Traditional henna tattooing has long been popular in the Middle East
Time Out Bahrain staff
If you’ve ever fancied the thought of your body as a canvas, but haven’t the money, endurance or commitment to go under the needle, a henna tattoo could be the solution. An ancient practice in India and the Middle East, the trend has recently spread as far as the fingertips and toes of Hollywood celebrities hoping to work a little Eastern mystique into their look – Madonna, Rihanna and Jessica Simpson have all been photographed showing off their statement swirls and patterns. And despite the henna tradition being largely one for the ladies, Aussie boxing champ Michael Katsidis made the ultimate statement of masculinity by rocking a huge henna sun on his back. We guess this is the body-art equivalent of wearing a pink shirt – you have to be a real man to pull it off.
Standard tattooing is forbidden under Islamic law because it permanently alters the body. However, henna is not inserted under the skin in the same way as conventional tattoo ink, and does not harm or alter the body, meaning the technique is permitted among Muslims. According to scholars, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is even said to have used henna to dye his beard and is believed to have been a fan of the leaf for medicinal purposes, too.
In more recent times, it has become a popular and stylish way for Middle Eastern women wearing abayas to decorate their hands and feet, particularly for weddings. Indian henna designs are generally the most intricate: the lacy, dense patterns cover the entire hand, as well as arms and feet. Block colours are sometimes used too, particularly on the fingertips. In contrast, Arab designs are simpler, often comprising flowers and leaves. Those searching for edgier designs can look to Africa for bold geometric patterns, or Egyptian styles, which often feature fire dragons, pythons and lions. The most fashionable styles right now are extensive henna tattoos that sprawl right across the back, dipping down over the shoulder and curving around the waist. These alluring designs are particularly popular with brides.
Yet even these more extensive tattoos only take about an hour to create. Henna comes in various shades of reddish-brown, applied using a paste made of henna powder and water through a cone that looks a lot like something a chef would use to pipe icing onto a cake. Advice for henna newbies: if you’re having a tattoo on your feet, make sure you wear flip flops when leaving the salon to avoid smudging your new design, and try not to get the area wet (this includes sweating) for a few hours afterwards, or you’ll end up with a sludgy green mess. You have been warned.
While the natural form of henna – the powdered plant mixed with water – is harmless, some salons also use chemicals such as benzene, petroleum and P-phenylenediamine (PPD) to darken the henna compound and make it last longer. These chemicals can cause dangerous skin reactions and have been linked with leukaemia, causing them to be banned in a number of countries recently. How can you avoid the dangers here in Bahrain? Always ask for the henna paste to be mixed in front of you, and be particularly cautious of salons offering black henna, which contains PPD (natural henna will only stain a reddish brown). If your skin starts to sting at any time during the henna process, leave the salon immediately and see a doctor.
Where to go
Rachna’s Henna Beauty Salon This place isn’t flash, but the staff know their stuff when it comes to henna. Be sure you ask for the natural rather than the black henna, though, as the latter contains the possibly-carcinogenic P-phenylenediamine (PPD). A simple design on both hands will only set you back BD6. 331 Osama Bin Zaid Avenue, Adliya (near the post office) 17 716 669
Most of the hotel-based Friday brunches have a resident henna-lady sitting nearby to decorate your hands, arms and ankles, usually free of charge, though a tip is always welcome. The best we’ve found operate out of the Movenpick (Muharraq 17 460 000) and the Crowne Plaza (Diplomatic Area 17 531 122)
Why I had henna for my wedding
Rosy Moorhead, Freelance Journalist I’ve lived in Bahrain for almost four and a half years and really wanted to take something of the Arabic lifestyle and culture back to the UK when I went home to get married in 2009. The easiest and most decorative option was to have henna tattoos on mine and my bridesmaid’s hands. I was slightly worried that it would look out of place at a traditional white wedding in an English historical house but all the guests thought it looked great and our hands with our flowers and my wedding ring was one of the most-taken pictures of the day.