Thursday, January 30, 2014

Henna in the Academy: Upcoming Presentation Schedule

I'm very grateful and excited to have the opportunity to present papers at three academic conferences this spring, so I thought it might interest people to know where I'll be and to get a glimpse of what my more formal academic work looks like. It's one thing for me to write blogposts and teach at henna conferences, which is certainly lots of fun, and another thing altogether to be able to frame my work as a productive area of research in current academic discourse — still fun, but challenging in a different way. I am, and have always been, so grateful to have the opportunity to research henna formally, and I hope that my work proves to be of benefit to all — henna artists, the academy, the Jewish community, and anyone interested in how religion, history, bodies, and art intersect. 

I don't know if the conferences are open to the public (I doubt it), but of course, if I'll be in your town, I'd be happy to meet up! I should also note that in between these conferences I will also be teaching at the Henna Gathering, March 28-30, in Hartford, CT!

I've copied the titles and abstracts below... I hope this gives you a little taste of what an academic analysis of henna looks like. If you're particularly interested in one of the papers, the conference proceedings might be published, and there may be another way to get it to you.


February 20-21: University of Indiana-Bloomington

“Not a Single Memory Left”: 
Jewish henna and the malleability of memory
Many Jewish weddings, in Israel as well as North America, include a ceremony known as the “henna night” (leil haḥinna). These ceremonies today are largely practiced by Jews of non-European origin — the Jewish communities of North Africa, the Levant and Mediterranean basin, and Western, Central and Southern Asia — although they have spread to Ashkenazi communities as well. The discourse around (and during) henna ceremonies appeals to memory as a crucial factor in their continued importance. Participants are instructed to ‘remember the traditions’ and applauded for their work in ‘keeping the memories alive.’ At the same time, it is clear that the form of these ceremonies has undergone a process of evolution, modification and reinterpretation over time, especially in the past six decades since the ‘aliya of these communities. This paper explores what is being remembered, what is being forgotten, and what it means for young Jews to remember places they have never seen.

Moroccan henna night, Israel, 2010
In this paper I argue that these ceremonies demonstrate how memory is not so much a telling of ‘the past as it was,’ as it is a telling of ‘the past as it might have been’ — that is, the effect of memory constructs its truth through cultural serviceability rather than historical accuracy. This paper will probe the nature of Jewish cultural memory, and the relationship between memory and cultural change, through a close reading of data collected in research on contemporary henna ceremonies, including observations at henna ceremonies in Israel and North America, conversations with the participants and hosts, and interviews with henna organizers. A comparison between historical records of Jewish henna ceremonies in texts and pictures, and henna ceremonies as currently performed, shows that the contemporary ceremony differs significantly from its predecessors in both material and theoretical aspects. The narratives of participants and organizers alike acknowledge their own role in reshaping and recreating new traditions while at the same time insisting on their role in preserving and passing on the importance of ethnic and cultural memory.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Henna in Herat (and Beyond): Jewish Henna Traditions of Afghanistan


In looking over my blog history the other day, I noticed that it’s been over a month since I shared anything about Jewish henna traditions. This is supposed to be a blog about Jewish henna research… That won’t do at all!

In my Arabic class I’ve recently befriended the two students who sit behind me, both lovely undergraduates who happen to have an Afghani background. They were very interested to hear that there was a Jewish community in Afghanistan and I brought in some books to show them. So why not make a blogpost about it?

A Judeo-Persian business letter
from the Afghan Geniza, 1021 CE
There have been Jews in Afghanistan for over a thousand years. Last year the Israel Museum announced that they have purchased (to date) 29 documents from the “Afghan Geniza,” a collection of hundreds of fragmentary Jewish documents found in a cave in northwestern Afghanistan. 

The manuscripts, in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Persian, date to the early 11th century CE; the museum has already kindly put scans of them online. As they are translated and published, they will hopefully help complete the picture of Afghani Jewish life in the Middle Ages.

The Afghani Jewish community numbered well into the tens of thousands in the 19th century, and centres of Jewish life included Herat, Kabul, Qandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, and Maimana. The Jewish population dropped rapidly in the 20th century as Jews began emigrating to Israel, the UK, and the Americas, especially after a wave of anti-Jewish violence in the 1870s, the Russian revolution in 1917, and then World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel. 

The Soviet invasion in 1979 was essentially the final blow to the community; today, there is famously one Jew left in Afghanistan, by the name of Zablon Simintov (the second-last Jew, Yitzhaq Levy, who had a falling-out with Simintov, died in 2005).

Interior of Mulla-e Yoav synagogue, Herat, 1973
Culturally, the Jews of Afghanistan had close ties with their fellow Judeo-Persian speakers in Iran, especially the Jews of Mashhad (about whom I’ve written before), many of whom fled to Afghanistan in 1839, as well as the Bukhari Jews of Central Asia (today Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan).

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Practicing the Evil Arts of Luxury: Henna in Early Christian Literature


I’ve just come back from a wonderful vacation on the West Coast. While I was in San Francisco I took a tour of the San Francisco Botanical Garden, which includes a ‘Plants of the Ancient Mediterranean’ section — I was disappointed to see that there was no henna!
I had a good talk afterwards with our tour guide, who specializes in botany of the ancient world, about the history of henna and some of the different sources for studying it.

One area that I’ve recently begun researching is the writings of the early leaders of the Christian community, known as the Church Fathers, many of whom lived in North Africa and the Levant. Several Church Fathers attempted to establish standards of modest dress and adornment for their Christian followers, and in their writings they vehemently denounce both men and women for what they saw as excessive pride and vanity.

In doing so, they describe how the people in their communities would dress and adorn themselves, providing a window into the world of late Roman North Africa. It has to be taken with some grains of salt, to be sure — they were likely exaggerating and modifying their descriptions for the sake of argument. But while we can’t take their writing at face value, we may still be able to learn something about the dress and adornment of early North African Christian communities.

None of them, as far as I can tell, specifically mentions henna. However, many of them do allude to dyeing the hair, and especially reddening, which can be interpreted to refer to henna. We know that the Greeks and Romans knew of the use of henna as a hair dye and several pre-Christian writers describe this specifically. For example, the Greek botanist Dioscorides (1st century CE) writes (De Materia Medica 1.124) that henna [kupros] is a small shrub that grows in Judea and Egypt, and the ground leaves can be mixed with soapwort to dye the hair [xanthizei de kai trikhas strouthiou khylo ta phylla leia]. He describes the colour of hennaed hair as xanthos, which can refer to yellow, gold, orange, or even auburn.

Yep, totally a 'Rufus'.
Roman bust of Venus, 1st-2nd century CE
The great Roman scientist Pliny, in his Latin treatise on natural history (NH 23.46), repeats Dioscorides’ observations in his entry on henna [cyprus], describing the colour of hennaed hair as rufus, ‘red’ [ipsa rufant capillum]. Thus it is a reasonable assumption that henna is a plausible assumption for Church Fathers writing about dyeing the hair, especially if they describe the colour as xanthos (if they are writing in Greek) or rufus (in Latin).