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By Christine Petré
“For me, henna symbolizes Algeria, nostalgia, tradition and women of North Africa,” wrote Algerian author Naila Missous when reflecting on her personal relationship to the ancient art tradition.
The practice of covering the hands and feet with artistic patterns using a dye extract from the henna plant has a rich history. “The earliest records that we have of henna go back to ancient Egypt,” explained henna researcher and professional henna artist Noam Sienna. “A woman was buried with hennaed hair in a worker’s cemetery at Hierakonopolis in the pre-dynastic period, approximately 3400 BCE.”
Henna originates from the henna plant, a small flowering shrub that grows in hot, dry areas from the Middle East, North Africa to Southern Asia.
But despite what is known about henna, researchers have not been able to discover more details about its ancient use and reach across the region. “It’s probable that henna was used in the ancient world throughout the Levant, but we have very little evidence. It’s mentioned in some Canaanite texts as well, and it is mentioned as well in the Bible (in the Song of Songs) as a sweet-smelling plant,” Sienna explained.
Nevertheless, researchers have been able to find out that its earliest use was to dye hair, and “its flowers were used as a perfume,” Sienna added. But why people began to use Henna is somewhat unclear. “We can make lots of guesses as to why and what exactly it represented, but no one can be sure. Henna does have some medicinal properties (for example anti-fungal and anti-bacterial) so it’s not unlikely that it was used medicinally, and then people noticed that it also produced a dye.”
In pre-Islamic Arabia henna was used as a dye for both men and women. Although henna does not appear in the Qur’an, it does appear in hadith, or the sayings of Prophet Mohammad, “and from early Islamic literature we see that henna was associated with celebration, and forbidden during mourning,” Sienna said.
The custom became widespread and popular across religions, but more frequently used within Judaism and Islam. “It was used by Christian communities as well, although several of the early Church fathers strongly disapproved of it,” Sienna said. With time the tradition spread across continents and can today be found on most continents across the globe. The dye is popular in India, for example, to adorn women’s hands and feet for a wedding party.
Artistic henna patterns differ between regions. “The most commonly known North African style is fassi (from Fes, Morocco). It is very dense, with an emphasis on triangles and zigzag lines,” Sienna explained. Another henna style in the North African region is the Marrakech, Morocco style, recognized by its geometric patterns, placed asymmetrically over the hands. The most complex and delicate hennas are most highly regarded.
Many henna patterns include an “eye,” which symbolizes good luck. According to ancient belief it is supposed to protect the bearer from the evil eye, a belief in Islamic and Levantine cultures. Traditional beliefs were powerful and persistent and different patterns were used to avert the evil eye, which was not only integrated in patterns on people’s bodies but also on jewelry and ceramic. One example contained triangles with dots in their centers and “eyelashes,” which according to folk art symbolized the eyes, which stared back at the evil eye and thus protected the bearer against misfortune.
“Henna in general is seen as warding off the evil eye, but most of the patterns are about ‘what looks pretty’ — and that changes over time, from place to place, and of course with new technology, like the fancy syringes that they use now in North Africa, which they obviously didn’t use 100 years ago,” Sienna said.
Compared to other regions the patterns in North African henna contain a numerous symbolic messages. “Indian designs, for example, are also highly symbolic — but of different things. In North African culture, henna is seen primarily as an embodiment of baraka (blessing), which brings good energy and wards off evil,” Sienna said.
“The symbolism for me in terms of its use during celebratory events is an important part of ancient traditions and provides a sort of unspoken meaning,” described Anya Salhi, an Algerian student residing in England. “I know of the simple ‘blob and finger tips’ commonly used by older generations and on the little boy and his grandfather at a circumcision, and also on the bride and groom at a wedding.”
According to Sienna there are four main occasions when henna is used: for beautification (anytime when someone wants to look beautiful), celebration (holidays, weddings, ceremonies), protection (any kind of transition, moving to a new house, anxiety over jinn (spirits and ghosts), and transformation (ceremonies of passage for birth, puberty). “Sometimes henna is just a cosmetic, sometimes it’s used for a rite of passage, and sometimes it’s used for its spiritual properties (of blessedness and protection),” Sienna said.
For Mariem Denai, an Algerian student, henna is compulsory during festivities such as Eid. “Every Eid, it’s a must!” To her the practice is more than just body art. “It’s a whole tradition that has been passed on by previous generations.” “Although the popular Algerian design is not complex and usually very simple (a circle on the palm of the hand), it’s the whole excitement that used to come with getting henna done by my grandmother and the family gatherings the night before special occasions.”
The practice is most often associated with specific occasions, according to Safia Missous, a middle-aged Algerian woman. “Henna is associated with happy occasions for me. Happiness, culture and women.” To her the patterns are less important than the colors. “Colours are important – usually an orange color for lighter skin, and a darker, almost burn orange color for dark skin which looks amazing.” She has also passed the tradition on to her daughter, Naila. “There are images of me as a baby with henna on my hands and feet.” But Naila added, “These days, I use it mainly on my hands or ankles, and sometimes fingers. I know women use it on their hair too but I haven’t personally done this.”
However, according to Sienna, the old, symbolic art may be threatened by time and European ideals of fashion and beauty. “I would say that since the 1950s, henna has been seen as old-fashioned, rural, even embarrassing. Also the tourist sector has really affected henna in North Africa — the traditional designs take a long time to learn, and a long time to do, and they’re not what tourists think they want. So instead henna artists feel pressured to do for example quick flowers or scorpions.”
“Maybe now people are coming back to their roots, rediscovering what North African culture is about,” Sienna said. “So maybe there will be a renaissance?”
Christine Petré is The Atlantic Post’s MENA Region Correspondent, based in Tunis, Tunisia.