Henna

Le henné, c’est la terre du paradis.

Henna is the soil of paradise.

-Mohammed Ben Cheneb – Proverbs from Algeria and the Maghreb


I looked down at the small mound of greenish-brown sludge on the palm of my hand. An elderly man wearing a skullcap and a grey burnous was using his forefinger to spread it carefully into a perfect circle. My uncertain gaze flickered from his bowed head to the man sitting by my side, holding out his own hands, palm upwards, and waiting, with a slight smile, for the paste to be smeared on them as well.

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Looking around the room from under my lowered eyelids, I saw two young boys standing to one side, beaming widely and holding tall candles wrapped in ribbon, their foreheads gleaming with perspiration from the combined heat of a sweltering Algerian July evening and the proximity of the candle flames. On the table in front of us were bowls containing eggs, the brown paste, and pastel-coloured sugared almonds.

Taking deep breaths to keep the panic at bay and slow the pounding of my heart, I saw two familiar faces amongst the crowd of women at the door, all straining to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. My mother and my sister — my mother with tears in her eyes at the sight of me in my silver and black wedding kaftan.

My mother-in-law was standing at the front, resplendent in her new multi-coloured dress with bands of bright rickrack braid sewn around the sleeves, the hem and across her chest, which was puffed up with importance at her new status as mother of the bridegroom. Her lips were pursed in a mixture of pride and emotion, and she kept heaving little sighs that made the the fringe of her headscarf  flutter.

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My heart rate slowed as I looked at T again, handsome in his dark suit, white shirt and tie. It was the first time I had seen him in three days. He had always had this calming effect on me and I would be irritable and anxious during his absences, impatient for his return. He had handed me over to the women a few days earlier, without a second thought, and I had felt pushed and pulled in all directions ever since — dressed and undressed like a doll and made to parade in front of all the (female) guests. His calm presence now helped settle my frazzled nerves. 

He was just the opposite to me, taking everything in his stride. Although he might have given in to the women on a few points of traditional protocol, his word was law as far as everything else was concerned. How could someone feel so confident, so sure of themselves? Couldn’t he feel how the house’s pulse rate had gone up since our arrival in Algiers a few days before?

With his mother, his sisters, his cousins and aunts around him, he was like a fine young male animal surrounded by a pride of admiring females. His brothers hovered at a respectful distance. He was the cherished  first-born son, the one on whom all the family’s hopes were pinned. His boundless confidence more than made up for my own sad lack.

El-Hani, or the henna ceremony, should normally have been performed separately — each in our own homes. In a way, it was almost like a hen or stag do  — a last night as a single person spent in the company of friends and family, and a prelude to the next day, when the bride would be taken to her husband’s family home. The ceremony was not supposed to take place in mixed company and with both families present, but as I had no family home in Algeria, we had to improvise. 

So it was the oldest male member of T’s family, his great-uncle, who applied the henna paste to my hands as well as to T’s, and not the oldest female member of my own. From that moment on, we were officially married in the eyes of tradition — and of the family.

Henna has been used to decorate young women’s bodies, as part of the celebration of social events and feast days, since the late Bronze Age.  It is thought that ancient links between young, fertile women and henna are behind this custom, which seems to have originated with the Berbers, later spreading as far as the eastern Mediterranean, Asia and India, and, in Egypt, replacing the red ochre dye that had been used previously. Many statuettes of young women with raised hands stained with what looks like henna, and dating from between 1500 and 500 BC, have been found all along the Mediterranean coast. 

The earliest writings about its particular role in marriage and fertility celebrations were found in the port city of Ugarit in pre-Islamic Syria, and referred to women decorating their bodies with henna in preparation for their wedding night.  It was thought to bring the bride good luck and keep her from harm.

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Henna powder is made from the leaves of the henna tree, lawsonia inermis, also called the hina, the mignonette and the Egyptian privet. Traditionally, the dried leaves are ground to a fine powder with a pestle and mortar, before being mixed with rosewater and sometimes lemon juice to make a thick paste. The amount and the quality of the henna used can make the colour obtained vary from bright red to black.

In Algeria at the time of our wedding, henna was not applied to the skin with the aid of a syringe or special applicator in order to make the beautiful, swirling, lace-like patterns seen in India, but was just smeared over the tips of the fingers, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Sometimes the whole foot, or hand, would be plunged into a basin full of henna.

Not being used to henna, and thinking that this method left the hands and feet looking as though they had been daubed in blood, I had asked that only the palms of my hands be decorated with just a small amount of henna. I did not want to be like the seductress described by the French writer and painter, Eugène Fromentin:

“…. elle avait …. les mains enluminées de henné, les pieds aussi; ses talons rougis par la peinture ressemblaient à deux oranges….” (Her hands were  highlighted with henna, her feet also; her heels, reddened by the dye, looked like two oranges…)

If you see a young woman with faded henna tattoos on her hands and feet, it usually means she has recently married, but the application of henna is not reserved just for weddings. It symbolises joy, or thanksgiving, and women and children are often seen with henna-reddened hands at births, circumcision ceremonies and during Aid.

My own henna stains lasted a few weeks, as my hands had been carefully wrapped in bandages immediately afterwards so the paste would not wear off. No such elaborate ritual for T, who washed his hands immediately, leaving  just a faint orange mark on his palms. He was willing to indulge his mother and go along with tradition, but only up to a certain point.

Henna is not just used for body art. It can be used for various types of skin complaints. It acts as a sun block. It is good for dry or flaking skin and helps speed up the healing of skin cuts. Fatiha, my home help, would use it on her dry and cracked heels. It is also supposed to strengthen nails. A true miracle of nature.

And finally, it is used as a natural and organic hair colour. Not only does it colour the hair, but it strengthens the hair from the root to the tip. I used it a little when I discovered my first silver hairs, and it gave a pleasing chestnut sheen to my dark hair. The only downside is that it dries to a stiff and brittle shell, which can be slightly disconcerting.

It is not advisable to use it on hair which has turned completely white or grey, as it can end up an alarming shade of bright orange. Many is the time I have seen elderly Algerian women with a tuft of ginger fluff peeking out from under their headscarves. But they prefer that to silver hair. There is no accounting for tastes.

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Algiers. Photo by Karen Rose.

Trembling, I stood there at the top of the plane stairs, shading my eyes and squinting in the bright sunshine. When the aircraft door had been opened a few moments before, the warm air had hit me like a blast from a hairdryer, blowing dust into my eyes and whipping my long hair into tangles across my face. My mouth felt dry and my stomach tight with apprehension as I followed the other passengers across the tarmac to the airport building. Continue reading