Friday, May 29, 2015

The History of Harqus: Temporary Facial Decoration in North Africa

I’ve been swamped with thesis research and planning my upcoming move (!) so I apologize if posts have not been coming as regularly. My thesis (on demons in North African Judaism) has also brought up lots of interesting material on henna, so hopefully I can share some of that over the next few posts.

For now, though, I’d like to address an issue which has been floating around the internet for a while: the North African facial art known as ḥarqūs. I’ve seen a few posts on my tumblr referencing it with some misconceptions, so I thought I’d take some time to clarify things and offer some primary sources (both texts and images!).

The entry for ḥarqus from Belkassem Ben Sedira's Arabic-French dictionary (Algeria), 1882.

To begin with, how do we spell it? In standard academic transcription, the Arabic word حرقوس would be written as ḥarqūs, although in some areas of the Maghreb it was pronounced closer to hargus (or hargous in French spelling). Other spellings, like harkus (or harkous) or harkos, are encountered as well. Catherine Cartwright-Jones, who has put some material about it on her site, spells it harquus (with two u’s), following the transliteration system of al-Kitaab, the Georgetown Arabic textbook commonly used for Introductory Arabic throughout the United States, which recommends doubled letters to represent long vowels. While the “two u” spelling has become common on the internet, I prefer not to use it for two main reasons: it does not follow scholarly convention, and it confuses people about the pronunciation (I’ve heard people say “harkwus”). In this post I'll use ḥarqus, except in quotations, where I'll keep whatever spelling the author used. Basically it should be pronounced har-KUS, with a rough ‘h,’ a back-of-the-throat ‘k’ or ‘q,’ and a long ‘u’ as in goose.

Now that we've covered how to spell it and say it, let’s turn to what it is (and is not). Ḥarqus refers to a black ink used for painting the face and hands with small temporary designs. These designs are often very similar (or even identical) to the tattoo designs common in the same areas of North Africa… But ḥarqus is not a tattoo, and the word ḥarqus does not refer to tattooing! Tattooing is known generally as washm or usham in Moroccan Arabic, although many of the tattoos actually have their own names based on the placement and motif (see Herber 1948). It’s true that there is some relationship between them — many designs, as I mentioned, were done both with ḥarqus and tattoo, and tattoo artists also applied ḥarqus (although ḥarqus was also done by individuals at home).

"Fatima and Manoubia applying makeup," Alexandre
Roubtzoff, Tunis, 1917.
But before I get too distracted by tattooing traditions (which are well deserving of their own post), let’s get back to ḥarqus. The word itself is unusual in that it has four root letters; Herber suggests that the word itself ultimately derives from the Greek khalkos, ‘copper,’ although I suspect it is related to the root ḥrq, ‘to burn.’ In some Amazigh communities it was known as tanast.

Ḥarqus is essentially a gall ink, made from the tannic acid of oak galls and iron or copper sulfate, which produces a intensely deep black ink, lasting for a few days on living skin and permanent on parchment (a very similar ink is used in Jewish communities to this day for writing Torah scrolls). It was (and is still) used throughout the Maghreb, mainly Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia; a similar cosmetic was also used in the Arabic peninsula, known there as khiḍab (another subject for a future blogpost). When made at home, poorer women sometimes used just a simple mixture of soot and oil, but ‘professional’ recipes for ḥarqus show the variety of organic and non-organic ingredients:

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The First Indian Mehndi Design? Rare Henna in a Mughal Painting

The things I do for you, dear readers! This blogpost almost got me thrown out of a museum… But such is the life of a henna researcher.

The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto
This week I went to the Aga Khan Museum, a phenomenal new museum of Islamic art (a must-see for anyone visiting Toronto!) sponsored by the current leader of the Ismaili Muslim community, His Highness Shah Karim Aga Khan IV

A 300-million dollar project (including an adjacent community centre), the museum displays thousands of artifacts from across the Islamic world, including textiles, ceramics, metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, and Qur’ans.

In particular, I was interested in the special exhibit, “Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin” — paintings and drawings from India, 1550-1850, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) from the private collection of British abstract artist Howard Hodgkin. I suspected that there might be some interesting examples of henna… And I was right!

This is a crucial period in the history of Indian henna (and by "India" here I mean the entire Indian subcontinent, of course, not only the modern political state). It seems likely that the use of henna for body art was introduced to India by the Mughals, a Persianate dynasty that entered India in 1526; and we know that by the 20th century henna art was being done in India in patterns — so the origins of Indian henna patterns must lie somewhere in between! But when? Indian mehndi art is one of the most well-known traditions of henna art today — but as a historian, I'd love to know how far back we can trace it.