Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Caught on Film: An Egyptian Henna Party, 1937

At a recent academic conference, I heard a paper presented by Professor Deborah Starr, from Cornell University, about the films of Egyptian-Jewish filmmaker Togo Mizrahi. While the talk was interesting already, she captured my attention when she mentioned that one of Mizrahi’s films showed a henna party before one of the character’s weddings. I asked her afterwards if she could direct me to the clip, and she was more than happy to assist. I was super excited to catch a glimpse of what a henna party looked like in 1930s Egypt, even if only for less than a minute.

An 'attar shop in Cairo, selling spices, medicine,
and perfumes, from Lane (1836). The frontmost
box reads "hinna" [henna].
First (as usual), some historical background. Even though we might not immediately think of Egypt when we think about henna, Egypt was actually a centre for henna production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (as I previously explored in this blogpost). In 1903, George Bonaparte, a teacher at the Agricultural College of Cairo, wrote that henna was grown mainly in the provinces of Sharqia and Qalyubia, and that annual exports of henna had increased from 1100 tons in 1899 to 1500 tons in 1901. 

Henna was incredibly cheap — Bonaparte records that the average price of henna powder in 1903 was 80 piastres per kantar [approximately 99 lbs]. From what I’ve been able to see online, 80 piastres in 1903 was about 4 US dollars, so clearly henna was readily available at every budget.

There are some descriptions of Egyptian henna practices in Edward William Lane’s massive work Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), where he records that some women stained just the nails or fingertips, while others added simple designs of stripes or dots. He describes the wedding henna ceremony, leilat al-hinna, among Muslims as follows (pg. 208):