insight - Nassin Rafiq Ahmed

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Occupation - Hennaya

The art of applying intricate henna designs to the body to celebrate weddings and festivals originated more than 5,000 years ago, and crosses a variety of cultures. Rachel Morris meets one of Qatar’s most famous ‘hennaya’, or henna artists.

Mumtaz’s hands hold the plastic cone lightly as she deftly and accurately outlines leaves on the upper hand of her client. The henna paste is dark and unctuous, and the skin tingles from the mixture of oils blended with it. It is the start of what will be an intricate design based on a traditional Indian pattern. She takes less than 20 minutes to complete the design, which will last up to three weeks.

Mumtaz (whose name means ‘excellent’ in Hindi) plies her art in an inconspicuous, even retro villa in one of Doha’s busiest areas: Frij Al Nasr, a place few men ever tread. Markaz Funoon Lil Henna Wal Tajameel is a beauty salon with a difference – it is home to the city’s best-known henna artists. Nasrin Rafiq Ahmed established the salon 17 years ago and now has a team of young women working for her, decorating the bodies of Arab, Indian, and Western women for weddings, festivals, and other occasions.

“I was always very fond of art and design,” Nasrin explains in a rare quiet period at the salon just before the Eid al Adha festival, which will see dozens of women patiently waiting on the salon’s couches for their henna. “When I came to Qatar, I saw that the ladies here were interested in henna. So I could use my love of art to build a business.”

Henna has been used to adorn young women’s bodies as part of social and holiday celebrations in the eastern Mediterranean region since the late Bronze Age. The plant itself is said to originate in the North African region. The earliest mentions of henna in marriage and fertility celebrations come from texts in and around Syria. With trade it moved to the subcontinent and beyond.

Henna design by Nasrin Raiq Ahmed

But henna is said to have been popularised in the Islamic world because it is reported to have been the favourite scent of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Henna is regarded as having baraka, or blessings, and is applied to the hands, feet, and other parts of the body for luck as well as for beauty. Henna powder is derived from a bush, Lawsonia inermis, commonly found in the Middle East and other areas where the climate is hot and dry. The bush is harvested, dried, and then crushed to make henna powder to which water and other oils are added to make a paste. Henna is not only used for body art, but also hair treatments, rash relief, and other purposes.

The dye when first applied, looks almost dark green, then it dries and flakes off to reveal brownish-red designs that last for up to three weeks. Nasrin, a mother of three, calls herself a ‘hennaya’; her one-of-a-kind designs are sought after by the upper echelons of Qatari society, including the ruling family. Indian women also flock to the salon for Diwali, the festival of light, and other celebrations. Henna comes from an Arabic word, but in Indian tradition the practice is called mehndi.

“People get to know our designs. I can tell who has done someone’s henna designs. There are only four or five other specialist salons in Doha,” Nasrin says.

Nasrin’s team of ladies, including Mumtaz, come from India, Pakistan, Morocco, and – unusually – the Philippines. “I train them for up to one year before they are fully qualified,” Nasrin says. During the ‘wedding season’ in Qatar, which falls in the cooler months and also June, Nasrin’s salon is so busy she ropes in her daughter, a doctor at Doha’s Women’s Hospital, to help with henna.

“All the designs are different – Libya, Sudan, Yemen. In Qatar, their designs have the big flowers and swirls as well as the full top of the finger coloured with dye, while Indian designs are very detailed. Designs from the United Arab Emirates are also popular,” she says. “Many Western ladies come in for designs on their arms and legs before they return home for holidays.”

At this salon, they only use natural henna, blending it with eucalyptus and clove oil to enhance colour but also to give the henna a recognisable scent. Pure, natural henna leaves a chocolate-brown or deep mahogany red stain on the hands and feet. Or on other parts of the body the stain can be tea colour; shades can vary depending on the individual and other factors.

“Some people, they mix the henna with black dye and that is where you get the problems,” she says. She says this creates a toxic dye. “We use only natural oils and ingredients. The henna comes from India. In almost 20 years I have never had a problem. This should never happen,” Nasrin says. “Henna is not black.”

After the henna is applied, the artist can use a hair dryer to set the pattern. Others like to ‘wrap’ the area in tissue or plastic to seal the colour. The residue then can be brushed off. “I tell the ladies to apply olive oil to keep the colour longer,” Nasrin says.

Nasrin’s team is mobile and is often called to the houses of brides for pre-wedding decoration. This is a celebratory event in both the Arabic and Indian tradition and is a women-only affair. She explains that some brides ask for designs all over their bodies, including the name of their husbands to be written in henna and hidden by designs to be found on their wedding night.

“We have been to many places to do our designs, from houses to palaces,” Nasrin says, showing the huge books of designs for all parts of the body.

Nasrin’s business is growing, and she will soon open another salon in another location in Doha to keep the art and tradition alive. “I have been doing this for 20 years. I have done henna for women, their daughters, and now their grand-daughters,” she says.

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