Friday, September 8, 2017

From My Files 4: Four Centuries of Moroccan Jewish Henna

I just returned from a brief trip to Berkeley to celebrate the opening of a museum exhibition on Moroccan Jewish art that I helped research: The Invisible Museum: History and Memory of Morocco. It's open all this year until Jun 29, 2018, so if you're in the Bay Area I would highly recommend visiting it! Unfortunately there's no henna in the exhibit, but we do have some magnificent examples of the keswa el-kbira, the multilayered gold-and-velvet dress worn during the henna ceremony, which I've featured on this blog before

Moroccan henna dresses in the Magnes collection, on display in the exhibit.

In honour of my exhibit opening, thought I'd share a few examples of henna's early history among Moroccan Jews... I've already featured some Moroccan Jewish henna traditions on this blog before — see this post for a Moroccan Jewish henna song, first recorded in the 19th century; this post for a recipe for couscous with squash and onions, served at the henna ceremony; this post for a description of the Moroccan tradition of the kettab, a henna ceremony to celebrate the holiday of Shavu'ot and a child's entrance into school; and this post for the Moroccan Jewish custom of marking homes with a protective henna design.

But all of those examples are only traceable back to the 19th or early 20th centuries — that may seem like a long time ago, but it's comparatively recent given that Jews have been living in Morocco for at least two thousand years! What do we know of Moroccan Jewish henna in earlier centuries?

We can be sure that henna was grown and used throughout North Africa, perhaps as early as the 2nd century CE, and certainly during the Middle Ages. Early Muslim explorers found henna growing as far south as Mauritania by the 11th century, and documents from the Cairo Geniza document a robust trade in henna between North Africa, Egypt, and southern Europe.

One of the earliest documents to describe Jewish henna ceremonies in Morocco comes from a taqqana, or communal regulation, that was signed by a group of rabbis in Fes in 1618. These rabbis, like the community they served, were from families originally from Spain and Portugal who had been expelled (from Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1496), and who then resettled in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. They called themselves Sephardim (from Sepharad, the medieval Hebrew term for Iberia) or megorashim ("the expelled ones"), to distinguish themselves from the toshavim ("settled ones"), the indigenous Jewish communities of North Africa who were already living there. The upheaval and chaos of the expulsion and resettlement led to more than a century of intense restructuring of social norms, and continuous fighting to articulate and preserve the traditions of Iberian Jewish communities in exile, which is often articulated in these taqqanot.

Taqqanot of the megorashim of Fes, 1698 (JTS MS 3138). The designs
that look like square doodles are actually stylized rabbinic signatures.
This particular taqqana deals with the expectations and traditions around marriage, exhorting the Sephardic Jewish community of Fes to be modest in their wedding ceremonies, and not to spend money on extravagant and drawn-out celebrations. Of course, what we are particularly interested in is that it mentions henna:

We, the undersigned, scholars of this city, glorious Fes, gather here to offer an admonishment… with the advice and permission of our grand lord, the exalted nagid [communal leader] and honourable rabbi Ya‘aqov Rute, may the Merciful protect him… 
In these times, when each day brings a greater curse than the previous, through our many sins the waste of money is added to this, because of the people's customs to spend money during their celebrations, rich and poor alike, who increase these festive meals, and even non-Jews come to pillage from the spoils at these meals, and no-one has the power to stop them... Therefore we have seen fit to decree that every Jew living in this city who makes a festive meal for any celebration, whether engagement, marriage, circumcision, or redeeming the new firstborn, may host only one meal and may not make others…
[A groom] may not send the gift meal called
miryinda [from Spanish merienda, ‘lunch, taste’] to the bride’s house on the Shabbat before the wedding, and the fiancé also may not send gifts to his fiancée on the 9th and 10th of Av... 
Furthermore, the groom may not send alhinya [henna, from Spanish alheña, itself from Arabic al-hinna] to the bride’s house for the purpose of the wedding, except by one woman only, and he may not send with her any gifts of treats or drinks except curds and honey...
We have agreed and sworn to fulfill this, with the agreement and permission of our masters and lords, in the last ten days of the month of Tevet, in the year "May the Holy One bless Your people with PEACE" of creation [5378, which corresponds to January 1618], here in the city of Fes, may the Holy One establish it well, Amen.

"Jewish Wedding in Morocco," Eugene Delacroix, 1841.
While this document may only mention henna briefly, it nonetheless tells us a lot about the place of henna in Moroccan Sephardic society in the early 17th century. First, we can see that it is clearly a tradition with which the Sephardim were familiar with from medieval Spain, since they refer to it by a Spanish name, alhinya, and in the company of other Spanish-named practices like the merienda. Second, the rabbis' concern about extravagance and expense testifies to the important place of weddings in local culture, and the lengths to which people would go in these celebrations, including henna.

Moroccan woman, 1695, from
Pidou de Saint Olon.
In particular, we can see that the henna was not only an essential part of the wedding preparations, but that it was one of a whole suite of rituals, ceremonies, and festive meals that expanded to fill the entire week of the wedding and perhaps more. We also learn that it was customary for the groom to provide henna to the bride, sending it with designated women along with some sweet treats — a tradition the rabbis felt was important enough to preserve, even if limited to a single henna bearer.

This is an important glimpse into early modern Moroccan henna traditions, almost a century before than the oldest European description of Moroccan henna (by the French traveller and diplomat François Pidou de Saint Olon in 1695). Unfortunately, there is much that this source leaves unsaid — what would a henna design have looked like in 17th-century Morocco? This source says nothing of what the bride would do with the henna once she received it. Were there differences in the henna traditions of the toshavim and the megorashim? How similar was this ceremony, in fact, to how henna traditions were practiced in pre-expulsion Spain — or was it perhaps alike in name only? And how were Jewish henna ceremonies similar or different to those of their Muslim neighbours? We may never be able to fully answer these questions... But each small piece of evidence brings us a little closer.

If you want to hear more about the history of henna, your next opportunity is to join hundreds of other artists at HennaCon, Oct. 12-15 in Ventura County, California. Last I heard there were only 5 tickets left for HennaCon, and perhaps fewer now! So if you have the chance, grab your ticket soon — and see you in California!

Further Reading

  • Shalom Bar-Asher, Yehudei Sefarad uPortugal beMaroqo 1492-1753: sefer hataqanot [Spanish and Portuguese Jews in Morocco 1492-1753: the book of decrees] (Jerusalem, 1990).
  • Esther Benbassa and Aron Rodrigue, Sephardi Jewry: A History of the Judeo-Spanish Community, 14th-20th Centuries (University of California Press, 1993).
  • Jane Gerber, Jewish Society in Fez 1450-1700: Studies in Communal and Economic Life (Brill, 1980).
  • Jonathan Ray, After Expulsion: 1492 and the Making of Sephardic Jewry (NYU Press, 2013).

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