Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Lost and Found? Henna Art Among Yemenite Jews

I recently corresponded with a lovely Israeli art student interested in the patterns of Yemenite Jewish henna. I’ve written a little bit about them before but I thought I could expand them into a longer blogpost of their own. Then Sunday night I went to a lecture about Yemenite Jewish history by Professor Isaac Hollander, and I decided that I definitely needed a whole blogpost… Maybe even two.

The Jewish community of Yemen was one of the oldest and most vibrant of the Diaspora, probably dating back to the first centuries of the Common Era, if not even earlier. The earliest records we have of Jewish henna use in Yemen go back to the beginnings of the Islamic period, from the Kitab al-Muḥabbar of Muhammad ibn Habib (composed ca. 840 CE). After that, however, there is a long silence — I have not found any mentions of henna in Yemen until the modern period.

The use of henna among both Yemenite Jews (known as Temanim in Hebrew) and Muslims is described in the travelogues of a number of European writers (Niebuhr, 1772, pp. 65-66; du Couret, 1859, pg. 213; Saphir, 1866, pg. 81), and it is mentioned by Yemenite Jewish scholars as well (Saliḥ, 1779, 2:127; Qarah 1827).

But we still haven’t heard anything about henna patterns (Jewish or non-Jewish)! The earliest record that I’ve seen of henna patterns in Yemen comes from Freya Stark, an indefatigable British explorer (and an incredibly brave woman who travelled alone through the Arabian deserts and Central Asia at a time when few women dared do so). 

Hennaed hands, Ḥaḍramaut, late 1930s. Stark, 1938, pg. 180
She published a series of popular books on her travels, and included some descriptions of henna patterns that she saw (1936, pp. 47, 213):

[At a wedding in Makalla]: The palms of [the women’s] hands [were] reddish brown with heavily scented henna and oil and painted outside in a brown lacework pattern, like a mitten.

[In Tarim]: [The Sultan’s 10-year-old daughter] stood gazing at me, shy and gorgeous, her little hands done in lace patterns and wheels of indigo with henna tips; her hair in seventy-five plaits at least, fluffed out on her shoulders in curls.

Amazingly, Stark also includes a photograph of a woman’s hennaed hands (with the paste on), taken in the late 30s in the Ḥaḍramaut. She describes how the pattern is made “by an artist who lets a thin thread of the paste drip from her forefinger, guiding it into patterns as it does so” (1938, pg. 180).

Habbani Jews, Israel, mid-20th century

Among Yemenite Jewish communities, however, I have seen records of three main types of henna patterns, each of which appears to be distinct from the types of patterns practiced by the neighbouring Muslim communities (at least according to Stark).

The first, common among the Habbani Jews of the Ḥaḍramaut, is characterized by a wide circle around the entire palm, sometimes with a dot in the centre. The fingers are then painted with broad stripes, and the fingertips are hennaed solidly. 

This pattern was in fact continued after the Habbani Jews immigrated to Israel, and it's still done even today among Jews of Habbani descent (living mostly on a moshav called Bareqet) — the only Jewish henna patterning technique to really survive into the present day.

The second type was practiced among the various villages of central and north Yemen, consisting of rows of dots, usually clustered in triangles, diamonds, or quincunxes, between stripes across the fingers and back of the hand. Some brides in Israel continued this tradition into the 80s but as far as I can tell, it has essentially disappeared today.

Henna in Barat, north Yemen, 1984

The third, the most elusive and the most elaborate, was practiced by the Jews of San‘a. It is described extensively by several Yemenite writers, including ‘Amram Qorah (1954), Yosef Kapah (1961), and Yehuda Levi Nahum (1962). I summarize their description on my website: it was essentially a four-step process. First, the hands and feet were covered with henna, which was left on for a few hours and then washed off. The next day, a professional artist known as a shar‘e drew designs on the skin in molten wax (the pain being explained as symbolic of the pain of marriage… Lovely). After that, henna was applied over the wax and left on overnight. The next day, the henna was removed and the hands and feet covered with a mixture of ammoniac and potash (shaḍḍar), which was rubbed off after an hour — this turned the henna a deep greenish-black, while the areas protected by the wax retained their orange shade.

