Yo Me Soy La Morenica: Being Brunette in Jewish and Arabic Song

algerian dancing girls
Dancers and musicians, Algeria, 19th century. World Digital Library.

Brunettes are tropes of popular folklore music lyrics in the Middle East and Latin America. The English language has no equivalent for moreno (Spanish/Portuguese) or asmar/esmer (Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Persian), since it splits the concept between hair color (‘brunette’) and skin (‘dark’). 

In medieval Andalusia, the morena, morenica, morisca, mora (all words originating from the Latin maurus, ‘black, inhabitant of Mauritania’) was the object of desire of many of ballads, poems, muwashshahs, in Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish. The phenomenon continues in the traditions of Spanish, Portuguese, Sephardic and Levantine song lyrics after the Christian reconquest of Spain. In Arabic, اسمر asmar, someone of dark complexion, derives from the verb سمر  to become brown/to chat in the evening (سمر the noun specifically means nightly chat, and the name سميرة means a woman who engages in nightly conversation, an entertainer).

Dark but…

Sephardic poems and songs about the morenas present certain patterns. The Sephardic morenika/schecharchoret was always marked by a certain degree of ambiguity for her color, going back to the Song of Songs, when Solomon’s lover, the daughter of a pharaoh, sings:

Dark (shechoret) am I, yet lovely, daughters of Jerusalem,
dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, because I am dark (shecharchoret),
because the sun hath looked upon me.

(Song of Solomon 1:5, 6)

This Biblical verse inspired popular Sephardic music. In many songs, in Ladino and Spanish, the morena presents herself in her dark beauty, with a condition: she was not always dark, but born white. The most popular song in this tradition, which has survived to this day in various interpretations by Sephardic artists, is Morenika a mí me llaman (translated to Hebrew as Shecharchoret, famously sung by Ofra Haza), with the first person voice exchanged being the dark girl and her admirer. It is a popular Sephardic wedding song.  A version of the song was recorded using lyrics from the original Biblical text.

Morenica a mi me llaman                                   They call me dark girl
 yo blanka nasi.                                                      I who was born white
El sol del enverano                                                The summer sun

a mi me hizo ansi.                                                 Made me like thus
Morenica, grasiosika sois                                     Dark girl, you are lovely
tu morena y yo grasioso                                       You are dark and I am lovely
i ojos pretos tu                                                        And your dark eyes
tu morena y yo grasioso                                       You are dark and I am lovely
i ojos pretos tu.                                                       And your dark eyes

Many Renaissance-period Sephardic songs follow the same trope as the more well-known Morenika a mi me llaman. One text in this vein is found in the Cancionero de Uppsala, a 16th century collection of Spanish lyrics published in Venice, and discovered in the library of Uppsala. One of the songs has been interpreted as a Christmas song due to its reference to the Virgin Mary (lo moreno bien mirado/fué la culpa del porenecado/que en mi nunca fué hallado), yet the metaphorical content and language bear extreme resemblance to the Sephardic lyrics, specifically with its reference to the song of Solomon. It may well have been composed by a marrano (a crypto-jew, and yes, the term comes from moreno, which is etymologically linked to mouro, moor). 

 Yo me soy la morenica,                               I am the little dark one,
Yo me soy la morena.                                   I am the dark woman.

Lo moreno bien mirado                              The dark, handsome man
Fué la culpa del pecado;                              Was guilty of sin,
Que en mi nunca fué hallado,                    But sin was never found in me        
Ni jamás se hallara.                                     And never will be.

Soy la sin espina rosa                                   I am the rose without the thorns
Que Salomon canta y glosa….                     Of which Solomon sings, and says       
Nigra sum sed Formosa                               I am black but beautiful; 
Y por mí se cantara.                                      For me they will sing.

morenika me soy.jpg
The manuscript

Many such texts are recorded in the Nuevo Corpus de la Antigua Lírica Popular Hispánica, Siglos XV a XVII (“New Corpus of the Old Popular Hispanic Lyric, 15th-17th centuries,” edited by Margit Frenk Alatorre). The following poem emphasises the ambiguity of darkness for the Sephardic woman; she could be morenika, depending on the viewer. Her darkness was thus a matter of perception, rather than of essence.

