Tuesday, August 20, 2013

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

The recent “Got Henna” contest at Mehandi.com (#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.

This photograph was taken by Alfred Heinicke, a German-American photographer, in Iran around 1914 or 1915 — his account was published in Travel, a magazine of the New York Hudson Railroad Company, in 1916. Other photographs from his trip later appeared in an article about Iran for National Geographic in April 1921 (see Bird, Weston, 1921). This picture is titled simply “Jewish Dancing Boys” — two boys are dancing, one in a long dress, the other with a thin translucent veil. Three other boys are behind them similarly dressed, waiting their turn. Musicians accompany them with drums and stringed instruments: kamanjes or setars. Unfortunately, the photograph is not a high enough resolution to see whether the dancers are hennaed or not; although, as we shall see, it is likely that they were.

Jewish dancing boys, Iran, ca. 1915
Heinicke describes the scene, an evening party in Shiraz: 
Exhibitions of dancing are another very popular form of after-dinner entertainment. This trade prospers among the Jewish families in the country; all the members as a rule taking part in it, the elder ones providing the music and the younger the dancing. Like all Oriental sights, when seen for the first time it is entertaining; but once is quite enough… These dancing boys wear fancy dresses which look very smart and gay in the lamplight ; their hair is worn long, in locks falling down their necks, giving them a girlish appearance. On their fingers are castanets, and while all the muscles of the lower part of their bodies quiver and shake, the outstretched hands with clicking-castanets keep time… The dancers are also good acrobats, and now and then a somersault made with a burning candle in each hand arouses a thunder of applause from the excited onlookers. Scene after scene is enacted before the highly interested and very much excited guests. Presently the dancers are treated to smokes, sherbet, sweetmeats, also to arrack; and they begin to mingle freely with the guests, who clap their hands partly in applause, partly to keep time with the shrill music till things culminate in pandemonium. Moslems, at other times very strict, fraternize with the dancers, embrace them, and even exchange kisses — very Eastern indeed! When things reach this pass, the more sober guests slip away one by one… (1916, pg. 33).

A köçek troupe dancing at the circumcision of Ahmed
III's sons, 1720. From the Surname-i Vehbi, folio 48a.
The Ottoman Turkish traveler and historian Evliya Çelebi recorded in the 1650s that the 44th guild of the city of Istanbul were young entertainers, who would dance and sing “whenever there is a feast of Imperial circumcision, nuptials, or victory… At some private weddings they gain in a night the sum of a thousand piastres, collecting the money in the half-drum after each dance.” They were divided into twelve companies, called kols, each one comprising a few hundred boys [the translation lists for the first company “three thousand” but this is likely a mistake for “three hundred”] — altogether 3305 boys. Of those, Çelebi noted, more than half (1705) were non-Muslims, and almost a quarter (705) of Istanbul's dancing boys were Jewish. He concludes by describing how they “vie with each other in producing the most voluptuous dances… Since Adam descended from Paradise on earth, never was there seen such a crowd of tempting boys than under Sultan Murad IV” (as translated by von Hammer-Purgstall, 1834, pp. 240-241). Çelebi’s contemporary John Covel, a British clergyman and scholar, recorded in 1670 that the dancers “were for the most part young youths, very handsome generally; most Greekes, yet some more Turkes, Armenians, and a few Jewes;” he noticed in particular “a delicate lovely boy, of about 10 yeares old, [who] had as comely head of hair, long as most women” (Bent, 1893, pp. 213-214).

