Sunday 22 March 2015

Good Luck Flowers by Kate Lord Brown

In many parts of the world, from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa, South East Asia, India and Pakistan the dried and milled leaves of Lawsonia inermis the mignonette tree, also known as the Egyptian privet, are prized. The small shrub has fragrant white or reddish flowers, but it is the elliptical leaves which are mixed with lemon juice and essential oils to produce a cooling, scented paste which imparts an intense rust red dye for the skin and hair.

The word henna comes from the Arabic hinna. Originating in the Middle East, and sometimes called mehndi or mehendi, adorning the body with henna paste is a tradition dating back thousands of years. Here, at fetes and children's parties it is as common to find a henna artist as a facepainter in the UK or US.

Each region has its characteristic designs. Khaliji henna of Eastern Arabia and the Persian Gulf, practiced here, employs ornate floral patterns and natural forms. In African designs the motifs are more geometric, and Indian henna is abstract and linear.

Henna plays an important part in celebrations throughout the year, such as Eid, but it is central to traditional weddings. The night before the wedding is known as laylat ul henna - the night of henna. Artists from a local salon are booked to come to the house of the bride to adorn the women. The paste is ground fresh from the leaves, or applied ready mixed in cones of coloured cellophane rather like piping bags for icing cakes. The tips are cut away to a fine point to allow the artist to deftly paint the designs, squeezing the henna paste through the tube. They are incredibly skilful - I bought a couple of tubes from the local supermarket to have a go at home, and it looked nothing like this:

Henna symbolises good luck and health, and it is traditional in the Arabian Gulf for the bride to wear a green gown embroidered with gold on henna night - a symbol of new life and abundance. The guests throw petals and money in celebration, and enjoy music and dance. The bride, her female relations and friends settle down to relax and talk as the henna artists paint the intricate patterns on their hands and feet. The process can take hours, during which the person receiving the design cannot move in case the paste smudges. It is an intimate and calming ritual, which necessitates the bride being still and surrounded by the support of her closest female friends and relations, no doubt an excellent practice for pre-wedding nerves. I remember having an intricate tribal pattern applied a few years ago, sitting next to a fully veiled local woman who was having her legs covered from thigh to ankle in ornate flowers. Perhaps it is a way of expressing yourself when so much is forbidden, and hidden.

It is important to let the paste set and dry - the mud will eventually flake away to reveal the patterns. Sugar and lemon juice can be dabbed on the design to intensify the colour and make the pattern last longer. At first the design will be a light ochre colour, but overnight it deepens to a rich brown. The design is only temporary, and therefore acceptable to Islamic tradition (which forbids permanent tattoos). The intricate floral patterns of khaliji henna will fade gradually over a period of up to three weeks, a lasting reminder to the wearer of family, celebration and good luck.


Carol Drinkwater said...

This is lovely, Kate. A reminder of wonderful days in the Middle East and Djerba watching the women gossip and laugh while being painted.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thanks, Carol - it's beautiful to watch (and experience, but you need patience:)

Kate Lord Brown said...
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