Henna and the Arab Culture

henna tattoo on a hand0

Henna is probably the oldest and still prevalent cosmetic item. They have been part of weddings and ceremonies as old as recorded history. Henna has also been an integral part of Arab culture. Today, there are parlors dedicated to henna arts in Dubai. Their prices can range from fifty dirhams to hundreds and thousands, depending on the intricacy of the design. 

History of henna

Legends have it that starting from about 9000 ago people used henna to provide comfort in the hot weather of the desert. They soaked themselves in the henna water. They felt the comfort as long as the henna stains remained on their bodies. As the stain wore off, it left patterns on their bodies. That was when the idea of using it as a body art struck them. Probably to the more creative among them.

People have always adorned their bodies with artwork as a display of beauty and personality, like ink tattoos. But those tattoos are permanent. Once they are inked, they are either impossible or very difficult to get rid of depending on the time one was living. The attraction of henna tattoos is that they are temporary. A henna tattoo typically lasts for one to three weeks. 

Like tattoos, henna also provided a means for self-expression in the days of yore. But those days are not completely over yet. Today henna has conquered boundaries and has found its way into western society.

Henna was not exclusive to Arabs, though. You will come across the tradition of henna in the Indian subcontinent as well. 

Other than for decoration, henna is an organic source of hair color. When there didn’t use to be many other alternatives available, henna was a more sophisticated way to color the hair than soot.

In Arab culture, henna is considered feminine, like other ornaments and decorations. Therefore, men wearing henna is looked down upon.

What is henna?

Henna is made of powdered (or ground) leaves of the henna plant. The powder is mixed with water to form a consistent paste. Lemon or other acids like vinegar helps enhance the color of henna. 

The henna paste is usually applied on the hands and feet. To draw patterns on the skin, henna paste is filled in a conical tube that squirts the paste upon applying pressure. After the application, the henna is left to dry for 2 to 3 hours. When washed away, it will leave an orange stain on the skin. After a few days, this gets darker and turns into reddish-brown. 

The darkness of the shade depends on the skin type and the area of application, as well. Some parts, like the palms of the hands, get darker than the back of the hand. As it gets farther away from the arms and the feet, the lighter it gets. Where the henna is lightest in the face. This is a useful feature when they are used to color the hair. Otherwise, an accidental smear on to the face would have made red patches on the visages. 

Are henna tattoos safe? A word of caution

Natural henna is safe for most people. They have been used for thousands of years. But unlike paints, henna doesn’t just stay on the surface of the skin. Hena actually gets inside the skin cells and stains them from inside out. For most of humankind, this is perfectly safe, unless you have a rare condition called G6PD deficiency. In such people, henna can cause allergic reactions. These can include redness of the skin, blistering, and in the worst cases, permanent scarring of the skin. They are also not safe for babies.

Fortunately, this condition is extremely rare, and most probably, you are not one of them. But henna is not to be ingested. Although they won’t cause serious issues, you can end up with an upset stomach.

Henna in the Arab tradition

Embellishing the hands and feet of the bride is a significant part of the wedding celebration in the Arab tradition. Some of them even have a night dedicated to the henna as a part of the wedding. Female relatives and friends of the bride take part in this event. 

Traditionally, it’s the older women of the family who painted henna on the bride’s arms and feet. In the Arab world, the henna designs differ from tribe to tribe. One can tell which tribe the bride is from looking at the henna pattern.

Another occasion where the henna is important is the eid. It’s customary for women to decorate themselves with henna the night before both Eids.

There is also a religious reason behind why henna became popular among the Arabs. Since the 7th century, Islam has been the predominant religion in the Arab world. Like all other Abrahamic religions, tattooing with a permanent ink was forbidden in Islam. Therefore henna took that place instead. Not only that, paints that stick on the surface of the skin makes performing the Islamic prayer difficult. Therefore temporary tattoos using other means were also looked down upon by the Muslims. Henna was a solution for both of these.

Mehndi vs. Henna

The difference between the two lies in the design. Mehandi usually refers to the type of henna tattoo that is popular in South Asia, especially India and Pakistan. Mehndi is, in fact, the Indian word for Henna.

The Indian take on henna is comprised of complex floral designs that are dense and covers most of the hands and feet. They usually cover more than 85 percent of the skin from the fingertips to the elbow. 

On the other hand, Arabic henna designs use less detailed and less complex art. They also cover less area (usually less than 60%).

What is black henna? Are they safe?

Black henna is made by mixing other additives to the natural henna. These chemicals turn the orange-brown color of the henna into black. But several health organizations have issued warnings against the use of black henna. They contain a chemical called PPD, which is toxic that has the potential to cause skin irritation in most people.

The best thing to do is to stay away from the black henna and stick to the natural one.

Health benefits of henna

Henna was used as a medicine for most of history. Applying them on the skin is believed to relieve skin conditions, sunburns, and dryness. It was also believed that skin-colored with henna is less prone to sunburns. They were used on animals that have to endure long hours under the sun. When people dried animal skin in the olden days, they applied henna to it to prevent insects and fungus from consuming it.

The best place to get a henna tattoo in Dubai?

A desert safari trip is a mix of traditions and adventure. They come with the adventurous bit like the dune bashing, sandboarding, and quad biking in the desert. The desert camp will give you a glimpse into the lives of the early bedouins in the desert of Dubai. Along with all other traditional elements, you can get a beautiful henna tattoo free of additional costs from the desert camp.

If you are interested in finding out the fun places to go in Dubai, check out the list we have compiled for you.

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