Henna: A Popular Tradition Inherited By Generations

National Yemen

By Tamjid Alkohali

Despite of the modern technology advancement of producing thousands of hair dyes and cosmetics, the Henna plant was and still the most popular dye for Eastern women in general.

However, Henna in Yemen isn’t only cosmetic, it’s a popular tradition that relates to many ancient stories and legends and attracts the attention of many poets and singers.

A specialized researcher in popular traditions and the resigned Minister of Culture, Arwa Abdu Othman said that now people called it “Henna”, but in the past it was called a paradise tree. According to old legends, when two lovers died, people gave them  Henna plant to sniff so they could be revived. Therefore, it was called paradise tree as it returns the life again.

Othman added that according to books by Orientalists and anthropologists, all Yemeni women keep Henna in their house. “For them, Henna was as a talisman to expel the demons and evil spirits from the houses. I know many women, especially the elderly who put Henna on their hands in order to protect themselves from the evil eye.”

Over time, using Henna has turned into art, called Nakesh and practiced by some talented women.

Educator Amat Aslam-Karim al-Mutawakeel says that Henna engravings come from different counties such as the Gulf states, Sudan, and India. “In the past, women put Henna on their palms and figures without paying attention to design. Therefore, any woman was capable of adorning herself with Henna without the help of experts. These days, painting with Henna has become a task that can only be completed by skilled women with prodigious painting skills. Some of these girls use the internet to find new patterns and designs for their work,” she explained.

Al-Mutawakeel added Henna’s importance for Yemeni celebrations, an entire day of wedding celebrations is designated as “Henna Night” where the groom and the bride as well as relatives use Henna. “The bride paints her hands and legs with beautiful engravings, while the groom puts Henna on his thumb or index finger,” she said.

With the increasing number of the female experts in the field of Henna engravings, it has become a source of livelihood for many women.

Rania is 38 years old and recognized as an expert in Henna artistry. She confirmed that Henna became more popular with the existence of Henna designs. “Some girls come to me with their own designs to draw them on their hands and legs while others depend on me to choose suitable engravings for them.”

Rania added that the main reason behind women’s interesting in Henna that it’s a healthy and natural material and very cheap, where the easy designs cost only $5-15, while special paintings cost up to $75-100.

According to Rania, female tourists who visit Yemen are also interested in Henna. “Before the deterioration of the tourism in Yemen, many tourists from different nationalities were coming to me to paint their hands with Henna. Sometime they paid me $200 or more if they like the design.”

Rania confirmed that her customers increase during Eids and other occasions. “Women prefer to use Henna in their weddings or relatives’ weddings, sometimes after weddings, and also in engagement parties or without any occasion. Some just do it for their husbands.”

Using Henna isn’t only for painting hands and feet. Nasreen, an employee in Sana’a said, “I rarely paint my hands with henna because of my job, but I always use it for my hair and the bottom of the my feet in order to maintain their smoothness. It is better than the rest of the chemical products.”

According to some doctors, Henna has medical benefits. It is used for yellowness and scabies diseases, for wounds and burns, to strengthen the skin, to remove headaches, to eliminate termites, and to stop hair loss.

The three best types of Yemeni Henna are Hadrami, Harazi, and Thami. Most customers prefer to buy Harazi Henna because it has a special specification and its price is high.