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My henna is basically gone now; my natural skin colour emerging startlingly pink after all this orange and brown so deep that it’s nearly purple. My nails have already grown out enough that it’s starting to look a little funny to American eyes; the top half of my nails are orangy-red, but the bottom half, the new growth, is white. It’s the opposite of when nail polish comes off, and it’s starting to earn me some odd looks if people notice.
This half-nail colour is normal for Mauritanian women. When they travel, they usually henna their hands. All my friends, when they heard we were leaving, told me to call them for a henna once we’d bought our tickets. Henna is a part of their culture. They henna their hands for weddings, births, feast days, whenever they want to look pretty, or if their husband is returning from a trip.
Henna exists in many cultures, Arab and Indian, but there are differences in patterns and designs. Traditional Mauritanian henna is patterned with strips of tape (medical tape) laid down in intricate designs; henna paste is then daubed on and when everything is removed, the beautiful shapes are apparent. This is the kind they do for brides. It takes hours and hours. I’ve had a traditional henna done but a fairly simple one, not the bridal kind.
Now there’s a quicker, more modern way that Mauritanians call “Moroccan style.” The henna women mix the henna powder into a paste and put it into a little plastic bag; then they snip a tiny corner off and draw designs freehand onto outstretched fingers and palms. They work quickly, and it only takes about 30-45 minutes to cover your hands in lacy outlines. Then, they wrap kleenex round the individual fingers and palms, and cover the whole thing in a plastic bag tied round your wrist. You then must wait for 3 hours without using your hands while it “sets.”
On our last day in Mauritania, Ilsa and I went with Aicha (another Aicha; it’s a very common name. This one is Amina’s sister, for those long-term readers who are keeping track, if you even exist). She went in the morning to have a traditional one; she arrived at 10:30 and finished at 7:30. Ilsa and I, what with one thing and another (late thesis students, for example) made it to Aicha’s house at 4. Her driver took us to a market I’d never seen before, down past Marché Capitale, between Capitale and the Moroccan Mosque. Then he led us at a terrific pace through a sort of tiny alleyway that wound through stalls selling boubous and kids’ clothes and past men dumping bowls of leftover food out into the walkway. We suddenly swerved into a tiny bare room, with mats on the ground, which opened up onto a little space. It was L-shaped, so the women sprawled on the ground having their hennas done were not in view of passerbys.
Ilsa and I joined Aicha in sitting on the cement floor leaning up against some old, ratty cushions. Immediately two women each took one of my hands in theirs and began to work, kneading the henna paste between their fingers, and beginning to expertly draw patterns on my outstretched palms. Ilsa dug out my camera and took pictures, but I can’t get them off my camera so you will have to make do with photos of the finished work.
Having your hands done is easy; having your feet done a bit more complicated. I lay awkwardly on my side, trying to allow both women access to my heels while still keeping both hands (already wrapped in plastic) from touching anything. My skirt hiked up and I looked in disgust at my fat white calves, then had that minute of dissonance as I realized that those around me probably envied me what I despised.
After both Ilsa and I were sitting with our hands wrapped in plastic bags, and my feet as well, it was time for Aicha to get her’s removed, a process that involved razor blades scraped over the skin to remove all those bits of tape. We sat and sat, and by this time it was nearly 7. “We need to go,” said Aicha, “but don’t worry—you can walk on the bottom of your feet.” And so it was that I found myself walking on the ground of an African market with only kleenex and a thin layer of plastic on my feet. It felt very strange, but Aicha assured me that it was normal, that every night women come out like this. I am skeptical of this—it seemed I got a lot of attention, although I supposed it was just because I stood out anyway. I avoided the damp spots where earlier trash had been emptied as best I could. Aicha got me a taxi and I arrived home to deal with another 2 hours of plastic bags—and this on a night when people were stopping by non-stop to say goodbye! Two of my students came by, with gifts for Donn and I (jewelry for me; a keychain for him) and shy smiles of pirde when we effused our thanks. We took pictures together, me trying to hide the fact that my extremeties are covered in plastic. I had to eat a sandwich with only my fingertips, through the kleenex and plastic. It was extremely difficult and a little worrisome, as I didn’t want to smear the patterns before they’d really set.
Finally it was time to remove the bags, peel off the disintegrating kleenex, and scrape off the henna. The henna “develops” over time; although I took the bags off at about 9 p.m., the henna looked its best, darkest and crispest, the next afternoon.
I know that henna exists in America, so I assumed that most people would at least be familiar with it. But the reactions I got ranged from enthusiatic to appalled.
Many, many people asked me if it was permanent. Others backed away in alarm as I went to hug them, afraid of my nearly-black fingertips. As it started to fade, people assumed I’d been berry picking or finger-painting. Many people assumed it would wear off onto their clothing, and were alarmed that I was wearing a cream-coloured Moroccan tunic, sure I would get rust-coloured stains all over it. But no, none of these things were true.
A lot of people asked me the significance of it. It’s rather like an American woman getting a manicure, I explained. You do it to look nice, to celebrate, to dress up, for decoration.
Now, it’s basically gone, and I’m regretting that decision to do a typical style. I’ve had many hennas done over the years, but that first time, I got so sick of watching my big toe-nails grow out that I stopped having them do my finger and toe tips. But it was my last day in a country that had been home for 6 years; I wanted to be typical, I wanted to remember. So, in a fit of sentimentality and excess emotion, I let the henna women do it.
It’s okay, and I’ll cover it with polish. But I’ll have orange on my thumb nails till about Thanksgiving, and on my toe nails till about March.
Ilsa had her hands done too, but not her feet.