Friday, October 14, 2016

The Hennaed Dove: Henna in Palestinian Culture

Why does the dove always have henna on her feet? Because when Noah sent forth a raven and a dove from the Ark, the raven never came back. Therefore this curse was put upon him: “May your face be black as night”… But the dove returned, and therefore Noah blessed her with every blessing, saying, “May you every month have a pair of young ones” and “May your face forever shine white.” And since that time the dove is born with henna on her feet. — Palestinian folktale, recorded by Crowfoot and Baldensperger (1932)
Palestinian henna has been in the news recently… First, it was Gigi Hadid, who had a henna party last winter and posted a picture on Instagram with the caption that she was “half-Palestinian and proud of it.” Then there was this viral video about an artist in Gaza who uses henna to create landscape paintings. And last month, a friend linked me to this article on Al-Monitor about another henna artist working in Gaza. While the article itself is interesting enough, it quotes self-appointed “expert historian” Naser al-Yafawi with some questionable ‘facts’ about the history of henna… So I thought I’d devote a blogpost to documenting actual sources for the history of henna in Palestinian culture.

Of course, political struggles and intense ideological disagreements make it difficult to discuss any topic related to Palestinian culture, even down to what to call the area under discussion. I’m going to try my best to take a balanced and objective stance in this post, but I apologize if I’ve offended any of my readers, and I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments.

The area we’re dealing with, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, north of Egypt and south of Lebanon, today comprises the political entities of Syria, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. In the ancient world, this area was home to a variety of Semitic tribes, known as Canaanites, as well as the Israelites (whom most scholars consider to be Canaanites themselves), the ancestors of the Jewish people. 

Henna is mentioned in a small number of Canaanite and Israelite texts, indicating that it was known and used in the region: in the myth cycle of Ba‘al and ‘Anath, a Canaanite text discovered at Ugarit (today in northwest Syria), the goddess ‘Anath is described as using henna as she prepares to rescue her brother-husband from the god of Death, Mot. In the TaNaKh [Hebrew Bible], in Song of Songs, the henna plant is mentioned as growing at ‘Ein Gedi (an oasis near the Dead Sea), and it seems that its sweet-smelling flowers were valued as a source of perfume. Later Greek and Roman authors confirm that henna was grown in the region, mentioning in particular the henna of Ascalon (today Ashkelon, just north of Gaza), and the Mishnah (codified around 200 CE) specifies that henna is considered an agricultural product of the Land of Israel.

The henna plant in From Cedar to Hyssop:
A Study in the Folklore of Plants in Palestine
In the Middle Ages, henna became an important economic commodity that was traded throughout the Mediterranean; it was used as a dye as well as in medicine. Henna is mentioned in a number of documents from the Cairo Genizah as being imported into the Levant and southern Europe, primarily from North Africa. In one eleventh-century letter, a Jewish merchant is described as bringing henna from Tyre (today Ṣur, Lebanon) to sell in Jerusalem (Goitein 1980). The 15th-century Syrian physician Taqi al-Din al-Badri al-Dimashqi does note that henna was cultivated in the Jordan Valley (Lev and Amar 2004), although documents from Ramle show that henna was imported there from Egypt in the 16th century (Lewis and Cohen 1978).

By the early modern period, the population of this region (a province of the Ottoman Empire) was a very diverse group, including: Arab Christians and Muslims who were descendants of earlier inhabitants, as well as those who had settled during the many centuries of Muslim rule; the migratory Bedouin, who ranged across the deserts of Ottoman Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; communities of Christians who had settled there after reaching the Holy Land on pilgrimage, including Egyptian Copts, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and others; Arabic-speaking Jews who traced their origin to the Jews of ancient Judea who had avoided the Roman Exile; Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews who had settled there after the expulsion from Spain in the late 15th century; Jews who had migrated there in the late Ottoman period from Eastern Europe, Yemen, and Central Asia; and many others. Many of these communities incorporated henna into their traditions of celebration and lifecycle ceremonies, as well as a cosmetic for daily use.

