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.

I haven't been able to find records of Romani henna use prior to the 20th century, although I suspect this is largely due to the paucity of (available) sources combined with my own unfamiliarity with Romani Studies. By the 1900s, though, it appears that henna was used among Roma communities in south-east Europe and the Balkans as a regular cosmetic for hair, nails, and skin, as well as for weddings and celebrations. For example, Robert Scott Macfie recorded in 1913 that Roma women in Athens dyed their hair and nails with henna (1913: 43), and Juliette de Baïracli Levy described in the early 50s how Elif, a Roma girl in Turkey, "stained the palms of her hands and soles of her feet red with henna... in honour of my parting visit" (1952: 13). Xoraxane (Muslim Roma) in Bulgaria still henna their hands for the end of Ramadan, known as Sheker Bayram, "The Festival of Sweets" (Marushiakova 1997: 140; Kjučukov 1998: 60).

Henna also was, and still is, an important part of the wedding for many Roma communities. The Serbian ethnographer Tihomir Gjorgjevic (Đorđević) described the wedding traditions of Roma in Sokobanja, Serbia, including henna, at the turn of the 20th century (1903: 60-66). Since this source is somewhat obscure (and in German) I will quote it here at some length. The bawdy "stick in the trousers" performance, no doubt intended both to amuse and instruct the young bride, is a common component of henna ceremonies in a variety of cultures.

Roma musicians in the Balkans, 1928.
Gjorgjevic writes:
"On the Friday before the wedding, the groom buys kna (henna) and sticks 4-5 tallow candles in it, and an old woman with kerchiefs over her back takes the bowl with the henna and the candles. The musicians begin to play for people to dance and sing the bridal songs. After singing, the old woman goes from guest to guest to collect bakshish [tips], to give to the bride. Then the bride goes with the women to a special room, and here they cover her head, palms, and soles with henna. During the hennaing the girls and women sing songs and the old woman plays the drum..."

"On the Wednesday, the women convene again for henna. One of the women disguises herself as a man and pokes the other women with a stick in her trousers. Once more, inspired by this recent hilarity, one of the women takes the henna bowl and asks for bakshish. Each woman throws in a para for bakshish and gives the bride a headscarf or a para for a gift. After these things, the women paint the bride's hair, fingernails, and toenails with henna. Once this is done they go out into the yard, where a bonfire has been kindled."

Gjorgjevic also recorded one of the Romani songs sung at the henna, which he transcribes and translates as follows (English translation from his German, with help from my friend Kevin):
Aj mori caje, delinije!
Oh, you silly girl, you fool!
Aj delinjove palal mande,
Oh, may you be crazy for me,
Aj sar bakroro pal dajate!
Oh, like a lamb for its mother!
Oj Janale, sun babale,
O Jana, hear, O Father,
Dik, so ulo lake sabajle!
See, what happened to her this morning!
It's particularly important that Gjorgjevic noted that the henna was referred to with the Turkish word kna. Similarly, in 1915, the British linguist Bernard Gilliat-Smith recorded that the Roma of northeastern Bulgaria referred to henna by the term kinava: the Turkish word for henna, kina, with the Romani suffix -va (1915: 83). It's interesting to me that while neighbouring Sephardi Jewish communities in Bulgaria, Serbia, and other areas of the Balkans also practised similar henna traditions, they called it alhenya in Judeo-Spanish, using the old Spanish word alheña (ultimately from the Arabic). To me, this implies (although it's not definitive proof) that Romani henna traditions developed in the Ottoman Empire, while Sephardic Jewish henna traditions developed in Spain and were carried to the Balkans.

Scraping out the henna bowl at a Roma henna celebration,
Skopje, Macedonia, late 1960s (from McDowell 1970).
Photos and records of Roma henna from the 1960s and 70s show a wonderful blending of old and new traditions. For example, in the description of a Roma wedding in the Balkans in the late 1960s from ethnochoreologist (dance researcher) Elsie Ivancich Dunin, we read that "two young, married sisters-in-law with sugar in their mouth kissed one another three times over the bride's head. A coin was placed on the bride's head. Each of the two women then pressed milk out of their breasts onto the bride's hair. During all this, the bride ceremoniously cried with a towel to her eyes. Next the two women smeared a small amount of henna onto the bride's hair" (1971: 319). 

