Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ringing It In: henna traditions for celebrating New Year's

With 2014 fast approaching, I thought I’d look at some of the ways that henna has been used to celebrate the New Year.

Some of you may be familiar with the “Persian New Year,” Nowruz, celebrated at the Spring Equinox (March 21). This ancient holiday is Zoroastrian in origin but is celebrated today by many ethnic and religious groups, including also Muslims, Alevis, and Baha’is, throughout Central Asia. There are many fascinating customs associated with Nowruz, including a table set with seven symbolic items each starting with the letter ‘sin’ (in Persian); jumping over a fire as a celebration of the victory over darkness and a cleansing beginning for the year; and many delicious traditional foods.

A young Nasser al-Din Shah, ready for Nowruz
Henna is also a traditional part of the festivities! French traveller Gabriel Bonvalot noticed in Salyan (today in Azerbaijan) that men, women and children would get their hands, feet, beards, and hair hennaed for Nowruz (Bonvalot, 1889, pg. 27). British archaeologist James Theodore Bent noticed the same in Izadkhvast, Iran, describing how “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” plate; he notes:
As the great day approaches, every man says to himself, “Well, to-morrow is Noruz. 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.”

This usage has continued into recent times. 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 henna is still used to celebrate Nowruz today, as noted by Nasim Fekrat; 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). I haven’t seen any sources describing Baha’i or Zoroastrian henna for Nowruz but I’m fairly confident they would share in these traditions.

Hennaed donkeys, Iran, 1956. Photo by Inge Morath.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

More Moroccanalia: Moroccan Body Art in the 20th Century

I had a great time talking about Moroccan henna with Kenzi and Nic on the Caught Red-Handed podcast Google+ hangout. We answered questions for two hours! What a blast. You can watch it on YouTube here. I had shared with them some of the inspirations that I’ve found in older photographs, drawings, and articles on North African body art, and I thought I’d share them here too.

Brides in Marrakech, Bruno Barbey, 1987

The elaborate geometric designs associated with Fes can be seen in tourist photos from the past few decades. It’s especially interesting to look at photos from the 80s and early 90s, before henna in the public sphere shifted in response to increasing tourism. This photo, by Bruno Barbey, was taken at the royal wedding of Princess Lalla Asmaa and Khalid Bouchentouf in 1987, when Moroccans from around the country gathered in Marrakech. The design is classic Fassi style, tightly packed, with lines and zigzags as essentially its only elements. Note also that her fingernails are not hennaed, but rather painted red with Western nail polish, blending Moroccan and European sensibilities.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Kina-What? Jewish Henna Traditions in Turkey

 A henna-friend recently asked (on Facebook) whether I could offer some sources on Turkish Jewish henna traditions. Always happy to oblige! The truth is, there aren’t a lot of records of Jewish henna traditions in Turkey. I’ll present here what we do have, with reference to other communities where necessary.

A few background notes: first of all, the modern country of Turkey is not quite the same as what was historically known as “Turkey.” Even in the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire included much of what is today Greece and the Balkans, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq. Thus, colonial travelers would describe their observations about (Muslim) Turks living in places like Salonica [Thessaloniki], Damascus, Jerusalem, or Mosul.

The other note is that there is no one “Turkish Jewish” community, but several different layers: most of Turkey’s Jews were Sephardi Jews, descended from the Iberian exiles who arrived in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. These Jews generally spoke Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) and settled in Constantinople (today Istanbul), as well as other parts of the empire: places like Salonica, Cairo, Damascus, Safed, and Sarajevo. However, here are (or were) also other communities: Must‘arabi Jews (Judeo-Arabic speakers), mostly in the south-east, near the Syrian border; Ashkenazi Jews (Yiddish speakers), some of whom had migrated to Turkey in the Middle Ages but also more recent arrivals; Kurdish Jews (Neo-Aramaic speakers) living in Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey; and Romaniote Jews (Judeo-Greek speakers), living mostly in Greek areas (Corfu, Crete, Salonica, Ioannina) but also in Turkey proper.

Jews from Bursa (the woman on the left is wearing her 'indoor' clothes,
the woman on the left is in a yashmak for walking around the city).
From Les Costumes Populaires de la Turquie, 1873

Monday, December 9, 2013

"This Extraordinary Phenomenon": Algerian Jewish Henna via a Hebrew-Christian Missionary

While looking through some old files last month, I re-found an old story that I had come across years ago, about Jewish henna in Algeria! It was so interesting that I decided to write an article about it to submit to a journal! I’ll let you all know how that goes… In the meantime, here’s a little taste for you to see how my research happens.

The story was published in The Church of England magazine in March 1858, and comes from the correspondence of Rev. J.B. Ginsburg, who at the time was the representative for the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (or London Jews’ Society, or LJS, for short) in Algeria.

Ginsburg was born Baruch Ginsburg — a Jew — in Kiev, around 1826. His father, Saul Ginsburg, was a rabbi, and trained his son for the same role. After his father’s death, Baruch left Kiev and traveled through Europe, seeking a spiritual home. He finally found it in a Hebrew translation of the New Testament; he converted to Christianity in Strasburg in 1847 and then moved to England to study in a theological seminary. In the 19th century, there was a widespread movement of “Hebrew Christians,” Jews who had converted to Christianity but maintained their ethnic identity as Jews, and often served as missionaries to their unconverted brethren (in this post, I mentioned another well-known Hebrew-Christian missionary, Joseph Wolff). 
A drawing of Ginsburg discussing religion
with rabbis, from  the missionary journal
"Jewish Advocate for the Young," 1877

Ginsburg, interestingly, didn’t go back to Europe, but instead to Africa! In 1857, he was appointed to the LJS Mission in Constantine, Algeria; this story takes place in September 1857, just after his arrival. He tells of coming across “four Jewish females, one of them carrying a plate filled with ‘henna,’ in the midst of which was a lighted tallow candle, surrounded with eggs. This extraordinary phenomenon, I thought, must be a religious ceremony” (pg. 246). He therefore stops to watch, and then proceeds to follow the procession, noting that the woman leading it uttered “loud shrieks… clamorous and frightful gesticulations” with her hand by her chin. They arrive at a small house, where a henna ceremony for a Jewish bride is taking place. This is, in fact, one of the oldest eyewitness descriptions we have of a Jewish henna ceremony; normally travelers only were able to see brides who had already been decorated. Unfortunately the utility of this source in reconstructing Algerian Jewish henna traditions is limited not only by Ginsburg’s unfamiliarity with his surroundings but also by his explicit ideological motives in retelling this story.

So what can we learn about 19th century Algerian Jewish henna traditions from Ginsburg’s narrative?