|American travelers and backpackers have
known of henna body art for years. Many would
return to the United States from their wanderings
in the Middle East and India with faded temporary
tattoos covering their hands, palms and feet.
As recently as the early 1990s, the art of
mehndi was relatively unknown in America,
an “exotic” badge worn mainly
by chronic wanderers and practiced by immigrants
in relative obscurity.
Today, mehndi kits are widely sold in craft
stores, hobby shops and on the Web. Mehndi
artists are as common as tattoo artists, and
superstars like Madonna have exposed the masses
to henna tattoos on album covers and MTV.
Mehndi, an ancient art form used commonly
by two of the cultures featured in The
New Americans (Indian and Palestinian),
is used to create intricate, ephemeral designs
resembling gloves and slippers. The designs
are applied to the skin with a thick paste
made from the ground leaves of the henna plant
(Lawsonia inermis) and have been used by desert
cultures throughout the Middle East, Africa,
India and Egypt for thousands of years.
The reddish brown stain is most often used
to decorate the skin of hands and feet, but
is also used to dye nails, clothes and hair
as well as for its medicinal properties. Americans
usually use the Indian word, mehndi or mehendi,
to describe henna body art, but each culture
has its own term: hinna in Arabic and Egyptian
privet in Egypt.
While it is believed that henna has been used
for decoration and medicine for at least 5,000
years, according to Carine Fabius, author
of Mehndi: The Art of Henna Body Painting,
the practice of mehndi began as a way to cool
off in the hot Indian desert. These peoples
found that they stayed cool by dipping their
hands and feet into a paste made from the
ground leaves of the henna plant even after
the paste had been scraped off. Over time,
this practice evolved into an art form of
delicate lines and dots painted on the hands
Mehndi is traditionally used for celebrations
and rights of passage: betrothals, weddings,
births, religious holidays and festivals.
Moroccans paint doors with henna to bring
prosperity and chase away evil. The foreheads
of bulls, milk cows and horses are sometimes
decorated with henna for protection. Indian
mehndi designs feature fine, lacy floral and
paisley patterns, while Arabic hinna is usually
made up of large, floral and vine patterns.
African henna art is bolder and more geometric.
While mehndi is currently all the rage with
actors, artists and hipsters across the United
States, new Americans like Naima and Anjan
are integrating their traditional customs
into their new lives, adding another square
to the American cultural quilt.