In Iran, the Jewish-born Christian missionary Joseph Wolff heard a fascinating story of a Jewish dancing boy who was part of the retinue of a Muslim noble named Haj Hashem Khan, who would bring him to dance when he went to drink in the Armenian quarter of Isfahan. An Armenian named Soleiman was continually displeased to see “every night near the Church of God, drunked Mussulmans, and Jewish boys dancing near the Sanctuary” and attempted to have Haj Hashem Khan banned from the quarter. In response, Haj Hashem Khan met with Soleiman while his dancing boy went into the church itself to perform. Soleiman left the meeting and saw “the Jewish boy dancing before the altar of God” but Haj Hashem Khan bound him, shot him three times, and beheaded him; Wolff drily notes that “Haj Hashem Khan still goes about at Ispahan unpunished” (1829, p. 90-93). The Jewish traveller Israel Joseph Benjamin records another story of an Isfahani Jewish dancing boy named Yequti’el, who danced before Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) with such grace that the Shah appointed him to his court, where he converted to Islam, took the name Isma’il, and eventually became first minister of the kingdom. When Benjamin met him years later, he "still endeavor[ed] to alleviate the sufferings of his former brethren in the faith" (1859, pp. 191-194). And Yequti'el was not the only Jewish dancer to achieve royal favour: the daughter of Nasser al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896), Taj al-Saltana, records that her father had two Jewish dancing boys named ‘Aziz and Habib among the entertainers of the royal court (Crowning Anguish [written in 1914], 1993, pg. 235).

Many European travelers noticed Jewish dancing boys in Iran. The Hungarian Jewish scholar and traveller Hermann Vámbéry attended a party in Shiraz in 1862 where Jewish dancing boys put on an extraordinary gymnastic performance of backbends and headstands, and closed with a plaintive and melancholy dance wrapped in veils (1867, pp. 236-238). 

Street musicians with a tumbler, Central Asia, mid-19th c.
From the Anahita Gallery Archives.
Edward Granville Browne, the noted British Orientalist scholar and translator, met a band of Jewish minstrels and dancing boys on the road to Shiraz, and then ran into them again at a party in the city:
The dancing boy cannot have been more than ten or eleven years old. When performing, he wore such raiment as is usual with acrobats, with the addition of a small close-fitting cap, from beneath which his black hair streamed in long locks, a tunic reaching half way to the knees, and a mass of trinkets which jingled at every movement.

He continues, describing how the boy flirtatiously served wine holding the glass in his mouth:
Having filled the wine-glass, he took the edge of the circular foot on which it stands firmly in his teeth, and, approaching each guest in turn, leaned slowly down so as to bring the wine within reach of drinker, continually bending his body more and more forwards as the level of liquid sunk lower. One or two of the guests appeared particularly delighted with this manoeuvre, and strove to imprint a kiss on the boy’s cheek as he quickly withdrew the empty glass (pp. 241, 243, 320-3).

Jewish dancing boys were in demand for all strata of Persian society, from the Shah himself and the highest level of Persian nobility to the masses in the street (cf. Yeroushalmi, 2009, pp. 102-103). We know that Jewish dancing boys entertained Jewish crowds as well as non-Jews: Bernard Temple, an American Jewish doctor, celebrated Rosh haShana [the Jewish New Year] with Jewish pilgrims near Isfahan, and observed “hundreds of Jews, men, women, and children, gazing with ribald laughter at the antics of a Jewish dancing-boy” (1910, pp. 21-25).

Köçek with tambourine,
Turkey, late 19th c.
As noted above, henna and kohl were important signifiers for dancing boys, drawing attention to their eyes, hands and feet, which no doubt added powerfully to the beauty of their dancing. The American missionary Samuel Graham Wilson described a dancing boy in Tabriz "with long hair, dyed with henna, dressed in an embroidered black velvet coat and red silk skirt, with little cymbals or bells on his fingers and bells on his toes, whirling around in the dance accompanying the music” (1896, pg. 132), and Konstantin Pahlen described bachas in early 20th century Turkestan (today Kazakhstan) as “barefoot, and dressed like women in long, brightly coloured silk smocks reaching below their knees and narrow trousers fastened tightly round their ankles... They wear their hair long, reaching below the shoulders, though the front part of the head is clean shaven. The nails of the hands and feet are painted red, the eyebrows are jet black and meet over the bridge of the nose. The dances consist of sensuous contortions of the body and a rhythmical pacing to and fro, with the hands and arms raised in a trembling movement” (1964, pg. 170).

