Book review Indigo in the Arab World

by Jenny Balfour-Paul

Curzon £45. ISBN 0 7007 0373 X

‘Indigo’ is one of those evocative words, like ‘silk’ and ‘spice’, that conjure up distant places and exotic trade. Jenny Balfour-Paul’s enthusiasm for this dyestuff has led her to spend years of research and fieldwork unravelling its mystique. There cannot be a single reference to indigo - or indeed mention of the word ‘blue’ -recorded in print, to have escaped her eagle eye. Over a thousand footnotes and twenty-one pages of closely-packed bibliography are proof of her diligence. Only once does she state that something is ‘beyond the scope of this study’ and that is the extremely complex regulation of taxes for business transactions on commodities passing through Aden in the 1290s.

The skill with which the author has marshalled her astounding arsenal of information into a readable book is admirable. One minute we are deep in statistics and reference, the next by her side listening to an indigo dyer singing the refrain that his father used to chant as he stirred the dye vat.

The natural indigo dye vat was, in fact, somewhat obnoxious, containing as it did a fermentation of indigo plants tempered by alkaline additions such as urine, camel dung, dogs’ turds and dates, coated with scum and set as often as not in a dark, airless room where the dyer sat and stirred for days on end. The gradual arrival of synthetic indigo from the eve of the First World War, was bound to be the death knell of the plant dye, especially as it gave results of almost equal quality.

The book is divided into sections with geography and history riding in tandem. For those interested in Yemen, the cultivation of indigo, the dye production, the social status of indigo-dyed clothing, and all its uses, are fully discussed for both North and South, with particular emphasis on Zabid, famed for its indigo.

The opening historical section recounts the story of indigo from antiquity onwards, concluding with trade and Ottoman influences. The succeeding section on agricultural production dexterously avoids the ‘danger of the non-specialist sinking into a botanical morass’. It surveys the origin and diffusion of indigo, dividing the subject geographically. The same disposition is used for the section on the raw materials and techniques of dyeing. Though these discussions inevitably bring in references to indigo in other parts of the world, the author always returns to her theme, which is specifically indigo in the Arab world. A short section deals with the organization of the indigo dyeing industry and the work of guilds. ‘He who sells the

tarboush does not sell the tassel.’ Having covered every possible facet of indigo, Jenny then moves on to textiles themselves - always of prime importance in the Islamic world - using the same geographical and historical division, the clothing of each region being described in meticulous detail. The final section of the book deals with applications of indigo other than for the dyeing of textiles. These include its use in medicine, as a cosmetic and as a paint pigment. The author then delves into the emotive aspects - its power against the evil eye, its role in ritual, the mystique of its preparation.

The text is illustrated by interestingly varied black and white photos of dyers at work, materials, costume, paintings. That there is only one full colour plate is no disadvantage: indigo is, after all, only blue. Or is it? Interesting differences between the connotations of blue to a Western mind and its interpretaton as ‘dark’ to an Arab mind are revealed.

And the future? For natural indigo Jenny Balfour-Paul feels the outlook is bleak, but for the synthetic dye, as long as the young the world over have a pair of jeans in their wardrobe, its future is assured.

This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal