“Interestingly, a smell is a memory that stays for a lifetime,” says Maryam Qayed, founder and general manager of Al Beqsha, an organisation that offers Emirati cultural souvenirs and henna experiences, and works with the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Centre for Cultural Understanding, reminiscing fondly on henna during her childhood here. “For me, henna reminds me of moments with my mum, who would drag me and have me sit down to apply henna on my hand. She would do it herself.
“And the next day, I would realise, ‘Oh it’s Eid! That’s why I was dragged to apply henna’.”
Here in UAE, it is a beloved part of Emirati culture with a rich tradition of henna art during weddings, Eid celebrations and happy occasions. How did it first get here? Maryam says, “There is no actual date when it arrived in the UAE, but it arrived through trade. Some people say that it came from Yemen, and some people say that it came from Oman.
“Through trade and over a camel, people exchanged henna trees, with their supplies, that’s how henna arrived in the UAE, knowing that healthy henna roots are more than enough to grow this tree.
“I think the henna plant was okay to be planted and grown in the UAE, and easily maintained, so families just started growing henna. They were introduced to the benefits of henna in terms of the dye, medical usage of henna and beauty.”
Later, henna was grown widely in the region in the 1960s and 1970s, she adds. The henna tree can be harvested within six months, and you can benefit from it thrice a year, and it lives for around 50 years. Maryam explains that henna paste would be made at home by drying henna leaves, grinding it with basic tools, purifying using pieces of cloth – adding a little water, perhaps a bit of coffee and then keeping it overnight before use.
In the UAE, the special plant went on to have a wide variety of uses. It became a regular beauty accessory for married women, grown and handmade completely at home with its set of beautiful designs passed from generation to generation. It is drawn on in delicate patterns during Eid celebrations, and on the day of the wedding eve of a bride together with her loved ones.
Maryam says, “It’s part of UAE culture to smell good, to look good – to look nice and beautiful. Henna was part of our daily accessories. Even nowadays, an old woman – you would notice that she is still applying henna or there is a henna in her hand. Because she is used to such an ornament being part of her life. It also lifts them up and makes them feel good.”
The wedding eve ceremony, also called a Henna night, sees a special moment of love and care showered on the bride by her loved ones through the merry occasion of applying henna together. Maryam says that traditionally, there would be a certain woman applying henna for the bride. She says, “It's not a matter of how detailed or how good she is. But it’s the moment that the bride would love to share with this woman. So, it was more of motherly love and care, and being part of the memory of applying it for the person on the wedding day.” It’s an adornment.
Maryam also adds to this, saying, “And I did not even know that – it is not only for women in UAE, but some men would also apply henna on their wedding, just like a ritual. Very basic, not detailed as women, but as a ritual - some tribes would do that. Henna offers benefits to the skin – to cool it, to heal it, so even men would use it on their head and their body.” She explains that it was even part of the tradition during diving trips in the UAE, that women would receive the men with henna for them to apply. She says, “The pearl divers when they come – especially their heels and hands would very much be affected from their diving trips, people were not always wearing shoes, injuries would happen on the feet. So, they will apply henna to the body so that they heal. So it’s very interesting how this tree is used in UAE, for not just beauty, but medical [reasons] and other things.”
Finally, as is the power of such beauty practices, it can make you feel better. Maryam recounts fondly, “One of the old ladies – I always go back to her and visit her and so on. She’s known as Um Mohamed and when I go to her and I see henna on her hand, newly put - I would say, like, ‘Oh, I love your henna, well done!’ and she sometimes said, ‘Oh, I was feeling low. So I had to do that to lift me up.’ So even one of my really close friends, whenever she is feeling down, would go to the beauty salon and apply henna. So it’s very interesting how it affects our mood.”
From moon-like crescents to simple circles, traditional Emirati henna patterns would be basic and inspired by Nature, says Maryam. She says, “Traditionally it used to be very basic and every woman used to know how to make it and how to apply it.” However, now she says the designs and themes are more sophisticated and more detailed – “You can call the ladies who are applying right now as an artist because they are.”
In a video by Image Nation, Abu Dhabi titled “Lest We Forget: Emirati Adornment, Henna’, Fatima Ali Sultan Al Hamli reminisces on the henna tradition, saying, “For younger women, the lines are thinner. For older women, the lines are broader.”