European observers often assumed that the boys were trying to impersonate women — Lane famously writes that “they imitate women also in applying kohl and henna to their eyes and hands” (1860, pg. 377); and in fact, the French poet and writer Gérard de Nerval describes being charmed in Egypt by three dancing ‘girls’ who were “particularly beautiful, with a proud bearing, [and] with Arab eyes brightened by kohl, with full and delicate cheeks lightly painted” only to recoil as one of them “betrayed a less tender sex by his eight-day beard… I lost no time in realized that what we had here were nothing less than dancing — boys.” (1851, pg. 145). But most of the narratives indicate that to the locals, the dancing boys were known — and appreciated — for what they were.

Karayanni’s erudite analysis of the homoerotic tensions present in European narratives of these dancing boys points to the ways that “the complex dynamics of makeup, costuming adornments, and finger cymbals… [are] an indispensable component of this narrative [of dance]… The makeup around their eyes and on their face, the objects of self-adornment, and even the brass finger cymbals enhance the performativity of the body” (2004, pg. 88). He argues that male dancers were the locus for Western anxieties around sexuality, their bodies “loom[ing] threatening and enticing, mapping, in motion always, an intermediate zone, a threshold signifying liminality and indeterminacy… The Middle Eastern male dancer, with the made-up eyes and ‘lascivious’ movements, posed — indeed, continues to pose — a particular threat that had to be contested and its injurious effects exorcised” (pp. 96-97).

Similarly, Danielle J. van Dobben points out that while some have suggested that these dancing boys were meant to ‘replace’ female dancers and were thus ‘disguised’ as women, the evidence seems more strongly to suggest that “male parties employed young boys to dance because they were considered beautiful, not because of the absence of women… Although European travelers described adolescent beardless men as effeminate, it would be a mistake to assume that European, binary, man/woman gender categories were normative in the early modern Islamic world” (2008, pg. 50).

A pair of bacha, Central Asia, mid-19th c.
From the Anahita Gallery Archives.
In fact, dancing boys were not the only ones wearing henna at the time; it seems that it was fashionable to have hennaed youths generally in one’s retinue. William Irvine described how ‘Umdat-ul-Mulk, a nawab [governor] in northern India, once “passed through Farrukhabad with his followers, who were so effeminate in their habits that they applied lamp-black to their eyelids, black powder to their teeth, and red dye to their hands and feet; wearing also finger-rings, silver bracelets and ear-rings” (1878, pg. 338). Sir Henry Layard attended a party in Hamadan with a Muslim nobleman named Mahmoud Khan, whose attendants were “slip-shod youths in gay-coloured flowing dresses, with the nails of their fingers and toes and their locks dyed with henna, and with one hand upon the jewelled haft of the ‘hanjar’, or curved dagger, stuck in the Cashmere shawl encircling their waists” (1887, pg. 257). And the notorious traveller and translator Richard Burton writes (although it is unclear how reliably) in his “Terminal Essay” on sexuality in the Muslim world that “the Afghans are commercial travellers on a large scale and each caravan is accompanied by a number of boys and lads almost in woman's attire with kohl'd eyes and rouged cheeks, long tresses and henna'd fingers and toes, riding luxuriously in Kajáwas or camel-panniers: they are called Kúch-i safari, or travelling wives, and the husbands trudge patiently by their sides” (1885, pg. 236).

