Thursday, July 9, 2015

Seen in the Yemen: Visiting a Yemeni Henna Artist, 1938

Apologies for the long break with no posts! The end of the semester and the deadline for my thesis, combined with my move, ate up every spare minute of my time. Hopefully now I'll have time to return to more regular blogging.

I’m settling into my new apartment in Minneapolis, and I’m especially grateful for the warm welcome I’ve received from the local henna artist community. I’ve already had the opportunity to work alongside some wonderful artists here and it’s been great to build community together. In appreciation, I thought I’d post this lovely and fascinating story about a visit to a henna artist in Yemen in the late 1930s. I think it’s so important for henna artists to feel a connection to their artistic predecessors, and to recognize that our involvement in this art comes with a long and rich historical legacy.

Freya Stark in local dress, 1936.
The source of this story is Freya Stark (1893-1993), a British-Italian traveller and writer who bravely trekked through the deserts of western Iran and southern Arabia alone (at a time when few women would do so), as well as travelling extensively through Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey. She accompanied the British archaeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson and geologist Elinor Gardner on their 1937-1938 expedition to the Hadhramaut in south-eastern Yemen. Her account of visiting a Yemeni henna artist comes from the published diary of her travel, A Winter in Arabia (1940).

In February 1938, Stark writes, she was in the village of Huraidhah, just in time for ‘Eid al-Adha, the great feast celebrating the near-sacrifice of Ismail and the return from the pilgrimage to Mecca. Of course, any holiday must include some henna, and Stark wanted to join in. She had her hands hennaed by a local artist named ‘Ayesha, who is called “the best beauty specialist of the town.” Stark, as a honoured European visitor, was hosted by the local notables and social elite, and ‘Ayesha was apparently henna artist to the stars — Stark finds her at the house of the family of the local mansab (the position of mansab was an office of tribal leadership whose authority is both social-political and religious, due to their claims of descent from the Prophet).

Stark’s description of her henna appointment is extensive and detailed (I provide it below), and is a valuable record of henna techniques in early 20th century Yemen. She describes how ‘Ayesha first mixes the paste, “a green puree like spinach,” and has Stark wash her hands with khoteqa (hutaika), a kind of herbal soap made from a coastal plant similar to saltbush (Suaeda monoica). So far, standard operating procedure for henna artists, even today!

‘Ayesha then rubs Stark’s hands and feet with turmeric, apparently to add a yellow colour, and arranges her in a comfortable position with cushions. Interestingly, Stark notes that ‘Ayesha purposefully begins the henna on the right hand (a detail also mentioned in Nomi Eve’s novel Henna House). The henna is done by hand, with a small stick used to fix any mistakes. ‘Ayesha dips her fingers in the paste and draws out thin strands — the henna must have been quite stringy.

Hennaed hands, Hadhramaut, 1938. Photo by Freya Stark.
The patterns, according to Stark, include rings, stars, trees, circles, and palm branches on the backs of her hands; her palms were hennaed solidly without any pattern. Her feet were also hennaed, with a sun on each instep. In an incredibly intriguing aside, ‘Ayesha explains that the sun was copied from “a printed book” — does that mean that there were books of henna designs circulating in 1930s Yemen? I have never seen evidence that there were actual books of henna designs anywhere this early, even in India. Or does it mean that she adapted the design from a decorative element in a printed book? Either way it is very interesting.

Stark does not have any pictures of henna in A Winter in Arabia, but she does include a photo of henna from this region in her 1938 album, Seen in the Hadramaut. The design includes the rings, circles, and chevron ‘trees’ that Stark described, with the first joint of the fingers solidly hennaed; could this be a photo of Stark's own hands? It's certainly possible. In any case, the design is likely one of ‘Ayesha’s creations! Stark also took a photo of a woman in Huraidhah grinding henna leaves (see below) which may be a picture of 'Ayesha herself (thanks to the U of T library staff for kindly digitizing this image for me!).

All in all the henna takes four hours (and Stark falls asleep while her feet are being hennaed! An all-too-familiar experience); while it dries, Stark is fed bread and coffee while the women sing and drum. She keeps it on all night, and ‘Ayesha even goes over it again the next morning to make sure it stains well; Stark records that it lasts three weeks.

Here’s the full story as Stark wrote it:

February 9
A small feminine sensation has been caused in Hureidha by the fact that my hands have been painted with henna for the feast: the news has rushed round the town and enthusiastic women come to snatch and admire the works of art as I pass. The truth is that I have long wanted to see how this operation is performed.
So I arranged to go to the Mansab’s sister and her daughter ‘Rapunzel’ of the long plaits next door, and found there the best beauty specialist of the town, ‘Ayesha, with pretty little pointed face and thin fingers, sitting cross-legged making green puree like spinach out of powdered henna leaves and water in a basin. She asked me to wash my hands with the powdered Khoteqa to get the grease off, rubbed my wet fingers in turmeric which I spread over hands and arms to make them yellow; and then, having arranged cushions to support me on every side, took my hands over, beginning with the right one “for a blessing.”

"Pounding Henna," Huraidhah, 1938; photo by Freya Stark. This
may be a photo of 'Ayesha or another local henna artist.

With her forefinger she scoops up the paste, which hangs in a thin drip, and with this traces out rings and stars and trees and anything she fancies. It was a formidable performance. I went at 1 p.m. and emerged at five. The ladies pressed glasses of tea into my free hand, looked at the growing work of art with criticism and advice, and told the gossip of the town… 
When the news was interesting, ‘Ayesha stopped work with her finger and the drip of henna suspended in air and everything came to a standstill. She kept a little stick in her mouth to wipe away irregularities in the pattern and stray drops, which she apparently swallowed. It could not be bad for her because henna is one of the trees of Paradise. When my hands were done, I was arranged on cushions on the floor and told to sleep while one of the ladies did my feet; the others had coffee in a far corner. I lay with closed eyes, feeling the little cold drops as they fell; henna is cooling, they take baths of it in summer. I dozed, and woke to find the work finished, on each instep a sun with shining rays, taken, the lady said, “from a printed book.” My hands had three palm branches on the back and one upon the middle finger, besides other small patterns and circles: the first joint and the inside of the palm were solid henna. This elaboration is only for brides; matrons or unmarried girls have a much simpler affair: it was the height of impropriety for me to walk about so highly decorated. But though I pleaded in a modest way, the ladies could not bear to lose the opportunity: they lavished every bridal ornament upon me. While I lay drying, they gathered round, fed me with bread and coffee, and brought half a petrol tin to beat on while they sang: the day passed, pleasant, restful and timeless: but I had to keep the stuff on, caked like mud, all night, and go again this morning to have the pattern worked over to make it strong. It then lasts with no further attention for three weeks.

What a wonderful story! I love how Stark notes that everyone in the town comes around to admire her designs. Some things have changed — thank goodness we don't have to schlepp millstones to every gig to grind our henna — but other things stay the same.

1 comment:

Wendy Rover, Rovinghorse Henna said...

I love the stories you share, Noam. This one is just lovely.