Henna deisgn workshop
Traditional Emirati henna designs Image Credit: Supplied

Sprouting from desert sands across a large swathe of the world is a little tree, with pale-coloured flowers and thick, lively green leaves that hold a fragrant secret.

The ultimate all-in-one ingredient - sun protection, perfume, beauty ornament, fabric and hair dye and medicinal treatment – tying together cultures with its brown-red ornamental colour, earthy fragrance, and cooling, anti-microbial properties.

This is the millennia-old tale of henna, an ancient herb that in today’s world is used in much the same way as it was when times were slower, trade took place by horse and camel – and the wheel had been freshly invented. We know it as elegant, curving patterns that adorn skin for joyful occasions; reddish-brown dyed hair, silks, wools, leather… and a cold, soothing and aromatic paste.

Henna, mehndi, mignonette… the versatile plant goes by many names in different cultures. How would someone think of using crushed leaves to make patterns on skin? Lore has it that henna was first used for travelers to cool their feet and hands by dipping it in the herbal paste with water. When it came to light that the paste left stains, the idea of using it to decorate skin arose. Also perhaps is that people noticed that browsing animals nibbling on the herb had stains on their face.

The characteristic red-brown colour from the leaves is actually courtesy of Lawsone, a dye that binds with proteins on your skin to stain them. Titled Lawsonia Inermis, the plant is native to Northern Africa, Asia and Australia and grows best in hot climates… such as in the UAE.

A desert blessing

Maryam Qayed Al Beqsha
Image Credit: Supplied

“It’s very interesting that a smell is a memory that stays for a lifetime,” says Maryam Qayed, founder and general manager of Al Beqsha, an organisation that offers Emirati cultural souvenirs and henna experiences, and works with the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Centre for Cultural Understanding, reminiscing fondly on henna during her childhood here. “For me, henna reminds me of moments with my mum, who would drag me and have me sit down to apply henna on my hand. She would do it herself.

“And the next day, I would realise, ‘Oh it’s Eid! That’s why I was dragged to apply henna’.”

It’s part of UAE culture to smell good, to look good – to look nice and beautiful. Henna was part of our daily accessories. Even nowadays, an old woman – you would notice that she is still applying henna or there is henna in her hand. Because she is used to such an ornament being part of her life. It also lifts them up and makes them feel good.

- Maryam Qayed

Here in UAE, it is a beloved part of Emirati culture with a rich tradition of henna art during weddings, Eid celebrations and happy occasions. How did it first get here? Maryam says, “There is no actual date when it arrived in the UAE, but definitely it arrived through trade. There are people who say that it came from Yemen, there are people who say that it came from Oman.

“Through trade and over camel, people exchanged henna trees, with their supplies, that’s how henna arrived in the UAE, knowing that healthy henna roots is more than enough to grow this tree.

“I think the henna plant was okay to be planted and grown in the UAE, and easily maintained, so families just started growing henna. They were introduced to the benefits of henna in terms of the dye, medical usage of henna and in beauty.”

Later, henna was grown widely in the region in the 1960s and 1970s, she adds. The henna tree can be harvested within six months, and you can benefit from it thrice a year, and it lives for around 50 years. Maryam explains that henna paste would be made at home by drying henna leaves, grinding it with basic tools, purified using pieces of cloth – adding a little water, perhaps a bit of coffee and then kept overnight before use.

From Pyramids of Giza to Taj Mahal
The earliest records of henna date back to 3400 BC, where some of the oldest mummies ever found, including a woman from Hierakonpolis, a prehistoric royal residence of the kings of Upper Egypt, had traces of henna in her hair weave. Egyptians also used it as a perfume, and later mummies of Pharaohs such as Ramses II were also found as having henna-dyed hair and fingertips.

