Moroccan Jews, Sepia’s parents emigrated to Canada from Tangier, where a once substantial Jewish community has, like Moroccans of other faiths, been marking important life events with henna for centuries.
‘Wherever henna grows people use it,’ explains Noam Sienna, a graduate student of religion at the University of Toronto and a professional henna artist. ‘Records show henna being used as early as 2000 years ago in North Africa, during the Roman period, and when the Arabs came in the 700s, there were already Jews in Morocco and henna was being grown and used.’
In North Africa, henna is believed to possess magical and spiritual power, much like iron, the colour red and the number five.
‘It’s one of those things,’ Sienna elaborates. ‘It has a lot of “baraka”, blessing, which means it’s an especially protective substance needed in times of transition. That’s why you see henna at all sorts of ritual occasions where people feel they need a spiritual armour.’
It’s no surprise then that henna has long had a significant role to play in Moroccan wedding ceremonies, Jewish and Muslim alike, in which the bride-to-be is cloaked in a literal layer of protective ‘skin’.
On a more emotional register, the female-only henna ceremony was historically an occasion to reassure a nervous bride soon to leave the comfort of her familial home, and to strengthen the bond between two families – represented by their matriarchs – about to be linked through marriage. So cherished was henna that several evenings of what were traditionally seven day weddings were dedicated to its application.
In contrast, contemporary Moroccan Jews tend to host a single henna night and a single wedding ceremony, the former taking place about one to two weeks before the latter, and involving both the bride and groom as well as their respective friends and families.
While the actual wedding ceremonies tend to be quite modern in nature, white designer gown and all, the more folkloric henna night is seen as an occasion to engage elements of Moroccan culture – from song to dance and cuisine – that are otherwise not a regular part of daily life.
Moroccan Jews today value henna for its symbolic significance as a reminder of their collective past, and the ceremony has become less of a spiritual ritual and formal social tradition and more of a light, cultural practice.
‘The henna substance itself has become much less important,’ explains Sienna. ‘It’s become more about the evening. People say, let’s have “a henna”, dress up in Moroccan clothing and celebrate the fact that we’re proud of our heritage. It’s amazing and important that young people take that seriously, and that it happens at their wedding. It’s a performance of ethnic identity in a positive sense.’
While Moroccan-Jewish henna nights will differ based on personal preference, the bride will always begin the evening in a keswa kebira, or ‘grand dress’, an elaborate, colourful, multi-piece gown with Andalucían influences that, while historically part of every woman’s wardrobe, today comes in the form of a rental.
It’s often imported from Morocco by party planners specialised in henna nights. ‘The dress was probably the most memorable part of the whole ceremony for me,’ Sepia comments. ‘As a little girl, I always dreamed of getting dressed up in this traditional gown, not the white bridal dress.’
Composed of several pieces including a breastplate, wraparound skirt and short-sleeved jacket, and heavily embroidered, the keswa kebira was once nothing more than an ordinary, everyday garment. ‘Over time,’ explains Maria Angela Jansen, a postdoctoral researcher at the London College of Fashion, ‘as commercialisation took over, it was elaborated, decorated, embellished and frozen in time.’
Much like the white wedding dress, she continues, ‘nobody really recalls the details of when or why it was introduced, but they like to think of it as an ancient tradition. It used to be daily wear, then as it got nicer it became formal wear, and now because no one wears them anymore they are wedding dresses.’
It took 45 minutes to dress Sepia in her intricate keswa kebira, before she was ready to meet the men, complementarily dressed in djellaba, tarboush and yellow slippers, waiting in the hall. Her father and father-in-law walked her towards her groom, lovingly holding her taj, or bridal crown, in place while her brother and brother-in-law led the way with candles and her other male relatives serenaded them with traditional songs.
‘When you meet the groom, he’s supposed to step on your foot to mark you as his, in a sense, and you’re not supposed to look at anybody. It was kind of funny having to stare at the ground the whole time,’ Sepia laughs. She was seated alongside her husband-to-be on a ‘throne’, and female relatives holding plates of desserts danced around them, infusing their marriage with ‘sweetness’.
The henna application itself was a very minor part of the evening. Like most modern Moroccan Jews, Sepia didn’t have designs applied onto her skin. Rather, a small drop of paste was placed in her and the groom’s palms, leaving a symbolic stain.
Historically, Sienna explains, Moroccan Jews drew henna patterns similar to those of their Muslim counterparts. ‘A lot of motifs were designed to protect the wearer, to keep away the evil eye by drawing nets or chains to trap it, for example.’
The circle in the palm, he continues, is an innovation of the last 60 years, and while the designs have significance, ‘it’s the substance of the henna itself that carries the power, so the fact that Moroccan Jews don’t do patterns anymore doesn’t mean it’s not important. I think people just forgot how to do it because they didn’t pass on the art.’
While the henna ceremony is more of a party than a spiritual affair today, its effect on participants is anything but superficial, and its raison d’être as an occasion for overwhelming the bride with blessings and support seems to have endured.
‘Walking in, having all the men in my life surrounding me, singing traditional songs without any music, I felt so protected and empowered,’ Sepia explains.
After a long period of dormancy during the 20th century, Sienna is happy to see the henna night experiencing a revival, and to witness young Jews from countries like Morocco embracing their Middle Eastern heritage.
‘I think people too often dismiss Jewish henna traditions as something that was just borrowed while Jews were living in Morocco. But, Jews have been in Morocco for thousands of years. They didn’t absorb a little bit of Moroccan culture, they were foundational in creating that culture along with Muslims and other faith communities.’