Thank You and the Art of Henna

“This week finds me in Salalah, Oman, where I indulged in a traditional art and got a tatoo.  Well, a henna tatoo.  In this region of the world, many women are dressed in the black hijab.  The only visible parts of the body are the eyes, hands and feet (when wearing sandals).  But that’s not to say there’s no reason to titivate with the best of them!  What is visible is often decorated and made up with great care and class.  Women’s beauty salons abound.  Eyebrows are tweezed and threaded.  Eye shadow brushed about.  Heavy mascara applied.  Fingers display a vast array of gold and dazzling rings.  Bracelets jingle.  Perfume is heavy.  And even the skin is painted.  This is the art of henna.

In the Middle East, East Africa and parts of Asia henna is a common form of body art.  Applying henna to the body is a practice thousands of years old.  Henna ink is derived from the henna plant and applied to the hands and feet in intricate, delicate designs.  The ink can also be applied as a temporary hair dye.  In desert climates like the Arabian peninsula, its practical use is as a protection from sun burn – a natural sunscreen.  This “tatoo” fades away after several weeks, so for someone like me who will never commit to be bound to a permanent, western-style tatoo, it’s an art form in which I’m more than happy to participate.” May 2013

Fast forward to November 2014, Tamil Nadu, India.  “I am not a professional, but I practice a lot at home and I have my favorite designs.”  This seemed to be a common refrain among the young women I befriended during my week in India.  This evening, ‘Naya’ worked swiftly, gracefully, skillfully on my palm and arm.  Not a professional?  This girl – these girls – had skill!  Normally reserved for special occasions such as weddings, our henna was a thank you gift.  What an honor to be a recipient of their skilled art, bestowed after a childhood of learning and observing the practice.  When she was done, Naya pulled out a phone and showed me her portfolio of intricate designs on Pinterest.  Clearly there are some arts that are under-appreciated this side of the pond.  Henna is one of them.

It does not wash off.

It does not wash off, so on the return trip, in the various airports across the continents, several people stopped to comment on the strikingly visible lines.  “Is that henna?  Did you go to a wedding?”  Yes, it’s henna.  No,  I didn’t go to a wedding.  Quite the contrary, actually.

We were crowded intimately around a campfire, girls swapping stories of henna escapades, in awe of the variety of designs that emerged out of a paper cone, tip snipped to allow the gel to escape.  They were piping brown frosting henna onto my hand and the hands of others around the circle.  But there was no talk of weddings, at least among the conversations I understood – which, when there are five languages spoken at once in a throng of girls, isn’t saying much.  For one last night, the young women were out under the stars, under the canopy of creation.  Time and again they had been told, some for the first time, that there IS a God who loves them.  This God cleans away stains that run deeper than henna and transforms calloused hearts (and hands) into individuals that bring glory to His name.

I never ended up getting that henna tattoo in Oman last year.  I was so excited about the prospect, however, that I had proactively researched and wrote a draft blog post, ready to publish once photos of the done deed were acquired.  The gift of being henna’d by a friend, however, was much more meaningful than a quick paid, touristic visit to a salon.  As I write this ten days after the event, my henna is but a faint stain of its once striking glory.  It’s nearly gone, but I will forever hold the memory of being henna’d in the dim light of a campfire in the Nilgiri mountains of Tamil Nadu.  Thank you ladies!


Why was I in India?  Read more here.


One response to “Thank You and the Art of Henna”

  1. […] For the final day of January, Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I am posting the full unabridged version of what OnFaith posted yesterday as “10 Ways You Can Help Fight Human Trafficking.” I also want to direct you to Heidi Carlson’s excellent (shocking) guest post, “The Trafficker Next Door,” and her story of her experience helping with an adventure camp for rescued women with Freedom Firm in India last November, “Thank You and the Art of Henna.” […]

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