Rahlo (Rachel) Jammele, a Sephardi Jew from Jerusalem, and
dancer at the 1893 World's Fair, with hennaed nails.
Like in other cases, most of the sources about Palestinian henna traditions are from the 19th and early 20th century. Many European travellers to the Middle East noted seeing henna used in the Holy Land, and some (luckily for us) recorded detailed descriptions. Sarah Barclay Johnson, daughter of a prominent American missionary, described her visit to a Turkish bathhouse in Jerusalem in the 1850s, and explained the process of henna dyeing with a wax resist. The wealthy Arab women she saw visiting the bath had their hands hennaed by slaves, who drew floral designs on hands and feet. The wax mixture was warmed in a small bowl and then applied with a small metal rod that she compares to a knitting needle — perhaps a kohl stick — and then covered in henna. She writes (Johnson 1858):
"During the bath, slaves had busied themselves in making preparations for dyeing the hands of their mistresses with henna. A vessel of melted wax, rosin, and other ingredients unknown to me, was at hand, with which, by means of a steel wire resembling a knitting-needle, the slave traced the outlines of flowers and all kinds of curious figures on the outstretched hand of her mistress. The spaces between the figures were then filled up with this softened mixture, and after allowing it to be hardened, a large lump of henna made into dough was pasted over her hand, and the whole bound up, mummy-like, with several thicknesses of linen. The poor creature must allow her hands to remain in this helpless state a day and night; but no doubt feels amply rewarded for her pains on beholding the delicate orange-brown tracery on removing the dough, wax, and bandages. The feet are dyed in the same manner; and in summer, great pride is felt in the display of these unique slippers."
She adds that the stain lasts for about a month, and as soon as the henna begins to fade the process is repeated! I imagine that these floral patterns were probably similar to the kinds of arabesque designs common in embroidery, ceramic tiling, and other crafts in this region. Unfortunately I have not yet found any pictures or photographs that show this style of pattern, but one photograph, taken around 1930 by the British archaeologist Olga Tufnell, does show a Bedouin woman in the Negev desert with geometric henna patterns done with a resist, possibly with this same wax technique.

Bedouin woman showing her henna, Negev, ca. 1930,
photo by Olga Tufnell (from Weir 1989).
One interesting use of henna in the Levant (including not only Ottoman Palestine but also Syria, Jordan, and parts of Iraq) was as an offering at saints’ shrines, hundreds of which dotted the landscape and were revered by Muslims and Christians, as well as some Jews. Visitors to the shrine would paint the walls with henna, leaving the prints of fingers and hands as well as triangles, stripes, or other simple designs.

In the late 19th century, French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau visited a shrine for “Shaykh Suleyman” in the village of Deir al-Hawa (destroyed in 1948), where the lintel was coated in henna. The women explained to him that they would make a vow, “I will bring so much henna to the wely [saint], one, two, or three piastres’ worth of henna, if my child recovers,” and then when the child recovered they would bring the henna and anoint the door of the sanctuary with it (Clermont-Ganneau 1899). 

Similarly, American theologian Samuel Curtiss observed that “at the Fountain of the Virgin in Nazareth there is an evident identification of the Virgin as a [local saint]. Both Moslems [sic] and Christians term the Virgin en-Nasariyeh, the feminine form signifying Nazarene. Moslem women vow to her a splotch of henna, while Christian women represent their vow by crosses of henna. Daubs and crosses are placed inside the arch, as may be seen from any clear photograph” (Curtiss 1904).

Henna designs on walls of the shrine to Shaykh Samet, in Ṣar‘a (near Jerusalem),
from McCown, "Muslim Shrines in Palestine" (1922).
Henna was a marker of lifecycle celebrations from beginning to end; it first appeared at circumcision, usually (but not always) celebrated around the time of a boy’s birth. In the depiction of rural Palestinian life by the Finnish anthropologist Hilma Granqvist, who lived in the village of Artas from 1925-1931, she notes that circumcisions were celebrated with many of the same elements as weddings, including new outfits and henna. “All women who sing [at the ceremony] will be dyed with henna,” one woman told her, and henna was distributed to the relatives and guests (Granqvist 1947). 

