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