Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Wipe Off the Dirt from Thy Face, Thou Hussey: Blessings, Curses, and other Colourful Henna Expressions

In researching henna, I began coming across proverbs and folk sayings that have to do with henna. I’ve been collecting them for a while (Google Books is your friend!), but when I found the one quoted in the title (we’ll get to it below) I knew I had to share. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to use these with your henna clients — and you know of any others, please add them in the comments!

The first group of expressions are expressions that are said during the actual application of henna, or blessings said for applying henna. In many Jewish communities, the application of henna was accompanied by lengthy songs and poems, in both Hebrew and local languages (like Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, and others). I certainly don’t have space to cover those here — maybe in another blogpost. But I’ll offer some short expressions:

They all look pretty happy to me!
Jewish wedding, Aleppo, 1914.
Among Syrian Jews in Aleppo, for example, on the night of the henna it was customary to say (Piamenta, 1983, pg. 111): ḥinnet-il-hana, ‘may it be a henna of happiness,’ to which the response was, Allah yhanniki witḥanni idena w’ideki, ‘May G!d make you happy, and may you henna our hands and yours!’ 

Jews in Urfa [Sanliurfa, Turkey] would bless the bride with short rhyming poems; for example: ha madi iddik alyamin ha ya ward waya yasmin, huwa yaghalbik bissa‘ada wanti taghalbi bilbanin, ‘Stretch out your right hand, O rose, O jasmine, he will give you happiness and you will give him sons.’ 

Another example: ya marat ibni ‘abit rasik hinna, walama khattabtik malakt janna, winshalla tartaf‘i, wada’iman tatahani, ‘O wife of my son, I filled your head with henna, and when I betrothed you I became ruler of paradise; may you rise up and be always joyful’ (Oster, 1972, pg. 17). There were similar poems for the groom, the parents of the couple, and the entire gathering (Oster, 1972, pg. 18).

In the Burushaski language of the Hunza Valley (northern Pakistan), as the mother of the bride puts henna on her daughter, she says (Tiffou, 1993, pg. 100): Giríṣ, giríṣ; c̣hine multán giríṣ, ‘Let it dye, let it dye; like the blood of a sparrow let it dye,’ or simply, Ṣarongáṭe uríing giríṣ! ‘Let the henna dye their hands!’ My brother has suggested a henna-themed "Let It Dye" cover of "Let It Go"... Any Frozen-obsessed henna artists want to give it a try?

One of my favourite expressions is from the lengthy hennaing process among Yemenite Jews, where they would do several coats of henna, along with a quick ammonia dip, until the henna was almost black. After three or four days, when the stain had fully matured and the design was at its nicest, they would say: qad jit jaddato, ‘Its grandmother has arrived,’ meaning, everything is ready and it’s time for the wedding (Kapah, 1961, pg. 127).

"Wait, where's Grandma?"
The Ghayat family posing for a wedding
photo, San'a, Yemen, circa 1945.
As with the Jews of Aleppo, wishing for hennaed hands was a way of saying, ‘May you soon be married,’ or simply ‘May you soon be happy.’ A popular proverb among the Jews of the Caucasus, known as Mountain Jews, was to wish someone happiness by saying, adasoitu hina veravo, ‘May your hands soon be hennaed.’ In Ottoman Turkey, it might be said of someone who was very happy that “they laugh as if on the henna night” (Gibb, 1900, pg. 290, no. 3).

Of course, the reverse is a terrible curse: to never see henna was to never be happy again. In Turkish you might curse someone that kınalı parmak sıkama, ‘May you not hold a finger with henna on!’ (Zeyrek, 2001, pg. 45). Similarly, among 19th-century Syriac Christians, for example, one might say (Maclean, 1901, pg. 102): khazinukh khina dekhitnutukh la khazit be‘ainukh, ’May your eyes never see the henna of your wedding!’ But only if one was really angry, of course. It's actually a fun curse to say if you practice it a few times, get those gutturals rolling... Try it on a frustrating festival organizer or a bridezilla mother and let me know how it goes! 
Yemenite Jews would remind their kids to use henna and kohl regularly: itkaḥḥal la ta‘ama, idhdhahan la tabla, wa’itḥanna sha tasla, ‘Apply kohl [so] you won’t go blind, apply oil [so] you don’t dry out, and apply henna [so] you’ll be happy’ (Dori, 1994, 272). They also applied henna for various holidays, including Purim, Sukkot, and Shavuot — the last one falling in the summer just at the time of the first rain, when the sorghum was planted. Thus Yehuda Ratzhabi records a Yemeni Muslim proverb, 'If the Jew is hennaed, sow your seeds and don't wait' (Ratzhabi, 1943, pg. 11).