There were variations on this technique — sometimes the wax was applied directly on the skin before any henna; sometimes the overnight henna was skipped and they put the shaḍḍar right after the wax. But overall, it must have been stunning to see, especially with the additional ornamentation that was added in black (from a gall ink called kheṭuṭ), yellow (from turmeric, hurud), and blue (indigo, nil).

Yemenite Jewish couple, San'a, late 1930s.

Sana'i Jewish bride and family, late 1930s.
Note the solidly-hennaed hands.
Now, normally in my presentations I stop there, sigh, and say sadly, “but to my knowledge, no photographs have survived depicting this technique, so this is entirely conjecture.” I even say so on my website! 

The fact is, while we do have some photographs of Yemenite brides from San‘a, all of them seem to show hands only solidly hennaed. It seems that perhaps this technique was only done on the inside of the hand, or perhaps the colour gradations are too subtle to see on a grainy black-and-white photograph. 

And to make matters worse, photographs of Sana‘i Jewish brides in Yemen are rare, and the technique was abandoned immediately upon arrival in Israel, for a variety of reasons: the materials for the resist and darkening were likely unavailable, the lengthy multi-day process was impractical, the knowledge of how to mix the materials and apply the designs was highly specialized, and the henna ceremony in general was seen as undesirable. Knowing all this, I resigned myself to the sad fact that I may never find visual documentation of this Sana'i bridal tradition.

Yehiel Haibi, self-portrait
with camera, San'a, late 1930s.
But I may have found a rare treasure in the work of a Yemenite Jewish photographer named Yehiel Haibi. Haibi was born in San‘a ca. 1911. When he was 18, he traveled to visit relatives in Eritrea, and from there traveled to Italy, where he learnt Italian. On his way back to Yemen, he met an Italian doctor who took a liking to the intelligent young Haibi and hired him to work in the medical centre. 

It was at the medical centre that Haibi learnt photography; the doctor ordered him equipment from Europe, and Haibi began to document his life and community. He worked surreptitiously, since photography was technically illegal; but he was well-received by his community, and his services were actually in high demand to take family portraits to send to relatives in Israel. 

He made ‘aliya in 1944 with his family, but never published his photographs; he died in 1977. His widow, Re’uma, helped publish an album of his work in 1985, and in 1996 his photographs and negatives were acquired by the Israel Museum.

I was looking through the book of Haibi’s photographs that his widow put together, and came across the following photograph of the Shim‘on family (Yona and Na‘omi, the two girls, and their mother on the far left). According to the caption, they had their portrait taken to send to relatives in Israel (Sha‘ar 1985, pg. 61).

Shim'on family, San'a, late 1930s.

Let’s take a close look at the hands of the girl in the centre (either Yona or Na‘omi — it doesn’t say!), as compared to her mother’s hands. Could it be that her hands have been hennaed solidly, with blank spaces strategically arranged across her fingers and the backs of her hands? Could this be photographic documentation of wax resist among Yemenite Jews? Perhaps she was recently married, and wanted to send a picture to her distant family, or perhaps she had been hennaed for a holiday or a friend’s celebration. It unfortunately isn’t very clear, and it doesn’t show the elaborate patterns that were described as being done for Sana'i brides.

Close-up of above photograph, Shim'on family, Sana', 1930s.

But if this does represent wax resist, then this photograph is the first (and now, to my knowledge, the only) documentation of this unique Temani Jewish technique. Very exciting! I hope to be able to examine the original photo in the Israel Museum Archives, and who knows — perhaps there is another hennaed Temani bride there waiting for me.

Thoughts? Questions? Leave them in the comments below!

