Henna is very popular in Saudi Arabia among both men and women. Women will use henna to make exquisite designs on their hands, arms and feet for special occasions such as weddings and during the two Eid’s. Henna is also used by both men and women for the hair as well.
However if you are not familiar with henna, you are probably wondering what is it? Where did it come from? How can it be used for both the body and the hair?
According to Wikipedia, henna is a flowering plant, the sole species in the genus Lawsonia in the family Lythraceae. It is native to tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, southern Asia, and northern Australasia in semi-arid zones. Henna, Lawsonia inermis, produces a burgundy dye molecule, lawsone. This molecule has an affinity for bonding with protein, and thus has been used to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather, silk and wool. The word “henna” comes from the Arabic name for Lawsonia inermis, pronounced /ħinnaːʔ/ or colloquially /ħinna/.
Henna is used in various festivals and celebrations. It is applied from a tube (similar to a tube of toothpaste) and the paste is left on the skin from a few hours to overnight and the stain can last a few days to a month depending on the quality of the paste, individual skin type and how long the paste is allowed to stay on the skin. Covering the henna paste with a mixture of lemon juice and sugar and then wrapping the hands in loosely covered plastic bags also will make the henna dye darker and last longer on the hands.
Henna has many traditional and commercial uses, the most common being as a dye for hair, skin and fingernails, as a dye and preservative for leather and cloth, and as an anti-fungal. Henna flowers have been used to create perfume since ancient times, and henna perfume is experiencing a resurgence on the Internet. Henna will repel some insect pests and mildew.
Henna has been used to adorn young women’s bodies as part of social and holiday celebrations since the late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. The earliest text mentioning henna in the context of marriage and fertility celebrations comes from the Ugaritic legend of Baal and Anath, which has references to women marking themselves with henna in preparation to meet their husbands, and Anath adorning herself with henna to celebrate a victory over the enemies of Baal. Wall paintings excavated at Akrotiri (dating prior to the eruption of Thera in 1680 BCE) show women with markings consistent with henna on their nails, palms and soles, in a tableau consistent with the henna bridal description from Ugarit. Many statuettes of young women dating between 1500 and 500 BCE along the Mediterranean coastline have raised hands with markings consistent with henna. This early connection between young, fertile women and henna seems to be the origin of the Night of the Henna, which is now celebrated world-wide.
Henna was regarded as having “Barakah”, blessings, and was applied for luck as well as joy and beauty. Brides typically had the most henna, and the most complex patterns, to support their greatest joy, and wishes for luck.
In Saudi Arabia henna is always applied for weddings and Eid’s. Young women will usually have intricate henna designs covering their hands. Some women, but not all in Saudi, may also choose to have henna applied to the feet. The older and more traditional women will apply henna to their fingertips and sometimes just a simple brown “ball” of henna in the middle of their hand.
Most Saudi women who choose to color their hair will also use henna. In addition to using henna as a hair color, henna also thickens the hair and leaves it both silky and strong. However henna applied to the hair is best for those who are brunette. Henna can add very attractive red highlights to hair. Henna should not be applied over commercially covered hair! In fact, when one is in Saudi Arabia, you never know how many women out wearing their abaya, hijjab and niqab may also have an application of henna processing atop their hair as they shop.
When I lived in Pakistan and also in India, I would get henna applied to my hands and feet each month or more often if there were a special occasion. Personally, I believe that skillfully applied henna with an intricate design is very feminine and attractive. However one time in Pakistan I happened to have the woman who applied henna create a small kitty cat tattoo on my right shoulder. Little did I know at the time that the man who is now my husband, when he first saw the cat on my shoulder was very concerned whether or not I was a woman who liked tattoos! (I’m not!) He was quite relieved when he learned it was simply henna and disappeared within a week.
This web site for those interested in more details about henna and how it is used provides excellent information and illustrations.
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