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.

The text is also illuminated: it has 26 miniatures as well as two abstractly-ornamented pages. This is unusual — although we have hundreds of Judeo-Persian manuscripts, in all genres from poetry to Bible translations to historical chronicles and business transactions, there are only 12 accessible illustrated Judeo-Persian manuscripts. They all date from the 17th to 19th centuries, and their style of illustration is not as refined as the epic royal illustrations that we associate with Persian miniatures; it belongs to what Vera Basch Moreen calls the “flourishing popular version of the high royal art” that was spread by the middle of the 17th century (Moreen, 1985, pg. 14). 

Unfortunately, although the texts themselves are Jewish (or intended for Jewish use), we have no way to tell if the artists were Jewish, and in fact it has been suggested that they were not. Many of the manuscripts contain discrepancies between the text and the illustrations, which seems to indicate that the artists could not read the texts themselves but were given descriptions of the contents. Moreen writes (1985, pp. 16-17):
There is no discernible iconographic reason to suppose that the painters were Jewish, interpreting their subject in some particularly Judaeo-Persian style. We have no tangible evidence that Persian Jews ever practiced this form of art although, judging by examples from other lands, this possibility cannot be ruled out. It is well known that miniature painting reached a high degree of perfection among the Jews of Spain, particularly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries… Unfortunately, our Judaeo-Persian miniatures are unsigned and it is doubtful that we can ever become certain of the identities of the painters.

What is interesting about Mashhad is that at the time that this manuscript was written, the Jews in Mashhad were Muslim! Fourteen years earlier, they had experienced what is known as the Allahdad: “the most traumatic event to befall the Jews of [Mashhad]” (Patai, 1997, pg. 51). In the spring of 1839 (contemporary sources indicate that it was the Muslim festival of Id al-Aḍḥa), Muslim riots burst into the Jewish quarter of Mashhad, massacred 36 Jews, and forcibly converted the entire remaining community. The motives were unclear; the Jews were wealthy and this event led to the confiscation of property; they were also uncomfortably close to the British and other European forces at a volatile time in Central Asia; stories suggest other apparent catalysts, including the killing of a dog by a Jew, which the Muslims understood to be a deliberate insult to the prophet Ali. 

In any case the event had an immediate communal effect. They lived outwardly as Muslims, and were known as Jadidim: “new” Muslims. But they continued to practice Judaism in secret —  they celebrated Passover and Yom Kippur, they slaughtered and ate their own meat, they had secret Hebrew schools in cellars and met in basements to learn Torah, they married only among themselves and they married at a young age to prevent Muslims from marrying them. They would even go on pilgrimage to Mecca so that on their way back they could return through Jerusalem. After the rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925, the situation became easier for the Jadidim, and by WWII, their Jewish practice had become an open secret. In 1954, Ozar haTorah, an international Jewish organization, opened a public Jewish school in Mashhad.

Buraq and angels, page 4
But when this manuscript was written, the Jadidim were still Jewish in secret. The manuscript, in fact, opens with an image of the mi‘raj [ascension] of the Prophet, a very famous and popular topic of Muslim iconography. The Prophet is absent (already in Heaven?) but his miraculous steed Buraq is pictured, with four angels. Ariella Amar suggests that perhaps “the owner of this manuscript was a Jew constrained to live outwardly as a Muslim, who camouflaged his Jewish identity by adding this miniature of the Mi‘raj” (2012, pg. 110). Other than the Hebrew alphabet, there is nothing about this text to suggest the owner’s Jewish tendencies; the text is a legitimate pious Muslim telling of the story (rather than Shahin’s Judeo-Persian version), the illustrations, as noted above, are indistinguishable from Muslim illustrations of the period, and the manuscript opens with the mi‘raj. And even the Hebrew script could have been explained; although living as Muslims the Jadidim continued to use the Hebrew alphabet, and it was even taught in the maktab [Islamic school] that they attended! Patai writes that “[Mullah Hasan, the teacher] even learned from a Jew the Jadidi alphabet, the specific Hebrew script used by the Jews of Meshhed…. Mullah Hasan did not know that the Jadidim faithfully adhered to the Jewish religion, and he considered the Hebrew script merely a kind of historical relic from their past. Until the years of WWII, whenever a Muslim asked about it, the Jadidim always gave this explanation for their interest in knowing the Hebrew script” (1997, pg. 210). On a Muslim marriage certificate of the Jadidi community, written in Persian, 1888, the witnesses’ signatures are in Hebrew (Patai, 1997, pg. 249).