Dunin then recorded that the women danced and sang along to a phonograph while hennaing the bride, who continued to cry. The following day, at the bath [banja], the mother-in-law washed the henna out of the bride's hair, and the women celebrated and ate sweets and cheese pastries; the bride dressed in an outfit combining traditional and modern aspects: "a pair of čintiani [festive pantaloons], high heels, very red lipstick, and [cosmetic] cream on her face."

Similar traditions were noted by Bart McDowell, a reporter for National Geographic, at a Roma wedding near Skopje (Macedonia). The groom's family had paid for the henna used to dye the bride's hair, the night before, and now the bride's hands were to be hennaed and a great feast was prepared: a table for 400 people, with lamb stew, beer, bread, and other food (1970: 123). The henna was brought in a large brass bowl with candles, and the bride's hands were hennaed and then wrapped in cloth amid much singing and joy.

The bride, Gulja Seferova, age 14, with her hennaed hands wrapped
in cloth, Skopje, late 1960s (McDowell 1970).

Unfortunately, few authors recorded much about what the henna ceremony represented for the Roma or why they thought it was important. McDowell writes that the Roma in Skopje told him that the henna was done as "a mark of piety" (1970: 123) while Dunin wrote that the henna ceremony was meant to ensure that the bride would only marry once (1971: 319). Emilia, a Bulgarian Roma who was married in 1978 in Sofia, told Isabel Fonseca that "the longer the henna stays on your hands the longer your man will love you... That's what they say" (Fonseca 1995: 131).

Emilia, age 13, sitting with her čeiz (dowry), Sofia, ca. 1978.
Note her hennaed fingertips (from Fonseca 1995).

The use of henna for weddings has continued into the present day among many Roma communities in eastern Europe, and in diaspora communities in North America or elsewhere in Europe, including Italy (Barontini 2002: 122) and Poland (Erolova 2010: 38). Ethnomusicologist Carol Silverman provides a careful analysis of contemporary Balkan Roma henna ceremonies, still known as kana, and their many traditions: the henna is brought to the bride along with clothing, jewelry, candies, and other presents on large metal trays (tepsii), accompanied by a band playing traditional music on the zurla [oboe/shawm] and tapan [round drum].

Dancing with the henna at the second kana, Šutka (Skopje),
1990 (from Silverman 2012).
The bride's face is decorated with silver streamers (tel), and she wears a white or red veil. As in the past, two young mothers put sugar in each others' mouths, rub some breast milk on the bride's hair, and place a coin on her head, before hennaing her hair (Silverman 2012: 88-91).

A second henna ceremony follows the next day or the day after, prepared by the groom's family: the bride's hands (and sometimes feet, depending on the region) are hennaed and then wrapped with special silk cloths, while the bride cries as she prepares to leave her family (Silverman 2012: 92). Coins are often pressed into the henna for prosperity. Elena Marushiakova also records the belief that "the longer the henna dye lasts, the greater the bride will be loved by her husband" (1997: 148). 

These traditions are clearly still important, although they are also changing. Marushiakova observes that many Christian Roma in Bulgaria (Dassikane-Roma) no longer perform the henna ceremony (1997: 148); Silverman notes that among Roma in the US, often only one henna night is held, and brides may request only a small dab of henna, or wash it off immediately, since they don't want to "look odd" at work (2012: 95-97). This is unfortunately a common trend that I have observed in the Jewish community as well, although hopefully it is changing as more people learn about henna and grow to appreciate differing traditions of bodily aesthetics.

In conclusion, it's clear that henna has been an important part of Romani culture, and continues to play a vital role in Romani tradition and celebration. While it might be suggested that Roma brought henna with them from India or Persia, it seems likely to me that Romani henna practices developed in the Ottoman empire, for a number of reasons, including that the henna ceremony is consistently referred to with the Turkish loanword kna (or variants like kinava or kana), and that the practice seems restricted to those Roma communities in historically-Ottoman areas of the Balkans and eastern Europe (and not, for example, Roma in Spain or France, as far as I know).

Bringing the henna to the bride's house, Šutka (Skopje),
1990 (from Silverman 2012).

Nonetheless, some aspects of the ceremony appear to be uniquely Roma innovations: the specific music, of course, and dances, but also the rituals of women putting sugar in each others' mouths and squeezing milk on the bride's head. It is also interesting to me that traditionally there were two henna ceremonies: one for hennaing the bride's hair, and one for her hands and feet, which is something also common in various Jewish communities, including among Moroccan and Kurdish Jews.

