Emirati Cultural Traditions

Arabic henna designs as an important part of Emirati culture.

The henna plant has been used since the Bronze Age for dyeing skin, leather, silk, wool and hair. Cultivated commercially in most countries of northern Africa as well as some parts of Asia, this plant has enjoyed a renewed surge of interest, due in part to emigration.

Emirati women often wear henna design to weddings, special occasions or just for fun! The women I worked with in the local schools would often have henna parties and show off their gorgeous designs the next day!

History of Arabic Tattoos

Indian court records cite its use as a hair dye around 400 CE and it was listed in the medical texts of the Ebers Papyrus as a medicinal herb. Cleopatra and Nefertiti both availed themselves of the beautifying nature of the plant. Used mainly in the cosmetics industry as a hair colorant, there has been a massive increase in its use as a temporary form of skin decoration.

Mehndi tattoos can be seen in many Arab states, however, tattooing is not a particularly Arab tradition and strict Muslims discourage the practice. However, henna tattoos are common among indigenous tribes in North Africa, where women adorn themselves with various symbolic designs.

The practice of mehndi became popular in India after the Mughals made the art fashionable in the 12th century. These temporary skin paintings quickly became very popular among royals and the upper classes; and in time designs became part of the traditional make up of brides. Henna art has been used for centuries as a form of decoration for brides in countries as diverse as India, Pakistan and parts of the African continent.

In Africa, henna was traditionally used as part of a ritual by tribes who would decorate their bodies using symbolic protective artistry. Somali culture encourages the use of henna on women and girls during festivals and weddings, or when visiting important people or relatives.

Most countries accept the need for women to look beautiful, and the intricacy of the henna tattoo used reveals a great deal about the wealth of the family as well as the value placed on their women.

Difference between Mehndi and Arabic Henna

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There are some differences between traditional Indian mehndi and Arabic henna designs. Arabic mehndi does not completely cover your hands or feet in henna paste. Instead, the traditional Arabic designs reveal more skin than Indian patterns and consist of delicate floral effects, whereas those from India contain swaths of paisley, floral and lace patterns.

Arabic designs are spaced further apart and the henna tattoo is therefore much more visible. Indian designs comprise of large shapes which are often highly decorated and filled with henna shapes.

Mehndi decorations are growing in popularity across the globe, with interested parties requesting designs featuring parts of their own culture, for example Celtic knot work or Japanese writing. Immediately after application, the tattoos are orange but darken over time to turn a burnt sienna colour.

Henna stains can last up to a month, depending on the quality of the paste, skin type and how long the paste stays in contact with the skin. Ideally, the paste will stay on the skin for several hours to allow the colour to fully develop.

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