Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Henna in Herat (and Beyond): Jewish Henna Traditions of Afghanistan

In looking over my blog history the other day, I noticed that it’s been over a month since I shared anything about Jewish henna traditions. This is supposed to be a blog about Jewish henna research… That won’t do at all!

In my Arabic class I’ve recently befriended the two students who sit behind me, both lovely undergraduates who happen to have an Afghan background. They were very interested to hear that there was a Jewish community in Afghanistan and I brought in some books to show them. So why not make a blogpost about it?

A Judeo-Persian business letter
from the Afghan Geniza, 1021 CE
There have been Jews in Afghanistan for over a thousand years. Last year the Israel Museum announced that they have purchased (to date) 29 documents from the “Afghan Geniza,” a collection of hundreds of fragmentary Jewish documents found in a cave in northwestern Afghanistan. 

The manuscripts, in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Persian, date to the early 11th century CE; the museum has already kindly put scans of them online. As they are translated and published, they will hopefully help complete the picture of Afghan Jewish life in the Middle Ages.

The Afghan Jewish community numbered well into the tens of thousands in the 19th century, and centres of Jewish life included Herat, Kabul, Qandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, and Maimana. The Jewish population dropped rapidly in the 20th century as Jews began emigrating to Israel, the UK, and the Americas, especially after a wave of anti-Jewish violence in the 1870s, the Russian revolution in 1917, and then World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel. 

The Soviet invasion in 1979 was essentially the final blow to the community; today, there is famously one Jew left in Afghanistan, by the name of Zablon Simintov (the second-last Jew, Yitzhaq Levy, who had a falling-out with Simintov, died in 2005).

Interior of Mulla-e Yoav synagogue, Herat, 1973
Culturally, the Jews of Afghanistan had close ties with their fellow Judeo-Persian speakers in Iran, especially the Jews of Mashhad (about whom I’ve written before), many of whom fled to Afghanistan in 1839, as well as the Bukhari Jews of Central Asia (today Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan).

So what kind of henna did they do? Unfortunately I haven’t (yet) done any interviews with Afghan Jews myself, and there is very little published material that I’ve been able to find. We know that like other Persian Jewish communities, they held a henna ceremony before a wedding, known as ḥanabandon [tying the henna]. There’s a short description in an article of the Jewish anthropologist Erich Brauer, who also wrote important ethnographies of Yemenite and Kurdish Jews (interestingly, Brauer did actually go to Afghanistan himself, while his other work was done by interviewing immigrants in Jerusalem).

Afghan Jewish couple,
Herat, 1948
Brauer writes that the henna ceremony takes place on the evening before the wedding, in the bride’s house, but in separate rooms: “the bride sits in the women’s room without her veil and clad in her wedding gown with silver amulets around her upper arm. A dish of fruits and sweets is set before the groom, and a youth, balancing the bowl of henna on his head, dances in front of him” (Brauer 1942, pg. 129). 

The groom’s henna is applied by the ḥakham, the local rabbi (a custom also practiced in Yemen). The groom is then escorted home by his shushbinim (like the “best men”) and the bride is taken out into the main room and hennaed there (pg. 130).

We have some more information from later sources, including Afghani-Israeli scholars Zevulun Kort (1971) and Yisrael Mishael (1980), and an exhibition at the Israel Museum curated by Noam Bar‘am-Ben-Yosef (1997). 

Henna bowl with candles and
decorated leaves, Israel, 1978
Kort describes (pg. 18) how the groom is welcomed into the room with songs and sparklers (he writes ziquqin di-nur, which literally means 'fireworks,' but I assume he means little hand-held ones). After a festive meal, which according to Mishael included a pilaf with mutton (pg. 171), they bring the khanche-ye ḥana, the ‘henna tray’ or ‘henna table.' 

On the khanche-ye ḥana, the henna is placed in a large brass bowl (tashtak) with candles and decorated iris leaves (zambak). The table also has sweets, drinks, and a large sugar cone decorated with colourful ribbons. The chief rabbi, or the bride’s father, is given the honour of hennaing the groom first, as everyone applauds and shouts besiman tov (‘Congratulations!’). 

Couple at henna table (note the decorated sugar cone
behind the champagne bottle), Herat, 1963

Henna cloth, Herat, 1950s
After the groom leaves the bride’s hands and feet are hennaed, and carefully wrapped in special triangles of cloth called ḥanaband (‘henna wrappers’) and tied with ribbons (saghpich). A large embroidered silk cloth called pishandaz-e ḥana (‘henna napkin’) is spread over their laps while they are being hennaed. 