Unfortunately, for all you henna artists, I haven't found any sources that describe patterned henna among the Roma. But nothing is stopping you from being inspired by Romani folk art: go research Romani embroidery, painting, woodcarving, jewelry, and go wild (and don't forget to support Roma artisans if you can)!

Roma girl in Rucăr, Romania, 1934. Photo by
Wilhelm Tobien for National Geographic. Check out
that embroidered skirt!

Special Bonus: Henna In Domari Communities
I mentioned that there is another group in the Middle East, related to the Roma people, known as Dom, or Domari (sometimes referred to derogatorily as 'Nawar' in Arabic, a term which, like 'Gypsy,' should be avoided). I worked in a Domari community centre in Jerusalem from 2009-2010, and remember hearing from my boss about henna parties at family weddings in Jordan and the West Bank; unfortunately she couldn't tell me much more information than that (but she mentions it in an interview here). Henna is also done at Dom weddings in Turkey (Özateşler 2013: 282).

Dancing Dom girl, Jerusalem, ca. 1935,
photo by Elia Kahvedjian.
The earliest record I've found of henna among the Dom is a 1913 note from R. A. Stewart Macalister that in the Domari language of Ottoman Palestine, henna was known as luḥra illi ḥastata tiyara, "the red that is put on the hand" (1913: 201). The use of henna to dye hair and nails was also noted among Dom in Iran (Arnold 1967: 113). Major J. D. Lunt, a British Army official, spent an evening with a group of Dom in Jordan in the winter of 1953, and described the after-dinner entertainment: 

"Fresh branches were heaped on the fire until the flames leapt high, and the fairest maiden in the clan was told to prepare herself for the dance... The dancer was a girl of about 14, the palms of her hands reddened with henna, and her eyes widened with kohl, whose pirouetting was accompanied by our host on a one-stringed violin made from an empty margarine tin. The girl's features were largely obscured by a profusion of silver ornaments which hung from a fillet round her head, and her long black hair hung loosely to the waist, glistening in the firelight from the sheep's butter and lard which had been rubbed into it."

I'm really grateful to have learnt a little more about these wonderful traditions, and hope you enjoyed. I'm especially interested to hear if Roma readers can share any information from their own experiences or memories; I'd love to hear from you!

  • Arnold, Hermann. "Some Observations on Turkish and Persian Gypsies." Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Vol. 46 (1967), 1: 105-122.
  • de Baïracli Levy, Juliette. "The Gypsies of Turkey." Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Vol. 31 (1952), 1: 5-13.
  • Dunin, Elsie Ivancich. "Gypsy Wedding: Dance and Customs." Makedonski Folklor, Vol. 4 (1971), 7: 317-326.
  • Erolova, Yelis. "Labour migrations of the Bulgarian Roma in Poland (A Case Study on Roma from Balchik)." In Nando Sigona, Proceedings of International Conference "Romani Mobilities in Europe," University of Oxford, 2010.
  • Fonseca, Isabel. Bury Me Standing: the Gypsies and Their Journey. New York, Knopf Doubleday: 1995.
  • Gilliat-Smith, Bernard ('Petulengro'). "Report on the Gypsy Tribes of North-East Bulgaria." Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Vol. 9 (1915), 1: 1-53, 2:65-108.
  • Gjorgjevic, Tihomir. Die Zigeuner in Serbien. Budapest: Thalia, 1903.
  • Kjučukov (Kyuchukov), Hristo. "The Muslim Roms: Mixed Language and Culture." Linguistique Balkanique, vol 39 (1998), 2: 59–68.
  • Lunt, J. D. "In the Footsteps of Salome." The Times, August 9, 1956.
  • Macalister, Robert Alexander Stewart. "A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of the Nawar or Zutt, the Nomad Smiths of Palestine." Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Vol. 6 (1913), 3: 161-240.
  • Macfie, Robert Andrew Scott. "Balkan Notes." Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Vol. 7 (1913), 1: 41-59.
  • Marushiakova, Elena, and Veselin Popov. Gypsies (Roma) in Bulgaria. Frankfurt: P. Lang, 1997.
  • McDowell, Burt. Gypsies: Wanderers of the World. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 1970.
  • Özateşler, Gül. The “Ethnic Identification” of Dom People in Diyarbakir. Journal of Modern Turkish History Studies, vol. 13 (2013), 279-287.
  • Silverman, Carol. Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora. Oxford University Press, 2012.

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