Morenica m’era yo:                                            Dark was I
dizen que sí, dizen que no.                               Some say yes, some say no
Unos que bien me quieren                               Those who love me
dizen que sí                                                         Say yes
otros que por mí mueren                                   Others that die for me
dizen que no.                                                      Say no.
Morenica m’era yo:                                            Dark was I|
dizen que sí, dizen que no.                               Some say yes, some say no

Morenica me llaman, madre,
desde el día que yo nací;
al galán que me ronda la puerta
rubia y blanca le parecí

From Juan Vásquez in Recopiliatión de sonetos y vilancicos (1560)

Blanca me era yo                                               I was white          
Cuando entré en la siega;                                When I went to the harvest
Diome el sol, y ya soy morena.                           I caught the sun, and now I am dark

Morenica, no desprecies                               Dark one, do not belittle
Tu color morena:                                         Your dark color:
Que aquésa es la color buena.                       For it is the best color

From Cancionero de Jacinto López (1620)

In Arabic Song, Dark is Unambiguous

In contrast to Jewish songs, the asmar or asmarani, a term which is roughly equivalent to moreno, of Arab songs almost always refers to a male.  Also different from the Jewish lyrics, there is no ambiguity in the asmar’s position: he is not dark *but* originally white, he is just dark, and that is a blessing. In 1922, Stephan H. Stephan collected Palestinian folkloric (in the hopes of proving a continuous culture to the Song of Songs; in fact, it proves just the opposite). Some of the songs allude to an asmar man:

 اسمر و لابس قميص النوم        و منززه بحب مرجان                    

 A  dark one, wearing a night shirt  And buttoning it with loving coral

ساعه و يسكر و ساعه          يشبه عود الريحان                            

 Time and time again he’s drunk    And resembles sweet basil

Meanwhile, females muses are unanimously white (bayda). The following song illustrates this duality by exchanging the thoughts of the man and those of the woman:

 شفتها بتتمخطر حامله لجره    بيضا وغريره حوطها بالله        

I saw her walking gracefully carrying a pitcher   White and fine, I watch over her, by God!                                                             

ماما يا ماما حبيبي برا     لابس ومتلبس و مكحل عيونه        

Mama, oh mama, my beloved in outside  With his best clothes and his kohl eyes

اسمر سباني بغمز العيونا      اسمر سباني و انا سبيته          

A brown one has captivated me with the blink of his eyes     A brown one has charmed me and I have charmed him                                                                             

Antar in Abla, from the 19461 Egyptian film Antar Ibn Shaddad

A dark groom for a white bride indeed seem to be the “ideal types” of poetry, going back to the legend of ‘Antar and ‘Abla,  the asmar son of an Ethiopian slave pairing with his fairer Arab cousin. And art imitates life: in Palestinian Improvised-Sung Poetry: The Genres of Ḥidā and Qarrādī— Performance and Transmission, folklorist Ḍirghām Sbait recorded the following improvised refrains at a wedding in which the groom is praised for being asmar:

عريسنا هلأسمار                                                  Our groom is dark
يابو زيد الهلالي                                                   Like Abu Zayd al-Hilali *
زادت منه محبتنا                                                   Our love for him has increased
و فرحت كل الأهالي                                              And the whole family rejoiced    
عريسنا هلأسمار                                                  Our groom is dark           
*11th century Arab leader
In unanimous cheer for the groom of dark complexion, there is no ‘but he was born white’ as we find throughout the Ladino corpus. Darkness does not bring with it any potential misgivings, looseness, or signs of physical labor: it is a sign of beauty, and nothing else. Yet one must note that there are no exaltations of ‘black’ (aswad) beauty: asmar is the sign of a young, healthy male.

Many asmar songs have survived to the modern day, my personal favorite being the Qudud Halabiya (traditional Aleppan song, but found throughout the Levant) Hal Asmar Al-Lown