Henna also appeared at funerals, where the deceased might be buried with henna leaves or have henna powder scattered over them (Baldensperger 1894). One wealthy Muslim woman in Hebron was buried in 1916 with “everything of the best,” including green and white clothes and glass bracelets, and had henna strewn over her (Spoer 1927). And of course, henna was a necessary adornment for the celebration of holidays of all faiths, including Easter and Purim (Finn 1866; Dalman 1928).

But weddings were the primary place where henna appeared in Palestinian life. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all used henna for weddings, as adornment for both the bride and the groom, as well as the guests; one author records that at weddings even the horses were hennaed too (Conder 1895)! In most communities, the henna night was a time for the bride to wear one of the beautifully-embroidered gowns (thob or thawb) whose designs varied from village to village and which have become emblematic of Palestinian culture. The groom's family paid for the henna and the henna artist, while the bride's father provided the food. The henna night was a time for the bride to display her trousseau (jihaz), which generally contained a number of dresses and pieces of jewelry; these traditions underwent significant changes, as did much of Palestinian society, during the period of the British Mandate, between the 1920s and 1940s (Weir 1989).

Wedding dress, or jillayeh, from Beit Dajan, near
Jaffa, ca. 1920 (British Museum).
Granqvist records that the henna night (lelt el-ḥenna) took place the evening before the wedding. Women from the groom’s family brought henna to the bride, which was mixed with lemon juice and, unusually, with some sourdough starter, which they believed would help the henna “swell” — the acidity probably helped the dye while the dough may have given it a more stringy consistency. Granqvist notes that “for the bride people use especially good ḥenna with only little flour, so that she may have a beautiful red colour, but those present who have come for the song and dance get a ḥenna mixture with more flour in it” (Granqvist 1935). The practice of mixing henna with barley flour to stretch it out if there was not enough for all the guests was also recorded in the village of Qubebe, near Jerusalem (Spoer and Haddad 1927).

At one wedding, Granqvist observed that the artist “sets little rolls of the [henna] mixture on the joints of her hands and fingers. A big lump is also put in her hand. The hand is closed firmly upon it and when it is opened again, there are red spots on the hand” (Granqvist 1935). Her feet and legs were then hennaed as well, and songs were sung describing the sadness of the bride to leave her family, and wishing her well in her new home. Henna is also distributed to the guests, so that everyone can have a little henna themselves. The next day, everyone would admire their henna as they get dressed for the wedding.

A bridal procession in Artas, ca. 1930. Photo by Hilma Granqvist.
While Granqvist describes simple patterns of dots and stripes, we know from other writers that larger and more urban Palestinian communities supported henna artists that specialized in more elaborate patterns, sometimes made using resists and sometimes drawn directly. In one anthropological study, the authors wrote that “at Nablus the henna [for the bride] is painted on in pretty little designs, but this is reckoned very ‘citified’ (mutamaddin) at Artas” (Crowfoot and Baldensperger 1932).

Ada Goodrich-Freer, an American writer (and disgraced psychic!), attended a Muslim wedding in Jerusalem in the early 20th century where “a little girl of about ten was anxious to exhibit her new frock and henna-stained hands… The finger-ends, to a depth of perhaps an inch, were stained a ruddy brown, a few lines were traced on the back, but the real triumph of art was on the palms, which were adorned with a conventional bud and leaf in lozenge-shaped groups like a lodging-house wallpaper, and I observed that most of the ladies carried their hands palms forwards, so that the decoration should be seen to full advantage” (Goodrich-Freer 1904). Without images, it is hard to say whether this floral style was similar to the henna designs of flowers and leaves that Johnson reported seeing in Jerusalem fifty years earlier, but it is certainly possible.

According to inhabitants of Beit Dajan (a wealthy Palestinian village near Jaffa, renowned for its embroidery) interviewed in the 1960s by Shelagh Weir, the henna artist (called the mashita) "made the henna into a kind of dough, and pressed it onto the hands, forearms, feet, and legs of all the girls, leaving the desired patterns. Special designs were reserved for the bride — palm [branches] (nakhl), arches (quwas), and cypress trees (saru) — similar to, and with the same names as, some of the most common embroidery designs in Bayt Dajan" (Weir and Kawar 1975). 