Like other Jewish communities, there was a woman in charge of the bride’s adornment, including her make-up, hair, henna, and jewelry, as well as general guidance and emotional support. These women, who also served the rest of time as midwives, hairdressers, doctors, tailors, and artisans, were known by various names — mashade (from Arabic mashiṭa, ‘hairdresser’), abruchin (in the northern cities of Balkh and Mazar-e Sharif), and dimvardari (largely in Herat).

The next day the henna is removed and she is taken to the miqve [ritual bath]. The mashade dyed the bride's eyebrows with indigo (vasma), and added dots and lines on her forehead (and sometimes cheeks and chin) with a black soot ink called khetat (from Arabic kheṭuṭ). Her eyes were kohled, and her hennaed palms were decorated with floral designs in the same black ink.

Malka Yezidi applying sequins, Israel, 1979
Finally, her forehead was decorated with sequins carefully glued to her forehead in particular patterns. This custom appears to be unique to the Jews of Afghanistan, although it may have been practiced in parts of Iran as well. The bride's whole forehead was covered, and there was a slightly different pattern for women who were in their first year of marriage. I haven’t been able to find any historical photos of this; these pictures are reconstructions that were done for the Israel Museum in the late 1970s by Malka Yezidi, Yokheved Merkhavi (each of whom had been a mashade in Herat), Rivqa Kohen (granddaughter of a Herati mashade), and Esther Betzalel.

Adornments of an Afghan Jewish
 bride (reconstructed), Israel, 1997.

Mashade's "palette", Herat, early 20th century

Groom's robe, Herat, 1950s
There are still many unanswered questions about Afghan Jewish henna traditions. Although the henna was decorated, we still don’t know whether the henna itself was done in patterns, as was sometimes done in neighbouring Persian (especially Mashhadi) communities. We can imagine what the patterns might have looked like: there’s certainly plenty of inspiration in Afghan Jewish folk arts, from illuminated manuscripts to jewelry and textiles, which would make beautiful henna patterns.

Close-up of Afghan ketubba [wedding certificate], Herat, 1812

Afghan Jewish woman and child,
with hennaed nails, early 20th century.
We also don’t know whether henna appeared at any other times in the lives of Afghan Jews, although we know that Persian and Kurdish Jews used henna to celebrate holidays and other lifecycle events. It would be amazing to have the opportunity to interview Afghan Jewish elders on their memories of henna traditions, so if any of you know elderly Afghan Jews, please get in touch! Unfortunately in Bar'am-Ben-Yosef's book she notes that the women who had been mashade in Afghanistan and had helped reconstruct the bridal adornments have since passed away. But I hope there may be others.

In conclusion, there’s definitely lots of research still to be done… But I hope you enjoyed this brief glimpse into the traditions of a lesser-known community.

Mishael, Yisrael. Bein afganistan le-ereṣ yisrael: mizikhronotav shel nesi haqehila biṣefon afganistan [From Afghanistan to the Land of Israel: from the memories of the leader of the community in northern Afghanistan]. Jerusalem: Ministry of Education and Culture, 1980.
Brauer, Erich. The Jews of Afghanistan: An Anthropological Report. Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1942, pp. 121-138.
Bar‘am-Ben-Yosef, No‘am (ed.). Bo-i kala: minhagei erusin veḥatuna shel yehudei afganistan [Draw near, O Bride: Rituals for betrothal and marriage of the Jews of Afghanistan]. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1997.
Kort, Zevulun. Minhagei erusin venissu’in beherat afganistan [Rituals of betrothal and marriage in Herat, Afghanistan]. Yeda‘ ‘Am, Vol. XV, No. 37/38, 1971, pp. 15-22.


Maya Resnikoff said...

First of all, gorgeous pictures.

Secondly, I am so glad to see you shedding a little light (and searching for more) on the customs of different Jewish communities. It's the kind of awareness that our modern Jewish community needs more of.

Flavia said...

Thank you Noam for your effort and for sharing this fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Afgani families.

Wendy Rover, Rovinghorse Henna said...

Thanks Noam. Your blog is a tremendous reference for me. There is so much here! I love this article.

Noam Sienna said...

Thanks for pointing that out Sabrina! I fixed it.

aree-aneh said...

Dear Noam,
thank for this nice article. I am researching Mashhadi and Herati Jewish history and would like to ask you a quesion. How can we get in touch? Thanks, Ariane