"Could you grab my phone for me?"
Hennaed hands, Yemen, late 1930s.
The nature of having henna on, and thus being unable to move around, led to an amusing cluster of proverbs that connect henna and laziness. Yemenite Jews would ask a lazy person, Aw iddik muḥannayat, ‘What, are your hands hennaed?’ (Qorah, 1954, 154), while in India someone who was walking too slowly might be asked, kya paon men menhdi lagi hai? ‘Do you have henna on your feet?’ (Fallon, 1886, pg. 146), and similar proverbs about being ‘spoiled with henna’ were common in Rajasthan (Saksena, 1979, pg. 90).

On a related note, a Persian proverb describes promising something and then not following through, ‘leaving you hanging,’ as dast-e kasī rā dar hanā gozāshtan, ‘dipping their hand in henna’ (Hayyim, 1934, pg. 667). Anyone who works with henna, I’m sure, has been in a situation where you’ve hennaed your hands and then had to try to go to the washroom, answer your phone, or do basically anything, so you understand this frustration.

One South Asian proverb is quoted in a number of 19th-century collections, but interestingly, is given several different interpretations. The Hindi-Urdu form of the saying, hathon menhdi, pavan menhdi, apne lachchan auran dendi, ‘Her hands hennaed, her feet hennaed, to others she says — do as I do,’ is first quoted without any explanation by Thomas Roebuck (1824, pg. 185). Samuel William Fallon, a British philologist and musicologist, includes this saying in his Hindustani-English Dictionary and glosses it as meaning that the woman is lazy, since “when women apply menhdi they do no work till it dries” (Fallon, 1879, pg. 1042). 

Ten years later, though, he brings the same expression in his Dictionary of Hindustani Proverbs but suggests that since henna “is used by the feme covert [married woman] only” this expression is implying that the woman spoken of here is an unmarried girl “of easy virtue” (Fallon, 1886, pg. 101). 

Meanwhile a Punjabi variant of the same proverb (hathon menhdi, pairen menhdi, apne minhen binhen kun dendi) is given by Edward O’Brien, but here it is explained as meaning “she has all the signs of being a bad character herself, and yet she accuses others of being no better than they should be” (O’Brien, 1881, pg. 52), that is, she is a hypocrite who accuses others of the same faults she has. So which is it — is she lazy? An easy woman? Or a hypocrite? If you have any suggestions, post them in the comments!

Another image where henna appears in local proverbs is mixing henna, which often expresses the idea that things take effort, just like henna needs grinding and mixing before it’s usable. A Yemenite Jewish expression about mixing henna says that man hanhan ghanna, waman ‘ajan alḥinna itḥanna, ‘Whoever hums will sing, and whoever mixes henna will be stained’ (Mizrahi, 2006, pg. 427). I’m sure whoever has mixed henna will agree! But it’s also a universal truth — you get out what you put in.

A 19th-century Tamil proverb asks sarcastically, ‘will your nails will become red if you [just] say aruvanam [henna]?’ (Jensen, 1897, pg. 260), a henna-themed version of "if wishes were horses."

A henna mill in Yazd, Iran. Photo by Ruth Savitz, 2009.
Similarly, a Rajasthani proverb advises that mehndi re patte-patte rang, pan bantyan sun‘every henna leaf has colour, but only after grinding’ (Saksena, 1979, pg. 91).

Definitely colourful.
Akbar I, Indian miniature ca. 1609.
An interesting variant of this proverb was attributed to Ali Quli Salim, a 16th-century Persian poet who had moved to India, like many of his contemporaries, to the court of Akbar I. 

Describing how Persian talent was flourishing only in India, he said: Nist dar Iran zamin saman-i tahsil-i kanal / Ta niyamad suwi Hindustan hina rangin nashud, ‘Persia does not have the means of attaining perfection / Only when brought to India does henna get its colour’ (Browne, 1928, pg. 166). 

This proverb may also be hinting at how Indian henna traditions flourished after having been introduced by the Persians, in a ‘the student surpasses the master’ kind of way.

