Thursday, August 29, 2013

Would You Trade Henna for a Bible?: Missionaries and Merchants in Qajar Iran

In research for my last post on henna use among gender-defiant Jewish dancers in Central Asia, I came across Persia: western mission, the memoirs of an American missionary named Samuel Joseph Wilson. In it he includes an amusing story about henna that I thought I would share here. I found his life-story fascinating, so I begin with it before describing the incident.

Dr. Samuel Joseph Wilson was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 11, 1858. He was apparently a intellectual prodigy, graduating at 18 with a B.A. from Princeton. He then went to Western Theological Seminary (then in Allegheny, PA, today merged with Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), received an M.A. in 1879 and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1880. He left right away for Persia, where he spent the rest of his life as a missionary. He worked hard to convert Jews and Muslims to Christianity; while his books are filled with his success stories, though, he had little long-term impact on the religious life of these communities. 

He competed for converts with the new faith of the Bahá'u'lláh, what is now the Bahá'í faith, and he eventually wrote a book exploring its history and theology (Bahaism and Its Claims, 1915). He was also the author of a popular book on Persian culture (Persian Life and Customs, 1895), a fictional romance set among Persian Armenians (Mariam: a romance of Persia, 1906), and a series of lectures on Islam in the modern world (Modern Movements Among Moslems, 1916). 

In 1916 he was sent to deliver relief funds from the Red Cross to Armenian refugees from the Ottoman-sponsored genocide in eastern Turkey; working in difficult conditions and a cold winter, he fell ill with typhoid fever and died. The Princeton Alumni Weekly records that the cable with news of his death “came as a great shock,” especially for his family who had stayed in the United States “since it was too dangerous and difficult for them to return to Persia under present conditions” (1916, pg. 52).

The Mission School in Tabriz, of which Wilson was the principal, and where he died, aged 58.
Photo from Wilson, Persian Life and Customs, 1895, pg. 306.

American missionary Robert Elliot Speer called him “one of the ablest and most courageous” missionaries and noted that “his long life of fidelity was crowned with its rich reward” (Speer, 1917, pp. 191 and 194). He was a popular speaker and skilled linguist, translating church literature himself into Armenian and Azeri (Anderson, 1999, pg. 743). 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Dancing Before the Altar": Henna and Jewish Dancing Boys

The recent “Got Henna” contest at (#7) featured the recent arrest of nine men in Khartoum, Sudan, under suspicion of homosexual activity, one of the pieces of evidence being the possession of henna.

That got me thinking about the complicated history of henna use among men, and a specific phenomenon common across the world: male-bodied individuals who perform a alternative gender identity, feminine in presentation but not identical to ‘womanhood,’ often culturally sanctioned as a third gender category. It is almost impossible to make any further generalizations — this phenomenon is manifest in a wide diversity of different places, and in different times. Some readers may already be familiar with one example, the hijra of India. There is a fabulous map of gender-diverse cultures from PBS here

Since many of these groups overlap with henna-using areas, there are a number of interesting connections that we might explore (perhaps this will be the first of a series of posts?). For this post, I want to look at an interesting photograph of Jewish dancers, possibly hennaed, in Iran. But first some background:

Saqi carved on relief
Syria, 13th century
By the Middle Ages, a phenomenon had become common throughout the Islamic world: young boys* (usually between six and eighteen) who dyed their hands with henna and put kohl under their eyes, curled their hair, and wore women’s clothing. They served as cup-bearers, bath attendants, and especially as dancers. 

They had a variety of names: in al-Andalus they were known as saqi, ‘cupbearers’, in Ottoman lands as tellak (‘masseur’), yamaki or köçek (‘little [boy]’), in Arabic-speaking areas as khawal (‘servant’), and in Persian-speaking areas as bacha (‘boy’). For lack of a better term, I will refer to them here as ‘dancing boys.’ It is interesting, though not surprising, that these boys were most often from religious and ethnic minorities: Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Roma (Gypsies).

*A note about gendered words and pronouns: while they performed in feminine accoutrements and were sometimes indistinguishable from girls to observers, it seems that they were nonetheless consistently seen as boys rather than a fully separate gender. How they identified themselves is not known; the few accounts we have of their life after ‘growing out’ of dancing indicate that as adults they lived as fully male in every way. I therefore refer to them as male throughout this essay.

There are interesting testimonies about these boys in medieval poetry and legal literature (again, perhaps another post), but for this post I want to focus on records from the (early) modern period that relate to this fascinating photograph — the only photograph, to my knowledge, to depict Jewish dancing boys.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"Now Joseph Was Of Beautiful Form and Beautiful Appearance" [Gen. 39:6]: Henna in a Mashhadi Persian Manuscipt of Yusuf and Zulaikha

Inspired by a comment on the last post that one of my readers has been looking at Persian poetry, this month I decided to look at some Persian Jewish henna. Specifically, I have been fascinated by the henna shown in an unusual Judeo-Persian manuscript, held in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, MS1534. The manuscript is available online in a high-resolution scan via the Dr. Georgette Bennett and Dr. Leonard Polonsky Digitization Project. In this post I go over the history of the manuscript and offer some analysis of its historical context. If you want to see the henna, just skip right down to the bottom.

According to the colophon [scribal inscription], the book was calligraphed by a scribe named Eliyahu ben Nissan ben Eliyah, known as ‘Gurgi’ [the Georgian], and he completed the book on the Jewish date of 12 Av, 5612 corresponding to the Muslim date, Dhu al-Qa‘dah, 1269 A.H. (this corresponds to Tuesday August 16, 1853 C.E.). What is most interesting, though, is that the book was written in the city of Mashhad — we’ll get to that in a moment.

Colophon giving name of scribe (lines 3-4)
The text is a transcription of the tale of Yusuf [Joseph] and Zulaikha [Potiphar’s wife], as told by the great 15th-century Sufi poet and philosopher Nur ad-Din ‘Abd ar-Rahman al-Jami in his work Haft Awrang [Seven Thrones]. The text is written in Judeo-Persian, in this case meaning Persian transliterated in Hebrew characters; the Judeo-Persian dialect spoken by the Jews of Persia had differences in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, but this text is written in Jami’s classical Persian but transcribed in the Hebrew alphabet. There is another version of the story of Yusuf and Zulaikha, written in Judeo-Persian by a Jewish poet named Shahin.