The "saru" (cypress tree) pattern as depicted in Beit Dajan
embroidery, ca. 1930, from the Widad Kawar collection.
The women Weir interviewed remembered these traditions from the early 20th century, but by the 60s and 70s they were already dying out in practice. Unfortunately I have yet to find a photograph or image that shows this style of patterning in henna. I suspect that these fancy designs were similar to the ones that the villagers in Artas called 'citified'. If they were as complex as the embroidery of Beit Dajan, they must have spectacular indeed... And this raises the intriguing possibility that Palestinian henna patterns differed from area to area, parallel to the embroidery patterns of each village.

In addition to this style, there was another style of henna done for weddings, which also appears to be uniquely Palestinian. We already saw the mention of a wax resist in Johnson (quoted above), but another kind of resist henna, this time using strings, was described by Mary Eliza Rogers, the brother of the British consul at Damascus, who spent several years living and travelling in the Holy Land. She describes regular henna use by all groups in the area: Arabs (Christian and Muslim), Bedouins, Samaritans, and Jews. 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 in Haifa (Rogers 1862):
"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."
This very same technique is described again several decades later, in Nablus, by the French archaeologist Antonin Jaussen (1927)
"The taḥni’yah, the ceremony of applying henna to the bride, generally happens before applying the koḥl, the takḥil. Strings are wrapped around the [bride’s] hands and arms, which leave certain parts of the fingers and wrist blank. The henna is applied on the exposed skin. Following the designs traced by the strips, the stain of various lines is intended to highlight the beauty of her limbs. The same procedure is used to paint the bride’s feet with henna. It is an experienced woman, the muḥanni’yah, who applies the henna to the bride. Once the paste is dry, the strings are removed and the red colour appears in all its freshness, forming linear designs on the delicate skin of the young girl."
And most amazingly, a photo depicting the exact technique described by Rogers and Jaussen — a checkered string resist— has survived! It is from the archives of the American Colony, a Christian community in Jerusalem; American Colony members Elijah Meyers and Eric Matson developed an interest in photography in the early 1900s and took thousands of pictures of life in the Holy Land (currently in the Library of Congress).

Christian bride and her family, Nazareth, early 20th century (LOC)
This photograph was taken sometime between 1900-1920 in Nazareth, and depicts an Arab Christian bride with her family. It is interesting to see that all the women are wearing Western-style dresses, perhaps under the influence of missionary schools. The bride's hands are elaborately hennaed to the wrist with a checkered pattern from strings, and another young woman in the photo (most likely her sister) has fingers hennaed with a simpler resist in the same style... Just as described by Rogers and Jaussen! It is so rare to find confirmation of a particular style of henna patterning from both text and photographs, and so this is a very special case.

Enlargement of previous photo, showing checkered henna designs on hands.
Henna had a central place in Palestinian culture as a special adornment for celebrations and festivals, and also a general cosmetic. Crowfoot and Baldensperger recorded that clusters of henna blossoms were sold in Jerusalem, like in Egypt, for their sweet scent: “‘O sweetness!’ cry the flower sellers in the streets of the Old City and few passers-by seeing henna blossoms can resist taking a few sprigs, fit gift for a beloved wife at home to place in her hair and so shed perfume round her” (Crowfoot and Baldensperger 1932). 

Pierotti similarly writes that houses were often filled with bouquets of henna flowers, and so the time of the henna’s blossoming is the best time to visit the poorer quarters, “as its odour overpowers the bad smells that at other times are so disgusting” (Pierotti 1864). Crowfoot and Baldensperger also recorded a proverb, darb el-ḥenna wa-darb el-shok — “The Way of Henna, the Way of Thorns” — expressing the necessity of accepting how life presents all things mixed together, or in other words, ‘to take the bitter with the better.’ Henna also appeared in a popular 19th-century riddle, to guess what is “green in the market and red in the house” to which the answer, of course, is henna (Baldensperger 1894).