According to the book, Henna’s Secret History: The History, Mystery and Folklore of Henna by Marie Anakee Miczak, Theophrastus (c. 285 BCE),one of the first botanists, had said that the perfume of henna ‘Cyprinium’ had been an expensive scent, much like ‘the Egyptian’ – and that was sold for more than 400 denarii a pound, which would translate to around Dh70,000! Pedanius Dioscorides, the Greek physician who lived in the first century AD and who wrote a Greek encyclopedia on herbal medicine titled ‘De Materia Medica’ wrote about henna's medicinal applications.

The origins and spread of henna remains something of mystery, but it is said to have travelled through trade to become part of Arab, Islamic and South Asian heritage. A 17th century portrait of Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Shah Jahan and inspiration behind Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world shows intricate henna patterns interweaved on her hand and Cleopatra was said to have worn it on her nails. It now appears in the traditions of Ayurvedic medicine as well. However, the word henna is of Arabic origin – from ‘Al hinna’.

A cooling balm, beauty accessory and happy occasion must-have

In the UAE, the special plant went on to have a wide variety of uses. It became a regular beauty accessory for married women, grown and handmade completely at home with its set of beautiful designs passed from generation to generation. It is drawn on in delicate patterns during Eid celebrations, and on the day of the wedding eve of a bride together with her loved ones.

Maryam says, “It’s part of UAE culture to smell good, to look good – to look nice and beautiful. Henna was part of our daily accessories. Even nowadays, an old woman – you would notice that she is still applying henna or there is henna in her hand. Because she is used to such anornament being part of her life. It also lifts them up and makes them feel good.”

The wedding eve ceremony, also called a Henna night, sees a special moment of love and care showered on the bride by her loved ones through the merry occasion of applying henna together. Maryam says that traditionally, there would be a certain woman applying henna for the bride. She says, “It's not a matter of how detailed or how good she is. But it’s the moment that the bride would love to share with this woman. So, it was more of a motherly love and care, and being part of the memory of applying it for the person on the wedding day.” It’s an adornment

According to a 2019 article by Emarat Al Youm, grandmother Moza Sefan, a craftswoman at the Craft Center of the Sharjah Heritage Institute says (translated from Arabic), “The use of henna was not limited to Emirati women only, but men relied on it, to protect them from desert heat, get rid of headache, and cool the scalp as the natural materials made up of it, and paste with water constitute a natural and effective protector from the scorching sun. They used it to put on the sole on the foot and on the palm of the hand, to serve as a means of defense to adapt to weather conditions in the summer, and for these many benefits, Emirati poems were written on henna.”

Pearl diving
Pearl diving Image Credit: Supplied/Gulf News archives

Maryam also adds to this, saying, “And I did not even know that – it is not only for women in UAE, some men would apply henna on their wedding, just like a ritual. Very basic, not detailed as women, but as ritual - some tribes would do that. Henna offers benefits to the skin – to cool it, to heal it, so even men would use it on their head and their body.” She explains that it was even part of tradition during diving trips in the UAE, that women would receive the men with henna for them to apply. She says, “The pearl divers when they come – especially their heels and hands would very much be affected from their diving trips, people were not always wearing shoes, injuries would happen on the feet. So, they will apply henna to the body so that they heal. So it’s very interesting how this tree is used in UAE, for not just beauty, but medical [reasons] and other things.”

Finally, as is the power of such beauty practices, it can make you feel better. Maryam recounts fondly, “One of the old ladies – I always go back to her and visit her and so on. She’s known as Um Mohamed and when I go to her and I see henna on her hand, newly put - I would say, like, ‘Oh, I love your henna, well done!’ and she sometimes said, ‘Oh, I was feeling low. So I had to do that to lift me up.’ So even one of my really close friends ,whenever she is feeling down, she would go to the beauty salon and apply henna. So it’s very interesting how it affects our mood.”

Beautiful odes to Nature

From moon-like crescents to simple circles, traditional Emirati henna patterns would be basic and inspired by Nature, says Maryam. She says, “Traditionally it used to be very basic and every woman used to know how to make it and how to apply it.” However, now she says the designs and themes are more sophisticated, more detailed – “You can call the ladies who are applying right now as an artist, because they are.”

