Henna in Abu Dhabi

Time Out explores henna, the perfect body art for commitment-phobes

Henna in Abu Dhabi
Henna in Abu Dhabi Image #2

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 might just be the solution.

An ancient practice in India and the Middle East, in recent years the trend has spread as far as the fingertips and toes of western celebrities hoping to work a little eastern mystique into their look – Madonna, Rihanna and Jessica Simpson (pictured) have all been papped showing off their statement swirls and patterns. And, despite the henna tradition being largely one for the ladies, lightweight boxing champ Michael Katsidis made the ultimate statement of masculinity by rocking a massive henna sun on his back. We guess this is the half-naked equivalent of wearing a pink shirt – you’ve got to be a real man to pull it off...

Since henna is not inserted under the skin the way conventional tattoo ink is, and does not harm or alter the body permanently in any way, the art is not forbidden under Islamic law.

According to scholars, the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) is even said to have used henna to dye his beard, and 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 women wearing abayas to decorate their hands and feet.

Time Out tried out Al Lulu Beauty Centre in the Tourist Club area to see what designs were on offer – and ended up getting an impromptu lesson in henna culture from Bangladeshi artist, Shyma.

‘Indian designs are very intricate and take the longest,’ she explains, showing us a book full of incredibly complex designs, involving delicate swirls and detailed pictures of fish, animals and even handsome young gents riding on horses, all woven into the overall design. The Indian and Pakistani designs are generally lacy, denser patterns, covering whole hands, arms and feet. Block colours are sometimes used too, particularly on the fingertips. In contrast, Arab designs are simpler, often made up just of flowers and leaves. Those looking for edgier designs can look to Africa for bold geometric patterns, or Egyptian styles which feature fire dragons, pythons and lions.

Shyma says the most fashionable styles right now are for women to get extensive henna tattoos that sprawl right across their backs, dipping down over the shoulder and curving around the waist.

These alluring designs are particularly popular with brides, and are apparently a huge hit with middle-aged women too. Saucy...

Even these more extensive tattoos only take around an hour, especially if the artist is as quick and deft as Shyma, who manages to nonchalantly sketch super-delicate lines and flawless flowers while chatting at the same time. Having been drawing henna for more than 10 years, she’s experienced enough to create her own patterns as she goes along – and says she never messes it up. ‘Some people take a really long time to learn how to draw with henna, but for me it was very quick, because I love it so much. If you don’t love it you can never learn. It’s very popular in Bangladesh.’

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 on a cake. We opted for a simple Arabic design, with a trail of flowers across our feet, which took less than ten minutes to draw and half an hour to dry. The colour fades gradually with washing, and lasts for two to three weeks.

One word of advice for henna newbies – make sure you wear flip flops and try not to get the area wet (including sweating) for a few hours afterwards. Otherwise you’ll end up, as we did, with a mess of smudgy green on your toes. You have been warned.
A small henna foot tattoo costs Dhs30. Al Lulu Beauty Centre, 1st Floor, Al Qassimi Building, Tourist Club Area (02 644 5112)

Henna hazards

While the natural form of henna – just the powdered plant mixed with water – is harmless, a significant amount of salons have until recently been using 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, having been linked with leukaemia, were banned in Abu Dhabi this summer. If you aren’t sure about what the salon you visit typically uses, you can ask for the henna paste to be mixed in front of you. Be particularly cautious of salons offering black henna, as natural henna will only stain a reddish brown.

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