Thursday, September 12, 2013

Resistance is Futile: Henna in Reverse, Part II

This is part two of the series that we began last week investigating sap and wax resists. Those techniques use a liquid mixture that is drawn on the skin and dries, while the techniques we’re looking at in this post use malleable materials like fabric and dough to shape the designs that will block the henna.

One basic type of this resist uses a simple dough (flour and water) that can be rolled out into thin strands and arranged on the skin. One example of this technique comes from the descriptions of Bahraini wedding ceremonies in the 1970s recorded in Holes’ work on Bahraini Arabic dialects (2005, pg. 164):

Over the following two days [before the wedding] a specialist woman artist (xaḍḍaba [lit. painter]) applied henna to her palms, fingers and feet. This process was called ḥannat ‘ağin [dough henna]. A thin dough would be rolled, twisted and applied to the bride's skin in geometric patterns, leaving some of the skin bare. The red henna dye was then applied to the dough and skin and allowed to dry overnight. In the morning the dough was removed, leaving the henna pattern on the skin. The process was repeated on the third night, known as lēlat il-ḥanna, in order to make the henna tattoos [sic] stand out even more clearly. During these two days, special ditties accompanied the laborious process of decorating the bride.

This technique is apparently still practiced in the Arabian peninsula today; Penni AlZayer described it as she saw it being done in the 1990s in a rural village in al-Sharqiyya, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. She writes that the hennaya [henna artist] worked by “rolling bits of dough from the bowl beside her into very long thin strings,” and then she “arranged and pressed simple spirals and geometric patterns first onto the palms of the bride’s hands and then the soles of her feet” (AlZayer, 2005, pg. 4). After the patterns were finished, the hennaya covered the bride’s hands and feet with henna paste and let it dry.

Kurdish Jewish woman shaping bread dough,
Israel, mid-20th century
Interestingly, a similar technique was practiced by the Jewish community in Sandor (or Sundur), a small village in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. An elderly immigrant from Sandor described the patterns, including celestial imagery in the palm and spirals around the fingers, that she remembered from her wedding in the 1920s (Sienna, 2011, pg. 88):

They would draw here [in the palm], like a moon, a beautiful drawing. [Noam: how would they do it?] They would make a dough, take dough, and put it on a little bit at a time. They would do it here [on the hands], whatever designs they wanted, and then they would put henna on over it... And then they would do the fingers, one by one, a little dough here [in a spiral], so that it would look nice. [The woman doing the henna] would bring the dough, take a little bit, roll it out thinly, thinly, and then put it on the hands, and then henna [on top]. And then [when it was dry] she would wrap [the bride's hands] up in cloth, so that she wouldn't move [and smudge the henna]. It would come out so beautiful, bright red, a strong colour.

While Henny Harald Hansen describes a Kurdish bride with palms “painted with a sun, a crescent moon and a star” (1961, pg. 130), it is not clear whether that was done with a resist or whether it was simply drawn on the skin. No other description of henna from this region includes reference to a dough resist, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the technique was known and used by women in Turkey and Pakistan as well. 

Another basic type of resist is using strings that can be wrapped around hands and feet to create striking geometric designs. It was recorded fairly early by European travellers in the Middle East; the French naturalist Charles Sigisbert Sonnini described it in Egypt in the 1770s (1798, pp. 293-294):

Des femmes Egyptiennes enchérissent encore sur la coutume générale: elles se peignent aussi les doigts, par espaces seulement et afin que la couleur ne prenne pas par-tout, elles les enveloppent avec du fil, de distance en distance, avant d’y appliquer la pâte colorante, en sorte que l’opération terminée, elles ont les doigts marqués circulairement dans leur longueur de petites bands orangées.
The Egyptian women add an additional enhancement to the general custom [of hennaed hands]: they also paint their fingers, space by space only; in order that the colour does not stain everywhere they wrap their fingers with a string, at intervals, before applying the coloring paste there, such that when the operation is finished, they have fingers marked circularly along their length with little orange bands.

Robert Mignan, a British military officer, claims to have seen a similar technique used in Sulemaniyya, Kurdistan, in the 1820s, although his language is so similar to Sonnini’s that it is unclear how far we can trust his account (1835, pg. 619). 