In a video by Image Nation, Abu Dhabi titled “Lest We Forget: Emirati Adornment, Henna’, Fatima Ali Sultan Al Hamli reminisces on the henna tradition, saying, “For younger women, the lines are thinner. For older women, the lines are broader.”

Lest We Forget: Emirati Adornment, Henna Image Nation, Abu Dhabi

These are some traditional Emirati henna patterns, according to Maryam, which you would probably find familiar too:

Al Beqsha Henna Workshop Shindhaga featuring Maryam Qayed
A henna workshop by Al Beqsha, where the different Emirati patterns are showcased. Image Credit: Supplied

• Al Robian or the Coin: A circle in the middle of your palm.

• Al Rawayeb or henna covering your fingertips: Maryam says, “They would only cover the fingertips.”

• Gamsa or the dip: Maryam says, “It’s like a dip because the whole hand will be just plain henna, no details, nothing.”

• Hilal or the crescent: Like a curve or crescent on the hand connecting lines from the thumb and pinkie.

• AlKaf: Henna covering almost the entire palm and fingers.

Al Qasa or the Cut: A crescent connecting the index finger and pinkie, with a line from the index finger also joining.

• Al Baitan: a square in the middle split diagonally on both sides to form 4 small triangles.

• Al Bayaraj: Designs involving small, triangle-like petals

Naqshat Al Oud or Stick design: Where a dotted henna lines decorates the centre of our fingers

Juti or shoe-like design: Where the feet are covered with henna, just like shoes that cover the ankle.

Maryam adds that elderly women she knew had told her that traditionally, women did not do henna on the back of the hand – and it was always on the inside on the palm. She says, “Why? Because the value of modesty and shyness used to be very high at the time.”

Children decorate their hands with henna designs in Dubai to celebrate Eid. Image Credit: Zarina Fernandes/Gulf News

As for the colour, she says that decades ago, only natural henna was used, which meant the colour used to be its characteristic orange-brown, and it was often reapplied another couple of times to darken the stain. Now, a variety of essential oils and chemical additives have helped obtain dark henna colours, which is the favoured shade here currently.

Health benefits
• Anti-inflammatory
• Analgesic
• Anti-oxidant
• Antimicrobial
• Anti-fungal (and has been recorded to prevent fungal infections such as athlete’s foot by application)
• Anti-parasitic
• According to 2014 study on henna published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, the peer reviewed journal by the International Society of Ethnopharmacology says, “Women’s use of henna on their hair protects against UV rays that dry and damage hair, and rids the scalp of lice, ringworm, and dandruff.”

A fragrant link spanning cultures

Bridal henna patterns
Henna is part of many cultures worldwide, especially used as adornment for wedding ceremonies. Image Credit: Unsplash/Amish Thakkar

The routes travelled by the henna tree, spreading beauty, joy and health is certainly a legendary one. Sarojini Naidu, the Indian politician and poet – also known as the ‘Nightingale of India’ for her poetry in the early 1900s, once wrote a poem praising henna for the bride. A sweet excerpt from it goes, ‘For lily-like fingers and feet/ the red, the red of the henna-tree’. I remember my utter delight every time my cousin would draw beautiful, intricate patterns of henna on my palms in India – not for special occasions, but just because I loved it.

Not only is henna used for similar ‘Mehndi’ nights before weddings, and for Eid, Diwali festivities and other occasions in India, but also in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Add to this, the countries of Middle East and North Africa. According to the website of Roving Horse henna, a US-based henna studio, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Romani and Coptic Christian weddings often have a night of the henna preceding it – a night that goes by various names such as Mehndi Raat, Sangeet and Laylat Al Hinna.

Maryam says, “From the research that I did and from my conversations with people, I came to know that it’s really safe to say that it’s part of more than 20 countries’ culture - for example, Egypt, Sudan, Niger, Ghana, Pakistan, India, Somalia, Morocco and the list goes on.

“It’s really interesting to me personally because I used to think that culture is very much a factor that divides us. Rather from my learnings, I am finding out that culture unites us.”

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