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BY AMAL BUMBIA (staff writer)

Henna is bitter. Astringent and earthy in scent. The thick paste varies in color from a lighter green-brown to a richer sienna. From the cone, it flows with ease, a continuous stream despite its viscosity. The inexperienced hand fails to control the strands before they fall upon the skin, but the nature of henna and the difficulty that comes with attempting to use it contrasts sharply with the art it is capable of creating. Thinner tendrils are ideal for small details—petals, spirals, and textures. Thicker lines result in prominent leaves and abstract designs. Over time, the scent of the henna mellows with familiarity. A substance that originally seemed difficult to deal with becomes tame as the hands holding the cone steady. The art that henna creates is appreciated globally.

My experience with henna revolves primarily around having it done on my hands for holidays and weddings. The process of getting henna becomes an event on its own—family and friends, young and old, gather around the designated artist and watch as each person takes their turn. We admire each unique design as it is created and look up new patterns for reference. We sit and talk as we wait for the henna to dry, after which the struggle of figuring out different sleeping positions or ways to secure plastic bags on our hands begins. We do not wash the dried henna off until the next morning to ensure that the color is fully developed, and cleanup is much easier when flakes of dried mehndi are contained rather than littered over clothes and beds.

Nothing is more satisfying than removing the henna, piece by piece, and revealing the bright design underneath.

If no henna artist is available, we buy cones from the market and attempt the practice ourselves. Needless to say, our lines rarely come out smooth and precise. Henna artists are able to round out their petals evenly; they create sharp edges without muddying the paste. Their motions are swift, yet steady while the inexperienced hand cannot help but make mistakes. Often, the henna is smeared and has to be removed and redone. But regardless of who is doing the henna, we still enjoy this aspect of culture for it is a means by which our families, and by extension, our communities can be brought together through art. Ultimately, mehndi ties us back to our roots as the practice is one that has been preserved through history.

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