American travelers and backpackers have known of henna body art for years. Many would return to the United States from their wanderings in the Middle East and India with faded temporary tattoos covering their hands, palms and feet. As recently as the early 1990s, the art of mehndi was relatively unknown in America, an “exotic” badge worn mainly by chronic wanderers and practiced by immigrants in relative obscurity.
Today, mehndi kits are widely sold in craft stores, hobby shops and on the Web. Mehndi artists are as common as tattoo artists, and superstars like Madonna have exposed the masses to henna tattoos on album covers and MTV.
Mehndi, an ancient art form used commonly by two of the cultures featured in The New Americans (Indian and Palestinian), is used to create intricate, ephemeral designs resembling gloves and slippers. The designs are applied to the skin with a thick paste made from the ground leaves of the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis) and have been used by desert cultures throughout the Middle East, Africa, India and Egypt for thousands of years.
The reddish brown stain is most often used to decorate the skin of hands and feet, but is also used to dye nails, clothes and hair as well as for its medicinal properties. Americans usually use the Indian word, mehndi or mehendi, to describe henna body art, but each culture has its own term: hinna in Arabic and Egyptian privet in Egypt.
While it is believed that henna has been used for decoration and medicine for at least 5,000 years, according to Carine Fabius, author of Mehndi: The Art of Henna Body Painting, the practice of mehndi began as a way to cool off in the hot Indian desert. These peoples found that they stayed cool by dipping their hands and feet into a paste made from the ground leaves of the henna plant even after the paste had been scraped off. Over time, this practice evolved into an art form of delicate lines and dots painted on the hands and feet.
Mehndi is traditionally used for celebrations and rights of passage: betrothals, weddings, births, religious holidays and festivals. Moroccans paint doors with henna to bring prosperity and chase away evil. The foreheads of bulls, milk cows and horses are sometimes decorated with henna for protection. Indian mehndi designs feature fine, lacy floral and paisley patterns, while Arabic hinna is usually made up of large, floral and vine patterns. African henna art is bolder and more geometric.
While mehndi is currently all the rage with actors, artists and hipsters across the United States, new Americans like Naima and Anjan are integrating their traditional customs into their new lives, adding another square to the American cultural quilt.