Friday, March 20, 2015

Happy Nowruz! Henna for the Springtime New Year

Happy Nowruz! This weekend marks the spring equinox, March 21, marked by many communities across Central and South Asia as Nowruz (نوروز‎, also transliterated Norooz, Newroz, Nauruz, etc.), the New Year.

This ancient holiday originated in Zoroastrian Persia, and is celebrated today by many ethnic groups throughout Central and South Asia, the Balkans, and the Levant (and, of course, in the diaspora), including Persians, Afghans, Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Desis, and more; it's also not restricted to any religion, and is celebrated by Zoroastrians, Muslims, Jews, Alevis, and Baha’is, among others. There are many wonderful customs associated with Nowruz, including a table set with seven symbolic items each starting with the letter ‘sin’ (haft sin in Persian) or seven kinds of fruit (haft mewa); jumping over a fire as a celebration of the victory over darkness and a cleansing beginning for the year; spring cleaning; decorated eggs (like East European pysanky); new clothes; and of course, festive gatherings with many delicious traditional foods.

Families celebrating Nowruz outside Tehran, 1958; photo by Inge Morath.

Henna is also a traditional part of the festivities! The first records of Nowruz henna that I've found come from the late 19th century, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were mentioned in earlier Persian texts — I welcome the help of any Iranologists who might have references! But it's certainly attested well enough by European travelogues.

Mullah [religious leader] with
hennaed beard and nails, Iran, ca.
1921; photo by J. W. Cook.
French traveller Gabriel Bonvalot spent Nowruz in Salyan (today in Azerbaijan) and observed that men, women and children would get their hands, feet, beards, and hair hennaed for the holiday (Bonvalot, 1889, pg. 27). 

British archaeologist James Theodore Bent noticed the same in Izadkhvast, Iran, explaining that “no Persian, however poor, would enter on a new year without some new garment, and they all looked particularly clean, for it is the custom on the day before the feast for every one to go to the bath, to have his hair dyed black and his nails dyed yellow with henna” (1890, pg. 328).

Similarly, the missionary Samuel Graham Wilson, whom we’ve met before on this blog, described the Nowruz customs he saw in Iran in 1895, including the Haft Sin table, and added the following note:

As the great day approaches, every man says to himself, “Well, to-morrow is Noruz [sic]. I must get my head shaved, go to the bath, dye my hands, nails, and beard with henna, put on a clean skull-cap, and see if the tailor has my new coat ready. I must buy some sugar and tea, tobacco and candy, and then I shall be ready for all comers.”

These traditions have continued right up to the present day. In the late 50s, anthropologist Fredrik Barth recorded that the nomadic Basseri in south Persia hennaed their hands and hair for Nowruz: "The Persian, or solar, year... defines the one universally observed feast day: that of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, at spring equinox. On this day everyone wears new clothes, or at least an item of new clothing; the women and girls colour their hair and hands with henna; friends and acquaintances greet each other formally, exchanging good wishes for the coming year and there is much intervisiting and serving of food and tea in the tents of a camp" (1961, pg. 137). Ethnomusicologist Veronica Doubleday, who lived in Herat, Afghanistan, in the mid-1970s, describes how her friends hennaed their hands and feet for Nowruz (1988, pg. 66). And it’s not just people who get henna! Hushang ‘Alam wrote in the Encyclopedia Iranica that “the mane and tails of horses, donkeys, and mules were hennaed in Shiraz during the Nowruz until a few decades ago” (2003).

Hennaed donkeys, Iran, 1956; photo by Inge Morath.

Nasim Fekrat describes Nowruz in contemporary Afghanistan (2010):

Nowruz is celebrated for two weeks throughout Afghanistan. People wear new clothes, refurbish their house, paint the buildings and henna their hands. Young girls go with their mothers to holy shrines and pray to have a good future, a good life and a good husband and be fortunate while the boys have an eye on their parents to decide who is fair and suitable for him.

I’ve heard similar descriptions from Muslims I’ve met from Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and many other places. Persian Jews celebrated Nowruz as well (placing a Torah on the Haft Sin table rather than a Qur’an or book of Hafez), although it was not a universal custom and it is not always preserved in diaspora communities. I haven’t seen any sources describing Baha’i or Zoroastrian henna for Nowruz (although this Zoroastrian website mentions henna in a children’s story) but I’m fairly confident they would share in these traditions.

After the harsh winter we've had in the Northeast (there's still snow on the ground here in Toronto) I am more than ready to welcome spring! I’ve been planning for several months now to henna my hair, and what better time than Nowruz? In fact, I decided to use a bag of Iranian henna brought back for me from Yazd by a Persian friend who was visiting family. The henna is fairly coarse (perfect for hair!) and was packaged in a cloth bag with the label “Hana Atabake, Kazam Yazd.”

"Hana Atabake" henna, from Yazd.

For centuries, the central Iranian city of Yazd has been known as a centre of henna production. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, in his description of Yazd way back in 1654, noted (1677, pg. 104): “ils font grande quantité d'eau rose et d'une autre sorte d'eau dont ils se servent comme de teinture, pour se rougir tantost les mains et tantost les ongles, et ils la tirent d'une certaine racine appellé — Hina” (they make a great quantity of rosewater and another sort of water which they use as a dye to redden their hands and nails, and they distill it from a certain root called hina).

Henna is not grown in Yazd (commercially, at least), but imported from the southeastern province of Kerman and then milled and packaged in Yazd. Many of the traditional stone mills of Yazd, known as sang-e mazari, are still in operation and are a prominent tourist destination. Once powered by donkeys, the mills have been mechanized but much of the work is still done by hand, and in fact many henna workers still suffer from respiratory illnesses from the henna dust they inhale. Some photos of Yazd's henna mills can be seen here and here.

Henna mill in Yazd, 2009; photo by Ruth Savitz.

‘Alam records that in the 1980s Yazd was producing between 7-10 thousand tons (tons!) of henna powder annually; 3,000 tons were exported legally, 2,000 were smuggled through Kurdistan, and the rest was distributed within Iran. I don't know recent statistics but clearly they're still at work!

I’m grateful that I got to try some Iranian henna and look forward to the day when I can see Yazd’s henna mills for myself. Until then, have a happy Nowruz! Eid-e Shoma Mobarak! Newroz Piroz Be! And welcome, Spring!

My new spring hair, freshly dyed with Yazdi henna.

‘Alam, Hushang. Henna. Encyclopedia Iranica, London: Routledge, 2003.
Barth, Fredrik. Nomads of South Persia: the Basseri Tribe of the Khamseh Confederacy. Oslo University Press, 1961.
Bent, James Theodore. New Year’s Day in a Persian Village. The English Illustrated Magazine, vol. 7, 1890, pp. 326-330.
Bonvalot, Gabriel. Du Caucase aux Indes à travers le Pamir. Paris: Librarie Plon, 1889.
Doubleday, Veronica. Three Women of Herat: A Memoir of Life, Love and Friendship in Afghanistan. London: Jonathan Cape, 1988.
Fekrat, Nasim. It's a New Year in Afghanistan. Afghanistan Crossroads, CNN blog, published March 22nd, 2010. Accessed here Mar. 19, 2015.
Tavernier, Jean-Baptiste. Les six voyages de Jean Baptiste Tavernier en Turquie, en Perse, et aux Indes. Paris: Gervais Clouzier, 1677.
Wilson, Samuel Graham. Persian Life and Customs: with scenes and incidents of residence and travel in the land of the lion and the sun. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1895.

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