By Huda Biuk
For some people it’s the rustic smell, and the way its exotic colour contrasts the natural skin glow that makes henna so desirable. For others these are the very characteristics that make henna unfavorable to their personal taste. Of course, the latter category is the minority in Libya. One thing that can’t be denied is how much Libyans value the look of henna. Interestingly, henna often connotes happiness.
Drawing henna, or in the case of Libyans, applying the henna can be seen as long and grueling, but rather luxurious process. The first stage involves the preparation; similar to the preparations a cosmetic surgeon does on a patient.
However, instead of drawing the outline of areas to operate on, cloth tape is applied to the hands and feet in order to designate where henna should and should not be applied. Tape prevents henna absorption, so when henna is later applied onto the whole hand, the taped areas remain an undyed design on the painted hand.
The time it takes to achieve the desired rustic shade takes hours of lying in the same place; being served and cared for, and sometimes involves having your nose itched for you. Often, the application is repeated to ensure full absorption of the dye.
The design of henna in Libya differs from other countries where henna has a similar degree of cultural value. In India and Morocco, for example, intricate designs are hand-drawn onto the body. In Libya, what is considered as traditional henna differs dramatically.
From far, the traditional application of henna looks as if the top half of the hand and fingers are dyed. For the feet, the entire sole is painted, resembling little black slippers. The degree of design applied to the edges of the applied henna depends on personal taste, but also on the marital status of the woman wearing the henna.
Henna, in the design I just described, is reserved for married women, as are other cosmetic ventures. Unmarried girls, can however wear henna in designs, similar to the designs not very different the design drawn in Morocco and India.
Though Libyan henna looks simpler than Moroccan and Asian body art, it is emblematic and can reveal things that would otherwise remain unknown facts about the woman to an on-looking stranger. For example a newly-wed bride can be easily distinguished from one who has been married over one year.
The bride’s henna is distinct, and is simplest in its design with a straight, clean line separating the dyed fingers and unpainted palm and forehand. After a woman’s first anniversary, she is culturally permitted to diversify her henna slightly, using creative designs to decorate around her heel or knuckle.
The first time a woman applies this type of traditional henna is momentous; not only because she is a bride in her pre-wedding party but because culturally speaking, the intensity of dye absorption can be telling of a happy future.
More than anything, henna is a symbol of beauty in many countries around the world. In Libya, it is seen as overtly attractive to many people. For this reason, women often wear gloves and socks in public when wearing henna. This is done in order to maintain the level of modesty they are comfortable with, and so as not to attract the unwanted attention of passersby.
Interestingly, having to cover up does not hamper most women’s view on henna because for them, the advantages of henna outweigh the disadvantages.
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