By the 1600s they had spread throughout Europe, although they frequently faced persecution and expulsion.

Could they have brought henna with them from India? It's possible, but unlikely, since (as I explore in this post and this one) henna did not become commonly used in India until the very late Middle Ages, centuries after we believe the Roma left. Could they have picked up henna in Persia? It's certainly possible, although we lack any historical documentation. It's more likely, in my opinion, that the use of henna was a practice that developed in the Ottoman Empire; my reasons will become clear below.