Saturday, April 26, 2014

Henna customs of Jews of Yemen

Jewish bride and groom in Yemen

 Yemenite Jews shared with Muslims the custom of painting the hands of brides, but the Jews practised three distinct patterns. One survives to this day among the Habbani Jews of Moshav Bareqet in Israel. From specialist blogger Eshkol Hakofer: (with thanks: Michelle)

The use of henna among both Yemenite Jews (known as Temanim in Hebrew) and Muslims is described in the travelogues of a number of European writers (Niebuhr, 1772, pp. 65-66; du Couret, 1859, pg. 213; Saphir, 1866, pg. 81), and it is mentioned by Yemenite Jewish scholars as well (Saliḥ, 1779, 2:127; Qarah 1827).

But we still haven’t heard anything about henna patterns (Jewish or non-Jewish)! The earliest record that I’ve seen of henna patterns in Yemen comes from Freya Stark, an indefatigable British explorer (and an incredibly brave woman who travelled alone through the Arabian deserts and Central Asia at a time when few women dared do so).

She published a series of popular books on her travels, and included some descriptions of henna patterns that she saw (1936, pp. 47, 213):

[At a wedding in Makalla]: The palms of [the women’s] hands [were] reddish brown with heavily scented henna and oil and painted outside in a brown lacework pattern, like a mitten.

[In Tarim]: [The Sultan’s 10-year-old daughter] stood gazing at me, shy and gorgeous, her little hands done in lace patterns and wheels of indigo with henna tips; her hair in seventy-five plaits at least, fluffed out on her shoulders in curls.

Amazingly, Stark also includes a photograph of a woman’s hennaed hands (with the paste on), taken in the late 30s in the Ḥaḍramaut. She describes how the pattern is made “by an artist who lets a thin thread of the paste drip from her forefinger, guiding it into patterns as it does so” (1938, pg. 180).

Among Yemenite Jewish communities, however, I have seen records of three main types of henna patterns, each of which appears to be distinct from the types of patterns practiced by the neighbouring Muslim communities (at least according to Stark).

The first, common among the Habbani Jews of the Ḥaḍramaut, is characterized by a wide circle around the entire palm, sometimes with a dot in the centre. The fingers are then painted with broad stripes, and the fingertips are hennaed solidly.

This pattern was in fact continued after the Habbani Jews immigrated to Israel, and it's still done even today among Jews of Habbani descent (living mostly on a moshav called Bareqet) — the only Jewish henna patterning technique to really survive into the present day.
The second type was practiced among the various villages of central and north Yemen, consisting of rows of dots, usually clustered in triangles, diamonds, or quincunxes, between stripes across the fingers and back of the hand. Some brides in Israel continued this tradition into the 80s but as far as I can tell, it has essentially disappeared today. The third, the most elusive and the most elaborate, was practiced by the Jews of San‘a. It is described extensively by several Yemenite writers, including ‘Amram Qorah (1954), Yosef Kapah (1961), and Yehuda Levi Nahum (1962).

I summarize their description on my website: it was essentially a four-step process. First, the hands and feet were covered with henna, which was left on for a few hours and then washed off. The next day, a professional artist known as a shar‘e drew designs on the skin in molten wax (the pain being explained as symbolic of the pain of marriage… Lovely). After that, henna was applied over the wax and left on overnight. The next day, the henna was removed and the hands and feet covered with a mixture of ammoniac and potash (shaḍḍar), which was rubbed off after an hour — this turned the henna a deep greenish-black, while the areas protected by the wax retained their orange shade.

There were variations on this technique — sometimes the wax was applied directly on the skin before any henna; sometimes the overnight henna was skipped and they put the shaḍḍar right after the wax. But overall, it must have been stunning to see, especially with the additional ornamentation that was added in black (from a gall ink called kheṭuṭ), yellow (from turmeric,
hurud), and blue (indigo, nil).

Read article in full:


Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Camera has a piece with video of a Christian Arab from Bethlehem who was interviewed on US TV 2 years ago saying that everything was fine for Xians in the Palestinian Authority zones. Now she is saying that things are really very very bad.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Freya Stark may have been a brave woman and also reported some interesting things about the Farhud and other events in Iraq. But her attitude toward Jews was generally contemptuous and patronizing.
In the mid-1940s she was sent, I believe, on a trip to the US to explain and defend British policy toward a Jewish state. See links: