Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book Review: Nomi Eve's "Henna House"

A few years ago, I got an email from a woman who was interested in Yemenite Jewish henna traditions. We corresponded for some time but after our last email I forgot about the encounter… Until a friend sent me a link to a new book coming out about a family of Jewish henna artists in Yemen, and I was thrilled to see that my old correspondent had in fact finished her book! I finally received a copy and read it through, and I’m delighted to be able to share my thoughts here.

Reading Henna House, with henna,
of course! (My henna by Darcy Vasudev).
Henna House begins in Yemen in the early 1920s, and by the end has taken us to the early State of Israel in the 1970s. It follows Adela Damari, a Temani girl whose life is changed when she meets relatives of hers who are henna artists. It is a story, as the back cover describes, “of love, loss, betrayal, forgiveness, and the dyes that adorn the skin and pierce the heart.” 

The book is well-researched, and peppered throughout with references to significant items, events, and traditions of Yemenite (or Temani) Jewry. The gargush [Temani headdress] and jahnun [savoury pastry], the Jewish refugees in Aden and the confiscation of Jewish orphans, the lulwi dress for burial and the martial arts of Habbani Jews, all make appearances. 

And of course, the henna! Henna is the central motif of the book and is a constant thread from beginning to end. Jewish henna traditions get such little press, and I’m so thrilled to have this wonderful novel devoted to them. I’m not thrilled with the occasional appearance of the word ‘tattoo’ to describe henna designs, especially in a Jewish context, but this is more of an editorial quibble than a deep criticism. 

Henna House does an excellent job of describing the complex process of the wax-resist technique used by Yemenite Jews, where the designs are drawn not in henna but in hot wax over the background of lightly-hennaed skin. It also includes lots of tidbits about the way that henna was integrated into Jewish life; for example, how unmarried Jewish girls were generally discouraged from wearing patterned henna (pg. 73).

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ya Mashta: A Moroccan Jewish Henna Song

I helped facilitate a wonderful henna ceremony last week for a mixed Yemenite-Moroccan Jewish couple. One of the things we included was the singing and reading of several chants for the henna ceremony from various Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish communities. The bride’s mother was particularly moved by one of them and I thought I would share it on the blog.

I call the song “Ya Mashta,” after its opening words — although, as we shall see, there are several versions — which means, “O Dresser.” 

A Muslim woman having her hair braided, Ida Ou Blal
(southern Morocco), circa 1934. Photo by Jean Besancenot.
The mashta or masta (derived from the formal Arabic mashiṭa, ‘hairdresser’) was the woman who was responsible for the bride’s adornments, including her hair, her cosmetics, her jewelry, and of course, her henna. The mashta was already established as a respected female profession in the Middle Ages, for both Jews and Muslims (see, e.g., Shatzmiller 1994, pp. 171 and 354, and the fatwas of al-Wansharisi discussed here).

I have been able to locate several published texts of this song; Joseph Chétrit claims that “it is likely the oldest and most widely-spread Judeo-Arabic wedding song among the Jews of Morocco” (pg. 260). It appears for the first time in a manuscript written by Shlomo Tuv-Elem, a rabbi from Tétouan in northern Morocco, circa 1827. 

It was also published by Ruben Tadjouri in the version of Rabat-Salé in 1923, and of Fes in 1946 by Elie Malka (unfortunately only in translation). Two versions of it as recalled by elderly informants appear in Chétrit’s collection, both from southern Morocco: one from Taroudant, and one from Ighil-n-Ogho (Chétrit 2003; Dar'i 2003).

The longest version being Tuv-Elem’s, I have numbered its stanzas 1-15, using letters A-H to indicate additional or variant stanzas in the other versions. I don’t want to assume that the oldest version is the ‘truest’ (a problematic methodology, which ignores how traditions evolve within communities) and I actually prefer some of the verses of the later versions, but Tuv-Elem’s is the longest and it made the most sense to number it that way. All versions begin with the same opening (with some dialectical variation, i.e. the pronounciation of mashta as masta or even maṣta):

Stanza 1:
Ya mashta, mashti dlalha / l‘arosa rayḥa ldarha
O dresser, dress her hair / the bride is going to her house.