Colophon with date, place (lines 3-6) and reason of composition
I would argue that there is also perhaps a special significance to the choice of text — the story of Yusuf/Joseph is the story of a Jew forced to live among non-Jewish Egyptians, who despite hardships and temptations never loses his faith. While he disguised himself as an Egyptian, Joseph never forgot his true heritage; and when the time came, he revealed himself to his brothers and rejoined his family. I imagine that this story must have had deep resonance, and even comfort, to a Jadidi living in Mashhad; perhaps they commissioned this story as a reminder that like Joseph in prison, if they could keep their faith they would one day be rewarded. According to Moreen, the colophon records that Eliyahu Gurgi’s “purpose for copying this manuscript was to admonish his contemporaries and encourage them to improve their behaviour” (1985, pg. 22).

Now for the henna! Out of the 26 miniatures, only four do not depict henna: the initial image of the mi‘raj (page 6), Yusuf being beaten by his brothers (page 45), Yusuf meeting the princess Bazigha (page 54), and an image of Layla and Majnun (page 59), the famous lovers brought as parallels to Yusuf and Zulaikha. In the remainder of the manuscripts, hands and feet and shown hennaed in solid orange; sometimes all the people in the image, sometimes just one. In one image, Yusuf’s feet are shown with hennaed toes and edge (and presumably sole), while his neighbour’s foot has only hennaed toenails.

Yusuf in prison, page 108


Otherwise, hands and feet are an undifferentiated wash of orange. This appears to be the depiction of henna common in Qajar art (compare to the court painting shown below). It may be, as Catherine Cartwright-Jones suggests (2009a, pp. 37-43), that this reflects a change in the cultural preference for henna gloves versus the patterned henna that was commonly depicted in earlier illustrations (see images in Cartwright-Jones 2009b), although this manuscript shows no indication of the palimpsests that Cartwright-Jones describes.

Yusuf runs away from Zulaikha, page 89
Woman holding a diadem, Iran, mid-19th century (currently in the Hermitage)


Jami standing before Sultan Husayn,  page 10
The second image of the manuscript depicts the poet Jami standing before his patron, Sultan Husayn Mirza Bayqara, who appears to have hennaed fingernails (and possibly palm); this is consistent with other Qajar depictions of the shah; for example, a portrait of Fath Ali Shah done by Mihr Ali in 1809-1810 (see below). Throughout the manuscript, men (including Yusuf, Adam, and various servants) are shown wearing henna but it is unclear to what degree this represents actual usage versus the stylistic conventions of this manuscript. 

The hennaed fingernails is likely to be a realistic representation, since we have ample testimony in both art and writing of the practice: Edward Granville Browne wrote of being hosted by "an old Persian with henna-dyed beard and nails" (1893, pg. 46), and numerous other European travelers record the process of dyeing hair, beard, and nails in the hammam (for examples: Shoberl, 1828, pg. 114; Buckingham, 1830, pg. 189; Atkinson, 1832, pp. 14-15). In general, however, it is hard to draw any conclusions about a specific use of henna (e.g. for weddings, funerals, or other occasions described in the story) with the illustrations in this manuscript, since henna seems to be worn indiscriminately by all characters, at all times (with the few exceptions noted above). Thus this manuscript seems to be testifying to the role of henna as a common and recognizable adornment, rather than realistically depicting any specific usage.

