A short and quite simple story. Of Love and Art.
Lawsonia inermis. Hina, the mignotte tree, or Egyptian privet. Henna.
Maybe you have seen pictures of intricate designs on hands and feet. Or maybe, you have, on your travels, succumbed to the ladies with their small notebooks. Extolling the infinite beauty of your hands, whilst simultaneously flipping through plastic covered pictures, and ever-so-subtly, yet very definitely, shepherding you to their small stools. You (and they) know that once there, escape is almost impossible, such is the calibre of their sales prowess.
A lover of the heat, although her flowers are also used in manufacture of perfume, it is her leaves which yield the greatest prize. Harvested, dried and ground into a fine powder, they are mixed with, among other things, water, lemon juice or strong tea. Adhesives like sugar or essential oils might also be added, before the paste is left to rest and set.
Being permanently marked myself, I carry a reverence for the inherent beauty that marks upon the skin have; both for their pure aesthetic value, as well as for the heritage they declare. So of course, the delicate and intricate henna motifs of North Africa were always going to capture my attention. I had already sat for a small design on my hands on an earlier visit. At that time, I knew little; both in relation to henna, or of how my life would unfold. In that moment, all I knew was enchantment; mesmerised by the exquisite patterns upon my skin.
Crossing confines of faith and land, centuries of belief and ritual accompany this ancient process of red skin staining. Imbued within weddings, births, naming ceremonies, birthdays, and religious festivals, protective motifs carry divine blessings and protection from evil.
This time it was different. No longer a casual traveller, I was now a loved member of a large family; four brothers and five sisters scattered across this red land. In some houses I visit, a call would be made. That same afternoon, or maybe the next day, a woman, sometimes older, or sometimes no more than a young girl, arrives. She is greeted, introductions made, and tea offered. A small glass may be taken now, but most often, after the obligatory familial inquiries, it is straight down to business. The henna, already mixed in a small plastic bag, appears, along with a small plastic syringe. Minimal are her tools of the trade.
There are many ways to apply the paste. In Morocco, the plastic syringe is the most common. In India, a delicate plastic cone, like those you use to pipe icing onto cakes creates the patterns. In other places it may be a simple stick.
My sisters, and sometimes nieces, are alert and ready. What design did I want? Where? On my hands? My palms? What about my nails? How far up my arms? And my feet? My soles too? Important decisions over, a start is made. But never before “Bismillah”. An invocation in the name of God; a signal of intent and seeking of blessing.
Her hand is swift. Pressure gently, but intentionally, applied and released. Apply and release. Apply and release. The art of precise placement. To the untrained eye, unrelated and random. But to the artist, head bent in concentration, a holy plan, albeit invisible, dictates each line, each curve, each dot. She stops only to refill her syringe, at the same time gently repositioning my errant hands and fingers. Gesturing care; to hold my arms up and fingers apart, so as to not destroy her work.
Intricate lacy motives anoint my forearms and hands. In stark contrast, rough blobs of henna are clumped on my nails. Hands gently turned, work begins on my palms. My sister brings a small bowl. Lemon juice mixed with sugar; delicately patted on the just-drying henna.
Although a light stain may be achieved within minutes, achieving a darker and longer lasting stain results only from the henna being left on as long as possible. The nails will be stained a rich orange. Palms and soles, where the skin is at its thickest, will support a deep rich hue. Being moist, for as long as possible, helps keep the henna on the skin, allowing the colour to set and fully intensify. Aside from the nails where the colour will grow out, the colour on the skin will last two to three weeks.
The completion of the design signals her work is at an end. Me, I need to be still for many hours. Now she has time to take tea and sweets and to chat with my sisters. Although getting the henna done is, like many beauty rituals of the West, a time of feminine connection, the blessings carried by henna are recognised by all. Members of my family, both men and women are eager to see and offer me warm congratulations.
Rituals of henna are both beautiful and practical. Different days of important celebrations are designated for henna. The requirement to be immobile for a length of time in itself a key component and is not accidental. New mothers or brides to be are provided with spaces of sanctuary, free from everyday responsibilities. In the countryside, reflecting the reality of harsh daily environments, henna is applied as a solid covering on hands and feet. Still proudly displayed as a marker of beauty, this henna covering with its moisturising and sun protecting properties fulfils a practical purpose, as everything must when living a remote subsistence life.
So this time I see it is different. It is more than marking and decoration; more than mere gilding. Despite obstacles of language and culture, these patterns upon my skin provoke deep connection; threads which bind us all, despite full recognition that my understanding is at this moment so very small. Connection to centuries of ritual and tradition. A warmth in their heart that I have opened myself to share in this ritual, and in doing so have been able to receive its divine blessings. Embraced to their chest and bathed in the light of love. Each sweeping line, flower petal and carefully placed spot an expression of their love; a blessing and a kiss of their acceptance. This time, truly a gift, it is the art of love upon my skin.
Lhamduallah (thanks be to god)