هالأسمر اللون                                Oh, dark is his color
هالأسمراني                                    This little dark one
تعبان يا قلب خيوه                             I am tired, great heart
هواك رماني                                   Where has your love thrown me?
يابو عيون وساع                              Oh you with the wide eyes
حطيت بقلبي وجاع                           You have placed pain in my heart   
بعطيك سبع رباع خيوه                       I will give you seven quarters
من عين رسمالي                              of what is left to me 
Abdel Halim Hafez, the most popular and prolific male singer in Egypt from the 50s to the 70s, who was himself nicknamed al-andalib al-asmar (the dark nightingale),  recorded the songs Asmar ya Asmarani (asmarani being a diminuitive of asmar, which in Spanish would translate nicely to Moreno, ah Morenico) and Ya Helw al Asmar (‘Oh sweet dark one’). The film Habibi al-Asmar (My Darling Brown One) gives its name to the song by Muhammed Abdel Wahhab. Fairuz, in her turn, sang the Rahbani compositions Waqif ya Asmar (‘Stop, dark one’), and Allah ma’ek Asmar (‘God is with you, dark one’). Shadia sang Habibi, asmarani al-lon, ayouni siyad, ayouni (‘Darling dark one, of black eyes’), written by the popular Egyptian poet Abdel Rahman el-Abdnudi. In the words of Samira Tawfik, it is the ajmal lawn (most beautiful color). The Arabic asmar is unequivocally a desirable quality in a man. 
Words migrate
The Turkish word esmer comes from the Arabic via Persian. It was also developed as a folk theme, and is found in some of the earliest Turkish recordings: Esmer Yüzüne (Brown Hair) Mahmut Cellettin, Dünyada Sevmeli Esmer (The World’s Loveliest Dark One) by Ali Ercan, and the most folkloric of all, Esmer Kızlar Edalı (Lovely Dark Girls), sung by Hamiyet Yüceses, based on a karşılama-dance (a dance which is popular at weddings). The songs are not that popular (based on number of views compared to the Arabic and Hebrew brunette tunes), and there are not many modern renditions (alhough there have been modern musical exaltations of the esmer yar,“dark lover”, notably the Turkish  2013 Eurovision song). This may be due to negative connotations. Whereas in Arabic asmar refers to tanned, dark but not dark enough to be aswad (or abd, the word for slave which also means black in certain dialects), in Turkish the term is used to refer to Kurds as a form of discrimination, whether or not they actually are in fact of a darker complexion (discussed at length in this book). 
In Kurdish, in contrast, Esmer Esmer is a standard folk song, rerecorded by many, with similar cultural value to, say, the Qudud Halabiya Hal Asmar al-Lown. Here, like in Arabic songs, esmer is the desirable quality for marriage. The difference though? The esmer is the bride.
Esmer eman eman                       Dark one, oh, 
Dîlber eman delalê yeman         Apple of my eye, oh charming and unruly
Çi kulilka dora çem an                A flower by the river
Xelk zewîcî ez û tu man              The people are all married; you and I remain 
Esmer min dî sêlê tîne                Dark one, I saw you 
Dîlber min dî sêlê tîne                Apple of my eye, I saw you
In the guise of a conclusion 
Differences in folk music can say much about a culture. Whereas in Turkey the division beyaz Türk (white Turk) vs. siyah or kara Türk (black Turk) discriminates cultured vs. uncultured, in Kurdistan the difference is somewhat more positive towards the “black Kurd”:
“There is now a line between ‘beyaz’ Kürtler’ (the white Kurds) and ‘esmer Kürtler’ (the dark Kurds). The white Kurds repeat what the state and its official ideologies tell the masses about the Kurds. However the dark Kurds are alternative, revolutionary, and defiant to the official ideologies…”
Personally, I find that the ambivalent attitude of Jewish lyrics towards brunettes extremely fitting. Oy vey, I’m gay, oy vey, I’m brunette. Next up is to find Yiddish lyrics about brunettes to see if the attitude persists, but that’s for another post. 
As end note, I must say that these are all impressions from the songs I was able to collect in books, lyrics websites and archives, combined with my own desire to theorize. In the end, people are just people, and wherever one looks, people all seem to reach the same conclusion which supersedes all cultural preferences: blonde, brunette (god forbid black!*) whatever, it don’t matter.
Buena es la color morena,                              The dark color is good
Pero la blanca es más buena;                         Yet white is better
Buena es la blanca color,                                The white color is good
Mas la morena es mejor.                                 Yet dark is better
From Cancionero de Jacinto López (1620)
و ان كنك سمره     عسل مخفيه بجرارنا                        
And if you are dark,          you are the honey hidden in our pots
و ان كنك بيضا      اميره مشرفة ع دارنا 
And if you are white,        you are the princess honoring our house.
*tongue in cheek, but when speaking about medieval/folkloric beauty standards… yup.

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