A bacha with musicians, Samarkand.
Photographed by Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii, ca. 1905-1915.
We don’t know exactly when the Jewish dancing boys of Iran disappeared. In June 1905 the director of the Alliance Israélite Universelle school in Shiraz, Mme. Schouker (née Veneziani) wrote in the AIU’s Monthly Bulletin that there were “many Jewish dancing boys” in the city, who lead “lives of indolence and debauchery” and do much damage “to the reputation of their coreligionists,” and so she made strenuous efforts “to diminish the number of these dancers, to assure the peace and calm of the community” (1905, pg. 94). Although Bernard Temple and Alfred Heinicke report seeing Jewish dancing boys between 1910 and 1915, it seems that they were on their way out. The anthropologist Laurence Loeb records that by the time of his fieldwork with the Jews of Shiraz in the late 1960s, the Jewish dancing boys were no more (1977, pp. 152-153). But in this photograph, captured in the moment, they can dance on forever.

Selected Bibliography
Benjamin, Israel Joseph. 1859 Eight Years in Asia and Africa from 1846 to 1855 (Hanover: self-published).
Bent, James Theodore. 1893 Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant: Dallam’s Travels and Dr. Covel’s Diary, (London: Hakluyt Society).
Bird, F. L. 1921 “Modern Persia and Its Capital.” The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 353-416.
Browne, Edward Grenville. 1893 A Year Amongst the Persians (London: A & C Black).
Burton, Richard. 1885 The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Vol. 10 (London: Kama Shastra Society).
van Dobben, Danielle J. 2008 Chapter 2 “Dancing Gender and Sexuality in the Ottoman Empire,” in Dancing Modernity: gender, sexuality and the state in the late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic (University of Arizona).
von Hammer-Purgstall, Joseph. 1834 Narrative of Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa by Evliya Efendi, Vol. I (London: Oriental Translation Fund).
Heinicke, Alfred. 1916 “The Day of a Well-to-Do Persian.” Travel, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 30-33 (New York: Central and Hudson River Railroad Co.).
Irvine, William. 1878 “The Bangash Nawabs of Farrukhabad: a chronicle (1713-1857): Part I.” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. 47, pp. 259-383.
Karayanni, Stavros Stavrou. 2004 Chapter 2 “The Dance of Extravagant Pleasures: male performers of the Orient and the politics of the Imperial gaze,” in Dancing Fear and Desire: race, sexuality, and Imperial politics in Middle Eastern dance (Wilfrid Laurier Press).
Lane, Edward. 1860 An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Written in Egypt during the years 1833, -34, and -35 (London: John Murray).
Layard, Henry Austen. 1887 Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia, Vol. I (London: John Murray).
Loeb, Laurence. 1977 Outcaste: Jewish life in southern Iran (New York: Gordon and Breach).
de Nerval, Gérard [Gérard Labrunie]. 1851 Voyage en Orient, Vol. I (Paris: Charpentier).
Pahlen, Konstantin Konstantinovich. Mission to Turkestan: being the memoirs of Count K. K. Pahlen, 1908-1909, ed. Richard A. Pierce (Oxford University Press).
al-Saltana, Taj. 1993 Crowning anguish: memoirs of a Persian princess from the harem to modernity, 1884-1914, ed. Abbas Amanat (University of Michigan).
Schouker, M. 1905 “Israélites de Perse.” Bulletin Mensuel de l’Alliance Israélite Universelle, pp. 94-100.
Temple, Bernard. “The New Year in Persia.” The Jewish Chronicle, Sept. 30, 1910.
Vámbéry, Hermann. 1867 Meine Wanderungen und Erlebnisse in Persien (Pest: Gustav Heckenast).
Weston, Harold. 1921 “Persian Caravan Sketches: the land of the lion and the sun as seen on a summer caravan trip.” The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 417-468.
Wilson, Samuel Graham. 1896 Persia: western mission (Philadelphia: Presbytarian Board of Publication).
Wolff, Joseph. 1829 Missionary Journal and Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, missionary to the Jews, Vol. III (London: James Duncan).
Yeroushalmi, David. 2009 The Jews of Iran in the Nineteenth Century: aspects of history, community, and culture (Leiden: Brill).

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