Sometimes henna appears as a sign of pointlessness in proverbs. The great Jewish scholar, S.D. Goitein records an interesting proverb from the Yemenite Jews: la tiṭ‘anna’ la fi ḥinna ‘abd, wala fi guṣṣ daimah, ‘Don’t bother hennaing an African, or whitewashing the firepit’ (Goitein, 1934, pg. 132). Of course, we all know that henna works just fine on African skin, so I guess this proverb misses the point.

Girl hennaed for Eid, Mali, 2006.
Photo by Emilia Tjernström.
A better example is the popular Afghani proverb that doing something too late is like ‘putting on henna after Eid’ (Gauhari, 1996, pg. 133). There is a similar Pashto expression, ‘After Eid, what use is henna? Paint the walls with it’ (Ta‘ir, 1982, pg. 8). 

An Egyptian proverb to describe someone who always seems to be unlucky is to say ga ytaagir fi ’lḥinna kutrit ’lahzaan, ‘when he started trading in henna, sorrow spread’ (Abdel-Massih, 1978, pg. 63). 

On the topic of utility or lack thereof, I found a Omani proverb: faydit ’lḥinna yakilha ’llumi, ‘the usefulness of the henna, the lime ruins,’ glossed as “gaining with one hand and losing with the other” (Sa‘id, 1986, pg. 807; Emery, 1997, pg. 47). 

To be honest I’m not really sure what this means — lime ruins henna? I assume this refers to calcium hydroxide (powdered lime) which in the Arabian Gulf is used together with ammonia to blacken henna. Could this be an anti-‘black henna’ proverb? Or does it simply mean that once you’ve blackened your henna you can’t get it back to orange — you can’t have it both ways?

More readily understandable is the Persian proverb for someone who’s making a lot of empty promises: hanāsh rangī nadārad, ‘your henna has no colour’ (Phillott, 1906, pg. 336; Hayyim, 1956, pg. 158), and the expression for wasting something that you have a lot of: hanā-ye zīyādī rā be pāshne mīmāland ‘where there is too much henna, they henna their soles’ (Hayyim, 1956, pg. 158).

One of my favourite henna proverbs is a Ladino rhyme from the Bulgarian Jewish community (yes, they used henna in Bulgaria!): pleyto de ermanos alheña de manos, ‘An argument between brothers [only lasts as long as] henna on the hands’ (Varol, 2007, pg. 211).

Sephardi women from Bulgaria, early 20th century.
Although hopefully it means like a weak stain that fades quickly, not those annoying henna stains that last forever and ever, and weeks later there are still those stubborn patches that won’t come off… Another sweet proverb about relationships is a Rajasthani saying that someone is so in love that mendi ko khet dayje men, they would bring a whole henna farm as a dowry (Saksena, 1979, pg. 92).

She's giving you 'the eye'
for sure. Dancer, Cairo, ca.
And now, the best for last: an Egyptian proverb, reminding us to take care of the more important things before you do the fun stuff — get your priorities straight, as it were. 

In Arabic, it's recorded as: ‘awḍa kheṭuṭik walḥamra, amasḥi ‘ashik, ya baẓra, ‘instead of your black ink and red [henna], clean the dirt in your eye, you whore,’ which in the inimitable 19th-century rendering of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, this comes out as: “Instead of thy (fine) tattoo and thy painting, wipe off the dirt from thy face, thou hussey” (1830, pg. 122), which somehow manages to sound both sophisticated and insulting at the same time. 

Burckhardt adds a whole paragraph of explanation, noting that alḥamra is "the red colour with which the gay women paint their hands and feet; it is made either of henna or of cinnabar" (although I've never seen reference to using cinnabar on skin, so I'm assuming it's probably just talking about henna. It literally means 'red'), and clarifying the meaning of ‘ashik ("in the Egyptian dialect, ‘ash means 'dirt in the eye' and likewise 'soreness of the eye") and baẓra ("an insulting expression, equivalent to 'slut or wench')

But I really don't think this needs any explanation. ‘Instead of your ink and henna, clean the dirt in your eye, you whore!' A whole serving of 19th-century Egyptian realness.

Try that line at your next henna party! Or on second thought, maybe not.

Have you ever heard any of these proverbs used? Do you know other proverbs about henna? Or expressions that you say while doing henna? Let me know in the comments!

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Sarah Corbett said...

superb article, I would love to publish it in the EJ magazine if you would allow it?
Fully credited and linked to you obviously!
Let me know
Sarah x

Noam Sienna said...

Yes Sarah, of course! Feel free to reblog any of my blogposts with credit.