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Henna art is still popular in modern times
The region we now know as UAE has a vivid history of beauty traditions and rituals, from early forms of cosmetics to aromatic perfumes and essential oils. Perhaps the most well-known beauty ritual is the intricate body art created with henna dye, which plays an important role in the lives of many Emirati women.
What is henna?
Originally worn in by brides across the Middle East from 800 CE to bring good luck to their nuptials, henna body art continues to be a popular beauty treatment in Abu Dhabi today. Made from crushed leaves of the henna tree, henna powder is mixed with water and lemon juice or a similar acidic to create a thick paste that stains the skin on contact. Applied using a pointed cone, the artist creates an intricate design relevant to the occasion. The artwork commonly covers hands and feet. Left to dry, the dye darkens, turning from a sheer brown outline to a vivid red-brown after two-to-three days.
Although ink and needle tattoos leave a permanent mark on skin, making them haram or forbidden under Islam, henna body art is painted onto the skin and does not penetrate the surface, making the practice an acceptable one for Muslims to enjoy.
When is henna worn?
Henna is a significant part of an Emirati woman’s wedding preparations, with the bride’s female relatives and friends hosting a henna night three days before the big event. The designs are believed to contain barakah, an unseen flow of positive energy from Allah that will bring blessings to the wearer and protect against evil spirits.
Tradition requires a married elder relative to paint the bride’s hands, forearms, feet and ankles with an elaborate kaleidoscope of spirals, dots, flames, petals and suns. Said to pass on the success of the artist’s own marriage to the bride-to-be, the designs differ from family to family, with daughters often having the patterns from their mother’s own wedding henna replicated.
Henna is also worn by those outside bridal parties, with locals painting themselves in patterns inspired by nature – water swirls and flowers, for example – to celebrate important religious holidays such as Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that follows Ramadan. Older women will also dye their nails with henna, as a Levantine throwback to pre-varnish manicures.
Top tip: to ensure your design lasts, avoid using bar soap and swimming in chlorinated pools – both will fade henna fast, as will vigorous scrubbing.