25 March, 2010

Hadharem and the Henna

Though it is said that henna or hinna usage first began in North Africa, I do not know of any where else, except around Khartoum in Sudan, and some parts of India - where henna, botanical name lawsonia inermis; is so regularly used and highly regarded as here in Hadhramaut. No celebration, be it a wedding or any other form of joyful occasion or special festivity, would be complete here without the henna. Both men and women use it; men rarely use it - to dye their hairs, especially when gray, or on the hands or feet, the henna is used not as an adornment but  in a simple way or for treatment. It is women who use it almost daily: as a form of body adornment, for treating their hairs to make it more lush and stronger and as a medicament.

The henna plant is more of a shrub than a tree; growing to about 2-6 meters high. It has many branches with many, small green leaves. The plant has reddish or whitish flowers; and very small, brownish fruits. With the tropical climate here, the plant grows very well; and it is commercially cultivated in many parts of Yemen. But, in the same way as most here believe that the most attractive and highly regarded women come from Hadhramout; and like Hadhramy honey which is considered to be the best; it is said that the best henna comes form here: Hadhramout. To use the henna as a dye or temporary tattoo for adornment or for medical treatment, the leaves are picked, dried and then ground in to powder. Permanent tattooing is haram and forbidden in Islam, but the usage of henna is fine and even encouraged; for many, henna is considered beneficial in many ways, a blessing and very much a part of Islam.

It should be noted that: natural henna mixture and paste is completely harmless; but, these days, there are other ingredients, chemicals and dyes that are used to mix with the henna - or used as a substitute for it - that can be harmful; at times, very harmful. Note too: 'black' or 'neutral' henna, as far as I know - are not real henna but formed from other substances which can be just as harmful.  These ingredients can cause allergic reactions, swellings and inflammations on the skin; before using henna, it is best to make sure that it is natural and without any additives.

Above on the left is henna in powder form; it can be this dark or greenish or yellowish. For dyeing the hair or when used on the face or other delicate parts of the body, the powder is mixed with only clean water. Once mixed, as above on the right, it is pasted on the hair or on the body and left to dry. Some leave it pasted for only a few hours and some for the whole day or night. After, it is peeled and washed off.
After washing off the dry henna, what remains - gray hairs become sort of orange colored; henna on a woman's hands, arms and feet is most mesmerizing. The putting of henna; the decorations on women's  hands, arms and feet - can be done by any one. But there are very few women who have mastered that as an art; they charge - depending on how extensive the henna will be applied and how flowery it would be - from 500 to 3,000 Yemeni Riyals for a single 'session'.
For adornment, henna is mixed with lemon juice, strong tea or some mix it with an antiseptic fluid; some even mix it with paraffin. And there are many other stuff that are some times used when preparing the mixture. The mix here, unlike in other places where it is left for hours before using, is applied immediately after being prepared. Once the henna is applied, sugar or lemon is dabbed on it to keep it wet for some times; and to give the best results.

Depending on how extensive, intricate and decorative the henna would be - here, it normally can take up-to about 3 hours applying it. Normally, it is applied with the women sitting down on carpets or mats. The henna can be applied on only a few parts of the hands and feet or on the whole hands, arms and up-to above the elbow; and on the feet - up to the knees. The whole procedure can be very exhausting.

But the results are very much worth it: such bewitching and hypnotizing beauty that few other forms of  a woman's adornment can achieve. Henna is found in many parts of the world - from India and to distant places such as Australia. For centuries, a dye that is made from the leaves of this plant has been used to color nails, hands and feet; and to dye other items such as cloth and leather goods. As for us here, few other things for women - is as important and essential as the henna. Like gold and incense for women, henna is not only a part of Islamic tradition but, too, very much a part of Hadhramy tradition and culture.

For more on the henna go to: Hadhrami Henna, Henna CaravanIslamOnLineIslamic Voice, and  The Henna Page.