Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Caught on Film: An Egyptian Henna Party, 1937

At a recent academic conference, I heard a paper presented by Professor Deborah Starr, from Cornell University, about the films of Egyptian-Jewish filmmaker Togo Mizrahi. While the talk was interesting already, she captured my attention when she mentioned that one of Mizrahi’s films showed a henna party before one of the character’s weddings. I asked her afterwards if she could direct me to the clip, and she was more than happy to assist. I was super excited to catch a glimpse of what a henna party looked like in 1930s Egypt, even if only for less than a minute.

An 'attar shop in Cairo, selling spices, medicine,
and perfumes, from Lane (1836). The frontmost
box reads "hinna" [henna].
First (as usual), some historical background. Even though we might not immediately think of Egypt when we think about henna, Egypt was actually a centre for henna production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (as I previously explored in this blogpost). In 1903, George Bonaparte, a teacher at the Agricultural College of Cairo, wrote that henna was grown mainly in the provinces of Sharqia and Qalyubia, and that annual exports of henna had increased from 1100 tons in 1899 to 1500 tons in 1901. 

Henna was incredibly cheap — Bonaparte records that the average price of henna powder in 1903 was 80 piastres per kantar [approximately 99 lbs]. From what I’ve been able to see online, 80 piastres in 1903 was about 4 US dollars, so clearly henna was readily available at every budget.

There are some descriptions of Egyptian henna practices in Edward William Lane’s massive work Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), where he records that some women stained just the nails or fingertips, while others added simple designs of stripes or dots. He describes the wedding henna ceremony, leilat al-hinna, among Muslims as follows (pg. 208):

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.

Lane's illustration of henna patterns from 19th century Egypt.

When Lane wrote his study, henna was considered highly fashionable and he notes that it was “females of the higher and middle classes” who hennaed their hands with the most elegance (1836, pg. 47). By the 20th century, however, European fashion had grown prevalent, especially in the educated and well-off classes of Egyptian society, like the many Jews who attended the French educational system of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. 

Esther Betito, a Jewish woman from
Cairo, in the latest fashion, 1923.
Already in 1888, the Jewish scholar Elkan Nathan Adler observed that a Jewish bride wore a “bridal dress of some flimsy white stuff [which] did not seem very different from what one wears in Europe” (1905: 33). Eliyahu Bekhor Hazzan, chief rabbi of Alexandria from 1888-1908, described 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).

Henna, not only as a traditional cosmetic but as a visible marker of “Oriental culture,” was part of this shift — in many places across the Levant henna began to fall out of fashion, and traditional henna ceremonies for lifecycle events were abandoned or shortened. 

As Selma Duek Sutton, a Jewish woman from Aleppo, described: “My marriage took place in 1922 — I was sixteen years old, and I was soon taken to Beirut, to my groom’s home... The ceremonial swehnie, platters, were sent by the groom to the bride-to-be with perfume and silken robes and flowers [instead of henna and traditional fabrics]... In my time, henna was no longer in vogue” (Sutton 1988, pg. 340).

Thus it is wonderful to see that the henna ceremony was still present in Egypt, even in the late 30s. The 1937 film, al-‘Izz Bahdala, “Mistreated by Affluence,” was written and produced by Togo Mizrahi, an Egyptian Jew of Italian origin who ran a popular film company in Egypt in the 30s and 40s. It stars a Jewish comic actor, Chalom (Leon Angel) and his Muslim friend, ‘Abdu. Starr summarizes the plot as follows (2011, pg. 43):

“Over the course of the film, each receives an unexpected windfall, which he shares with the other. With their newfound wealth, they decide to buy a bank. Woefully and comically unprepared for their new responsibilities, Chalom and Abdu run the bank into the ground. The temptations of the good life create a rift between the two protagonists, which is only repaired when they lose their investment and return, happily, to life in the old, popular quarter.”

You can actually watch the whole film online here, although unfortunately there are no subtitles so you'll have to speak Arabic. The henna occurs towards the end, as both Chalom and ‘Abdu are marrying their respective love interests, Esther and Amina. The various wedding preparations on both sides are juxtaposed and it is implied that both couples are doing the same things, although the henna is only shown for the Muslim couple. Here's the clip that shows henna:

This is of course a comedic film, not a documentary, so we cannot take this scene of the henna as a literal representation of Egyptian wedding traditions in 1937 (although there is no reason to believe that it is inaccurate). Deborah Starr has characterized the films of Togo Mizrahi, with their diverse casts of characters and depictions of coexistence between locals of all faiths, as expressing a “Levantine idiom” where the commonality of ‘awlad Misr, “the children of Egypt,” is emphasized (Starr 2011, pg. 43). I wonder if the henna ceremony, as something which in this period may have been seen as distinctively ‘Egyptian,’ provincial, and even lower-class in nature, is part of this aesthetic.

It is interesting to note in that regard, then, that in this film Amina is wearing a European-style wedding dress, while ‘Abdu and his companions are in the more traditional galabiya. The film shows henna first being applied solidly to the groom’s feet from a large bowl with burning candles, while his companions sing a religious chant (thanks to my colleague Mostafa Hussein for the transcription!): 

il-bint tuhibbek lu tusalli / ‘ala n-nabi tusalli
“Your girl will love you if you pray / so pray for the Prophet”

Then the camera cuts to Amina’s henna party, where one of her friends is hennaing her hands with a small stick and henna from a little cup, to the sounds of drumming and ululations. The simple pattern of solid fingertips and dots on the palm is actually not that different from the patterns drawn by Lane a century earlier.

Amina receiving henna, from al-Izz Bahdala (1937).

Continuity and modernization, religion and politics, fashion and film... Who knew we could learn so much from a 40-second black-and-white clip?

Further Reading
  • Hazzan, Eliyahu Bekhor. Neve Shalom: Minhagei No Amon [Oasis of Peace: Customs of Alexandria]. 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.
  • Sutton, Joseph. Aleppo Chronicles: the story of the unique Sephardeem of the ancient Near East - in their own words. New York: Thayer-Jacoby, 1988.
  • Starr, Deborah. Masquerade and the Performance of National Imaginaries: Levantine Ethics, Aesthetics, and Identities in Egyptian Cinema. Journal of Levantine Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter 2011, pp. 31-57.
  • Adler, Elkan Nathan. Jews in Many Lands. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1905.
  • Bonaparte, George. Some Minor Egyptian Crops: Lawsonia alba. Journal of the Khedival Agricultural Society, Vol. V, No. 3, May 1903, pp. 97-99.

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