Henna is still used in Palestinian weddings today, no matter where they take place. Like many other communities, for simplicity’s sake the henna is often just placed in a circle in the palm rather than the elaborate patterns of the past, and the music might be more pop or rock than the traditional henna songs. But they are true henna celebrations nonetheless! For many, the presence of henna, like the traditional embroidered dresses, is an important symbol of their heritage and culture.

Young Palestinians demonstrating a henna dance, Birzeit, 2012.
So, as we have seen, Gigi Hadid should be proud indeed of the many old, rich, and diverse henna traditions of Palestinian culture. It is sad that the various patterns and resist techniques once practiced do not seem to be preserved, although it is not surprising given the historical circumstances of rupture and migration. If she ever wants a real historian of henna at her next party, well… Tell her publicist to just give me a call.

Works Cited

  • Baldensperger, Phillip. Birth, Marriage, and Death Among the Fellahin of Palestine. Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2 (1894), pp. 127-144.
  • Clermont-Ganneau, Charles. Archaeological researches in Palestine during the years 1873-1874. London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1899.
  • Conder, Claude Reignier. Tent Work in Palestine: A Record of Discovery and Adventure. London: A. P. Watt and Son, 1895,
  • Crowfoot, Grace, and Louise Baldensperger. From Cedar to Hyssop: A Study in the Folklore of Plants in Palestine. London: Sheldon Press, 1932.
  • Curtiss, Samuel. The Ancient Religion of Syria in Centers of Moslem and Christian Influence. The Biblical World, Vol. 23, No. 5 (1904), pp. 326-338.
  • Dalman, Gustaf. Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1928.
  • Finn, Elizabeth. Home in the Holy Land: A Tale Illustrating Customs and Incidents in Modern Jerusalem. London: James Nisbet and Co., 1866.
  • Goitein, Shlomo Dov. Palestinian Jewry in Early Islamic and Crusader Times in the Light of the Geniza Documents. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 1980.
  • Goodrich-Freer, Ada. Inner Jerusalem. New York: Dutton and Co., 1904.
  • Granqvist, Hilma. Marriage Conditions in a Palestinian Village (vol. II). Helsingfors, Finland, Soderstroms, 1935.
  • Granqvist, Hilma. Birth and Childhood Among the Arabs: studies in a Muhammadan village in Palestine. Helsingfors, Finland, Soderstroms, 1947.
  • Jaussen, Antonin. Coutumes palestiniennes: Naplouse et son district. Paris: Geuthner, 1927.
  • Johnson, Sarah Barclay. Hadji in Syria, or Three Years in Jerusalem. Philadelphia: James Challen and Sons, 1858.
  • Lev, Efraim, and Zohar Amar. Practical Materia Medica of the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean. Brill, 2004.
  • Lewis, Bernard, and Amnon Cohen. Population and Revenue in the Towns of Palestine in the Sixteenth Century. Princeton University Press, 1978.
  • Lewis, Bernard, and Amnon Cohen. Population and Revenue in the Towns of Palestine in the Sixteenth Century. Princeton University Press, 1978.
  • McCown, Chester Charlton. Muslim Shrines in Palestine. The Annual of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, Vol. 2/3 (1922), pp. 47-79.
  • Pierotti, Ermete. Customs and Traditions of Palestine: Illustrating the Manners of the Ancient Hebrews. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1864.
  • Rogers, Mary Eliza. Domestic Life in Palestine. London: Bell and Daldy, 1862.
  • Spoer, Ada [née Goodrich-Freer]. Sickness and Death among the Arabs of Palestine. Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1927), pp. 115-142.
  • Spoer, H. Henry, and Elias Haddad. Volkskundliches aus el-Qubebe bei Jerusalem. Zeitschrift für Semitistik und verwandte Gebiete, vol. 5 (1927), pp. 95-134.
  • Weir, Shelagh. Palestinian CostumeLondon: British Museum Publications, 1989.
  • Weir, Shelagh, and Widad Kawar. Costumes and Wedding Customs in Bayt Dajan. Palestine Exploration Quarterly, vol. 107 (1975), pp. 39-51.

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