Henna: The Color Red
Mia Ponzo (Um Sa'ud)
KTM July 2002
I will never forget the first time that I saw Henna on a person's hands. I was intrigued and attracted, and, to tell you the truth, in awe. It was so beautiful, mysterious, and sexy somehow, and all I knew was that I wanted to be a part of that mystery. It felt like any woman that had that deep red color on her hands was a creature of untold sensuousness, and all I knew is that I wanted to be like that. I was enthralled with that ancient art, that beautiful deep red, actually more like burgundy color, and the wonderful intricate designs that are created with it. The way they do the tips of the fingers with it. Everything about it.
The first chance I got to actually use it was quite some time later, when I was sent some henna from Kuwait. I tried it, and although it didn't come out really great, I still loved it, and was determined to know everything there was to know about henna and how to use it. I wanted to be an expert. I had some friends at that time from Pakistan and others from India, and they used henna on their hands and hair. They taught me some secrets for making the henna darker and how to make it last longer. They taught me how to make those lovely intricate designs that the people from the subcontinent are so famous for.
Way back then, in Kuwait, the traditional method of application was to color the tips of the fingers including the nails, and to put some henna in the palm of the hand, to give an abstract stain to the palms. They would wrap their hands and sleep all night like that, washing it off in the morning. But the Pakistanis and Indians would make the desings with a toothpick or little stick, and then sit and wait for it to dry. Both different and both alluring.
Nowadays in Kuwait it has become popular to do the intricate designs as well, rather than the traditional abstract look. Many people still do the traditional method as well, but mostly the older generation. Almost every salon in the country has specialists in making henna designs on the hands and feet, but it is more common to have them on the hands. They also have people to do the henna in the hair. Since most of the Kuwaitis have jet black hair, the henna gives it a hint of burgundy color, which is lovely. Also, henna is supposed to be very healthy for the hair, and makes it look thicker, also covering up any grey that might be lurking around. Men here (and in other places) use it in their beards sometimes, giving it a wildly reddish orange look, while others use black henna.
In the summer Kuwaitis use henna more than they do in the winter, because they say it is cooling to the head and feet, and with the extreme heat of the summer months, which are already upon us, this would be a definite advantage and something to consider. Also, people who suffer from headaches often use it to "cool" their heads. So you see, henna isn't only for beautification purposes, but also like a kind of natural folk cure as well.
The bedouins are still having a love affair with henna, and they have their special way of applying it. Before the Eids, any wedding party, or other important occasion the henna must be in place. They have several different methods of application, some using surgical tape cut into little thin strips in order the make the fingers look like they have bands of color below the initial solid color on the fingertips. On the palms they might put a single large circle, or perhaps make geometric designs, or nowadays use henna stencils. Henna stencils are intricate designs lazer-cut into adhesive backed plastic that can be stuck on the palms, and when the henna is applied on top gives a gorgeous flower (or other) design that is easy to do, and doesn't get messed up when left on overnight. When henna is applied in this manner it gives an exquisite look, very intricate, and looking like it took hours of sitting. Perfectly suited to today's fast paced lifestyles.
The best kind of henna, according to the Arabs, is Yemeni henna. It is well-known for its deep color and long lasting stain. Also popular is Indian and Iranian henna. Egyptian henna is also available, but hardly ever used here in Kuwait. Now there is special henna also that speeds up the process of the darkening of the color, so it doesn't have to be left on the hands for a long time.
There are so many ways to mix henna, and each household, in fact, almost every person has a special recipe for making the darkest, longest lasting color. Some people mix it with black tea instead of water, while others use coffee. Still others make an infusion of hibiscus flowers, and some use cloves. Also, an oil called "mahlabiyyah" is used to give a longer lasting, deeper stain, and some even use lemon juice to improve the results.
When henna is used for the hair though, you can add oils to condition the hair as well as the other things, coconut oil is a good one. Since henna is very drying though, you really need something oily in it when you are using it for the hair. It is a real pain to wash out though, and expect to have to wash it several times, if not more, and there will still be some powder left later on. But it makes the hair so nice, and so thick and lush, that it is well worth the trouble. Plus it isn't dangerous like commercial hair colors are. But remember, if your hair is a light color, you'd better not use red henna on your hair, unless you don't mind looking like the road runner, because you hair could look like anything from bright orange to fire engine red. If your hair is dark brown, then go ahead because you will get beautiful burgundy or chestnut hues, which normally compliment darker hair colors. And, of course, if you happen to have that jet black hair that henna suits the best, then go for it!
There are certain places in the Arabian world, like Morocco, and Sudan, that a woman is hardly considered a woman if she isn't adorned with henna on her hands and feet. In those places too, the henna ritual is a long drawn out process. Here in Kuwait it's not THAT important for women to have henna done, but at least for most bedouin women, it is still a very feminine thing to have done, and almost all of them, at least the more traditional ones, always make sure that their henna is done, and looking perfect and deep, dark red.
In the old days in Kuwait a bride would absolutely HAVE to have her henna done, and it might be in tiny little designs, or more like the traditional simple Kuwaiti "duck" or "butta" style. (The reason they call it "duck" style is because with the creases in the palms of the hand that naturally occur on everyone's hand, the henna, after being left on all night, resembles a duck). Nowadays many brides have their henna applied in intricate designs on them by Indian experts in salons, but they had better be more descreet about the locations of their application, because I have heard more than one fairly recent story of brides being divorced on the wedding night for sporting henna designs in inappropriate places. (The reasoning being, what kind of woman would allow a stranger (or even a sister for that matter) to apply henna to such areas?)
I am still attracted to henna, and find it attractive all these years later. I hope that people here in Kuwait do not become so "modern" that they find henna decorations passe. I don't think it will happen though, since the henna salons seem to be increasing rather than decreasing, and they are now specializing in even more intricate, and amazing designs, even doing red and black henna together, and colored designs resembling henna that don't even contain henna. In fact, I think since Madonna wore black henna on her hands in one of her music videos a few years back, henna has seen a real comeback. Too bad that's what it had to take, but what it had to take, I, for one, am really glad it happened. Henna will always be a most sensuous cosmetic, and it's deep red color will always be a mysterious and primal attraction. Long live henna.