Monday, April 28, 2014

We Heart Moroccan Henna: A Design Tutorial from Marrakech, 1977

I had a great private appointment a few days ago with a lovely group of young women who loved henna, and when I showed them some examples of different styles they all chose Moroccan designs! I love doing Moroccan-style henna so I was really thrilled.

One of the best ways to work on your Moroccan style, as with any style, is to look for photos of henna from Morocco and copy them! In an earlier blogpost I explored Moroccan body art in the early 20th century, but here in this post I thought I would share some more modern photos I recently found, which are a fabulous step-by-step documentation of the ‘Moroccan’ style.

The photos were taken in Marrakech in 1977 by Bruno Barbey, a Moroccan-born French photographer (if you like photography, Barbey has several books of his photographs of Morocco which you can see here and here). I found the photos on the website of Magnum Photos, an international photographic co-operative which Barbey joined in 1964. The description states: “For marriage, bride has feets [sic] and hands painted with henne [sic]” — I assume, then, that this photoset shows a bride being prepared for her wedding but I have no more information than that.

What’s wonderful about this collection of photos is that the neqasha [henna artist] is demonstrating the traditional application with a kohl stick (merwed) rather than the newer syringe method which was just becoming popular in the 70s. Even better, Barbey has wonderfully captured the artist at work in a series of images, and so we can see the progression of the design.

The design begins. Bruno Barbey, Marrakech, 1977.
The fill here is typical of this style of Moroccan henna, which is often called ‘Fessi’ (from the city of Fes or Fez) but was also done in Marrakech as well.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Henna and Hametz: Jewish Henna Traditions for Passover

The holiday of Passover (or Pesah in Hebrew) is almost upon us! In between the matza ball soup, 12 types of haroset, and chocolate-caramel matza crunch (so good!) I thought I’d offer a few observations on henna’s connection to Passover.

Jewish singers with hennaed palms, Tissint,
ca. 1934, photo by Jean Besancenot.
Since henna was a symbol of celebration, it’s not surprising that it would make an appearance on Passover. One fascinating account comes from a British soldier known only as “Colonel Scott,” who had joined the forces of the great Algerian leader ‘Abd al-Qadir (or Abd-el-Kader, as Scott spells it).

On April 5, 1841, Scott was staying in the town of Taza, in the Highlands of Morocco, which happened to be the day before Passover. He writes: “The Jews have been extremely busy the last few days, white-washing their houses, and making preparations for the celebration of the feast of the passover, which commences to-morrow” (1842, pg. 53). Sounds about right!

Friday, April 4, 2014

"The Henna is Here, Mix It": Armenian Traditions of Henna Use

I had an amazing time teaching, learning, hennaing, and getting hennaed at the Henna Gathering conference in Connecticut this past weekend. I gave three presentations: Henna in Judaism, The Ancient History of Henna, and Henna in the Middle Ages, and I was so grateful that many people attended all three and asked interesting, engaging questions.

Armenian girls in formal dress, Tiflis, ca. 1890
One lovely participant asked me whether I knew anything about henna traditions in Armenia, and unfortunately she had to be satisfied with my simple answer that I was sure that they did henna in Armenia but that I didn’t know much beyond that. I felt that she deserved a better answer than that, so I thought I’d do a little research and see what I could come up with.

Modern Armenia is located between Turkey and Iran, two countries which have had long henna traditions, and Armenian culture has much in common with neighbouring traditions. So it’s no surprise that henna was used in Armenia as well as among Armenian communities in Persia and Turkey, as well as by other Caucasian groups like Georgians, Circassians, Azeris, and others. 

While I have seen records of Jewish henna use among Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, and Georgian Jews, I have not yet seen any source describing henna use among Armenian Jews. However, I would not be surprised if they did use henna — this has more to do with the paucity of sources on Armenian Jewish culture than anything else. There's also a small minority of Armenian Muslims, with even fewer sources for research. Thus, in this post when I talk about 'Armenians' I am referring to Christian Armenians, whether in present-day Armenia or elsewhere, belonging either to the Armenian Apostolic or Armenian Catholic Church.