Mary Eliza Rogers, sister of the British consul at Damascus and a devout Christian, spent several years living and travelling in Ottoman Palestine. She describes regular henna use by all groups in the area: Arab Christians (Rogers, 1862, pg. 117), Bedouins (ibid., pg. 173), Arab Muslims (pg. 229), Samaritans (pg. 247), and Jews (pg. 314). Generally the henna was applied solidly to hands and feet, but she also describes string resist used to create patterns for special occasions, in this case for an Arab Christian wedding (Rogers, 1862, pg. 96; emphasis in original):

There are women who make the beautifying of brides their especial profession! A widow woman, named Angelina, is the chief artiste in this department of art in Haifa... The arms and hands, legs and feet, are bandaged with narrow tape or braid, like sandals, crossing and re-crossing each other; then a paste made of moistened henna powder (the pulverised leaves of the henna tree - Lawsonia) is spread and bound over them, and allowed to remain on for several hours. When it is removed, the skin is found deeply dyed wherever the tape (which is now unwound) did not protect it; thus a sort of chequered pattern is produced, and when it is artistically and delicately done (as Angelina can do it), the feet look, at a distance, as if they were sandalled, and the hands, as if they were covered with mittens of a bright orange or bronze colour.

Christian bride from Nazareth, early 20th century.
From the Library of Congress, Matson Collection.
Amazingly, a photo depicting this exact technique has survived, from the photography collection of the American Colony, a Christian community in Jerusalem, whose members Elijah Meyers and Eric Matson developed an interest in photography and took thousands of pictures of life in the Holy Land (currently in the Library of Congress). The photograph was taken sometime between 1900-1920 in Nazareth, and depicts a Christian bride with her family. Her hands are elaborately checkered to the wrist by the strings, and her sister’s fingers are hennaed with a simple resist.

Close-up of above picture, Christian bride in Nazareth (early 20th century), showing hands hennaed with string resist.

This technique was used in North Africa as well. Emily Keene, a British woman who married into Moroccan nobility, describes the process of hennaing a bride in Ouazzane (1912, pg. 126):

For the feet, sandals are simulated by first arranging calico straps on the foot and round the base of the big toe. The henna paste is applied with care so as not to mar the symmetry of the straps; once the foot is well covered with paste, white cloths are wrapped round, and over that thick woolen ones. These coverings are not removed for several hours, when the paste generally comes off with the coverings. The rolled calico is removed, and a red-brown sandalled foot is presented.

She notes that the design is often augmented with harqus [a black paint made from gall ink], and that the hands can be also hennaed by “a professional stainer” who will draw patterns with henna itself (Keene, 1912, pp. 126-127). String resists were also used by the Jewish community of Fes, who would create simple designs by wrapping strings around the fingers before applying the henna (Malka, 1939, pg. 314).

Bride and mother, Djerba, 1983
Keren Tziona Friedman, Magnes Museum.
The Tunisian Jewish community, in particular, was known for their string resists. The technique was used in major cities on the mainland, as well as on the island of Djerba. As described in Ben-Hur (1964), the bride was hennaed first by her mother-in-law, and then the following day again by a professional artist. The artist may have gone over the string lines from the previous day, or perhaps created a multi-toned design; it is not specified. The bride would sleep with the henna and strings overnight (one author notes that the strings are sometimes wrapped so tightly that the bride lies awake all night, unable to sleep from the pain, “and the mother cannot do anything lest she mess up the henna”, Haddad, 1980, pg. 126). In the morning, the women come to the bride’s house to check if the henna came out nicely; if it is good, they kiss her fingers and praise her beauty (Ben-Hur, 1964, pg. 36). If the colour is not strong enough, then they henna her again; all in all, the bride is hennaed about four or five times over the course of a week.

The Jews of Djerba, one of the few Jewish communities to remain in the Islamic world post-1948, continued this tradition well into the 20th century, and photographers in the 1970s and 1980s show brides in Djerba with hands and feet hennaed with this traditional string resist — for example, this photo by Keren Tzionah Friedman (1980; see also, e.g. Valensi, 1984, pg. 26).

Close-ups of above photo showing hands and feet hennaed with string resist, Djerba, 1983.
Photo by Keren Tziona Friedman.

A word about tape resists: in the 1960s, the string and sap resists of North Africa began being replaced by resist work done with thin strips of medical or electrical tape. Simard (1996, pg. 138) suggests that this began in Tagant, Mauritania, a region famous for its henna (see Khalifa, 1998, pp. 275-277). Described extensively in Tauzin (1998, pp. 39-42, pictures passim), the elaborate designs created by these artists often take hours to apply. Some pictures of the process of Mauritanian tape resist are here. Similarly, Spurles describes tape resists in contemporary Morocco (called skotsh, ‘scotch [tape]’, in colloquial/Darija Arabic), made of strips of electrical tape punched with round and diamond holes. The strips are often purchased as stencils and reused among friends and neighbours (Spurles, 2004, pg. 151, picture pg. 152).