du Couret, Louis. Les Mystères du Désert: Souvenirs de Voyages en Asie et en Afrique [The Mysteries of the Desert: Memories of Voyages in Asia and Africa]. Paris: E. Dentu, 1859.
Kapah [Qafih], Yosef. Halikhot Teiman [The Ways of Yemen]. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1961.
Levi Nahum, Yehuda. Miṣefunot yehudei Teiman [Secrets of the Jews of Yemen]. Ed. by Shimʿon Garidi. Tel Aviv (self-published), 1962.
Niebuhr, Carsten. Beschreibung von Arabien: aus eigenen beobachtungen und im Lande [Description of Arabia: from our own observations and travels in the country], Copenhagen: Nicholas Moeller, 1772.
Qarah, Yosef. Taqqanat Beit Din, 7 Iyyar, ‘al ‘inyan hanisu’in [Court Decision, 7 Iyyar, Regarding Weddings]. Reprinted in Almisawwadeh: pinqas bet ha-din shel qehilat Yehude Ṣanʻa bameʼah ha18 veha19 [Almisawwadeh: the court records of the Jewish community of San‘a in the 18th and 19th centuries], ed. Yehuda Nini and Nissim Gamlieli (Tel Aviv University, 2001) vol. 2, pg. 477.
Qorah, ‘Amram. Sa‘arat Teiman [Yemenite Storm]. Ed. by Shim‘on Garidi. Jerusalem: Rav Kook Institute, 1954.
Saliḥ, Yiḥya. Pe‘ulath Ṣaddiq [The Work of the Righteous]. Bombay [Mumbai], 1779.
Saphir, Jacob. Even Sappir: admat Ḥam (masa‘ Miṣrayim), Yam Suf, ḥadrei Teiman, mizraḥ Hodu kulo, ereṣ haḥadasha Ostraliya veshuvato haramata Yerushalayim [The Sapphire Stone: the land of Ham (a journey to Egypt), the Red Sea, the chambers of Yemen, all of East India, the new land of Australia, and an ascending return to Jerusalem]. Lyck [Ełk]: Meqiṣei Nirdamim, 1866.
Sha‘ar, Yosef (ed.). Ṣanʻa usevivoteha beṣilumei Yeḥiel Ḥaibi [Ṣanʻa and its Surroundings in the Photographs of Yeḥiel Ḥaibi]. Tel Aviv (self-published), 1985.
Stark, Freya. The Southern Gates of Arabia. London: E. P. Dutton, 1936.
Stark, Freya. Seen in the Hadramaut. London: John Murray, 1938.


Lisa said...

I'm at work so I don't have time to read this but looks incredible and promising! Just an aside, Yemeni brides looks like daleks!

Wendy Rover, Rovinghorse Henna said...

Thank you so much for the time and effort to put this out into the world.

Unknown said...

hopefully they are using the "good" henna and won't get burned like me.

Noam Sienna said...

Lisa — so true lol! The big headdress is called a tishbuk-lulu, and it is actually intended to turn the bride into a giant triangle, essentially — it helps deflect the evil eye on her big day.

Rachel — I'm so sorry to hear that you had a negative experience with henna! I assume you ran afoul of the chemical "black henna"? Please accept my apologies on behalf of my fellow natural henna artists!
In Yemen, they were certainly only using natural henna, although in San'a they did usually darken it by treating it with ammonia, which is not good for skin. But it is the good natural henna which is our Jewish tradition and heritage, not this nasty chemical stuff!

Karen Finkenhofer said...

Oh Noam I I think you're right about those girls I think that is something on her.
thanks for reading this is really informative I'm going to send this to my friend.

darcitananda said...

Another fascinating post. I also heard something about the wax resist and "pain of marriage" but can't remember where, maybe it was from you! We have a sizable Yemeni Jewish community in the San Francisco area. I have done henna for some of their Mimouna celebrations.

alchemyhenna said...

Noam, I'm getting ready to do a couple of events: a Vasti Banquet. And I love sending skeptical people here for insight into Jewish henna.

Isra said...

What a wonderfully researched piece. I have never heard of the elaborate wax and multi-colored henna process. Thanks for raising awareness about a sadly dying cultural practice. Please continue your fascinating research!

Robin said...

Marvelous research here. I wonder if the multicolor/resist method is still done anywhere, or if the technique could be reconstructed (or is it lost for good?). The mention of indigo in another case is equally intriguing. By the way, wax on the skin need not be painful; it depends on the melting point of the particular wax being used.

Our Little Bungalow said...

Molten wax resist.... awesome.

Anonymous said...

I took a class from you and you have a wealth of interesting and educational information that is easy to understand. This blog is a great way for me to stay up to date on your findings and continue on my learning journey. Thank you for all your hard work and desire to educate others!

soul-quest said...

Hi, very interesting! I live in Israel, married to a Yemenite Jew , my eldest daughter is about to have her bat Mitzva and I'm looking for someone to give a talk and paint for her..... do you perhaps know anyone in Israel? Thank you