Fath Ali Shah (currently in Hermitage)


So what can we learn, if anything, about Persian/Mashhadi Jewish henna from this manuscript? As explained earlier, we have no way of knowing if the artist was Jewish, and in any case this manuscript comes from a community of crypto-Jews living as Muslims. We certainly know that henna was done in Mashhad; Patai records, based on his fieldwork with Mashhadi Jews living in Jerusalem in the 1940s, that the custom in Mashhad was to henna the bride’s “soles and feet” at the hammam and then “the fingertips of the bride were painted with [henna] all around” at the henna ceremony the following night, while “the center of the bridegroom’s palms were painted with henna” (1997, pp. 244-246). In my own fieldwork with Mashhadi Jews, they remembered applying patterns with a stick or one’s fingertips: simple patterns included dots, stars and moons, and those more artistically inclined would depict flowers, birds, and even people (Sienna, 2011, pp. 87, 91-92). Interestingly, my Mashhadi informants described how henna was one of the ways they maintained their Muslim public appearance: they made sure to be only wearing henna at appropriate times in the Muslim calendar and were careful not to wear henna during Ramadan and Muharram so as not to draw attention to themselves.

Yusuf and Zulaikha holding hands, page 84

Although this manuscript tells us very little about Jewish henna traditions in Persia, it nonetheless holds the distinction of being the only Judeo-Persian manuscript to my knowledge with any depiction of henna. We know Persian Jews used henna frequently, but for some reason the few other Judeo-Persian illustrations to survive do not depict it. As noted, we have no evidence of Jewish henna, textual or visual, from the period of elaborate henna patterning depicted in courtly Persian miniatures (as described and analyzed in Cartwright-Jones 2009a and 2009b). This manuscript was likely commissioned by a Jadidi in Mashhad, written only 14 years after the trauma of the Allahdad. Was the henna shown in it simply an addition of a Muslim artist? Or was it another way for Mashhadi Jadidim to recognize themselves, masked but hopeful, in the story of Yusuf/Joseph? This layer adds to the importance and interest of this unique and unusual manuscript.

Marriage of Yusuf and Zulaikha, page 121
Amar, Ariella. Art in the Shadow of Oppression: the visual culture of Iranian Jews. In Light and Shadows: the story of Iranian Jews, ed. David Yeroushalmi. University of Washington Press.
Atkinson, James. 1832 Customs and Manners of the Women of Persia and Their Domestic Superstitions. London: John Murray.
Browne, Edward Granville. 1893 A Year Amongst the Persians: impressions as to the life, character, & thought of the people of Persia, received during twelve months' residence in that country in the years 1887-1888. London: Messrs. A & C Black.
Buckingham, James Silk. 1830 Travels in Assyria, Media and Persia: including a journey from Bagdad by Mount Zagros, to Hamadan, the ancient Ecbatana, researches in Ispahan and the ruins of Persepolis. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bently.
Cartwright-Jones, Catherine. 2009a The Techniques of Persian Henna. Unpublished paper, Kent State University; available online.
Cartwright-Jones, Catherine. 2009b The Patterns of Persian Henna. Unpublished paper, Kent State University; available online.
Moreen, Vera Basch. 1985 Miniature Painting in Judeo-Persian Manuscripts. Hebrew Union College Press.Patai, Raphael. 1997 Jadid al-Islam: the Jewish "New Muslims" of Meshhed. Wayne State University Press (published posthumously).
Shoberl, Frederick. 1828 Persia: containing a brief description of the country; and account of its government, laws, and religion, and of the character, manners and customs, arts, amusements, &c. of its inhabitants. Philadelphia: John Grigg.
Sienna, Noam. 2011 Old Patterns, New Skin: Jewish henna ceremonies and the politics of heritage. BA thesis, Brandeis University.

1 comment:

Molly E. Moses said...

Thank you for the close-ups!