Nonetheless, string resists are still practiced today! Carol Lowery Delaney records this technique being used in the 1980s in a rural village in Turkey for the bride’s feet, where “a piece of string is wound between two middle toes, up and crossed over the instep, and around the ankle and tied in front,” and henna is then spread over her feet and wrapped up. Some women commented that it resembles the mest, leather shoes, that men wear to the mosque (1991, pg. 140). Arlene Brill describes the same technique in a village in southwestern Turkey, still used today to henna hands and feet (Cartwright-Jones 2005).

Resist work — whether done with wax, sap, dough, string, tape, or another material — is a simple way to create visually striking designs, and it's also a great way to use up chunky or older henna. I hope that these sources and pictures will inspire people to explore these old traditions and continue to keep them alive in new ways.

Ben-Hur (Haddad), Ephraim. 1964 Minhagei ḥatuna beJerba [Wedding customs in Djerba]. Yeda-‘Am, Vol. X, No. 28.
Cartwright-Jones, Catherine, and Arlene Brill. 2005 Turkish Village Henna: Cord Resist. The Henna Page: Encyclopedia of Henna, Henna Page Publications, available online.
Delaney, Carol Lowery. 1991 The Seed and the Soil: gender and cosmology in Turkish village society. University of California Press.
Friedman, Keren Tzionah. “Jews of Djerba - Smiling Woman in Red.” Photograph, accession no. 97.20.3, Magnes Museum.
Haddad, Bo‘az. 1980 Sefer Jerba Yehudit [The Book of Jewish Djerba]. Jerusalem: Beit haOtzar haIvri.
Hansen, Henny Harald. 1961 The Kurdish Woman's Life: Field Research in a Muslim Society, Iraq. Copenhagen: Nationalmuseet.
Holes, Clive. 2005 Dialect, Culture, and Society in Eastern Arabia, Vol. 2 (Ethnographic Texts). Brill.
Keene, Emily. 1912 My Life Story: by Emily, Shareefa of Wazan. London: Edward Arnold.
Khalifa, Abdallah Ould. 1998 La Région du Tagant en Mauritanie: l’oasis de Tijigja entre 1660 et 1960 [The region of Tagant in Mauritania: the oasis of Tijigja between 1660 and 1960]. Paris: Éditions Khartala.
Malka, Elie, and Louis Brunot. 1939 Textes judéo-arabes de Fes [Judeo-Arabic texts of Fes]. Paris: École du Livre.
Mignan, Robert. 1835 Journal of a Tour through Georgia, Persia, and Mesopotamia. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. 4, pp. 602-620.
Rogers, Mary Eliza. 1862 Domestic Life in Palestine. London: Bell and Daldy.
Sienna, Noam. 2011 Old Patterns, New Skin: Jewish henna ceremonies and the politics of heritage. BA thesis, Brandeis University.
Simard, Gisèle. 1996 Petites Commerçantes de Mauritanie: voiles, perles, et henné [Small-scale Merchants of Mauritania: veils, pearls, and henna]. Paris: Éditions Khartala.
Sonnini, Charles Sigisbert. 1798 Voyage dans la haute et basse Égypte fait par ordre de l'ancien gouvernement [Voyage in Upper and Lower Egypt, taken by order of the former government], Vol. 1. Paris: F. Buisson.
Spurles, Patricia Kelly. 2004 Henna for Brides and Gazelles: Ritual, Women’s Work, and Tourism in Morocco. PhD. thesis. Université de Montréal.
Tauzin, Aline. 1998 Le Henné: art des femmes de Mauritanie [Henna: art of Mauritanian women]. Paris: Ibis Press.
Valensi, Lucette, and Abraham Udovitch. 1984 Juifs en Terre d'Islam: les communautés de Djerba [Jews in the Land of Islam: the communities of Djerba]. Paris: Éditions Archives contemporaines.
AlZayer, Penni. 2005 Lailet al Hinna fi Sharq’ia [sic]: Night of the Henna in Sharq’ia.  The Henna Page: Encyclopedia of Henna, Henna Page Publications, available online.

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