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Published on June 19, 2003

Henna, the morning after

Every time I apply my own henna mixture to my hair at home I swear it will be the last time. After watching a sparkling clean, white bathroom transform into an absolute and utter mess in the space of an hour, it is unlikely that one would ever want to repeat the process again. Not only are the sink and bathtub splattered with large lumps of henna but also the shower curtain, the ceiling, the laundry basket, the window, the washing machine and half of the corridor leading to the bedroom.

And it is not only that splattered henna is annoying to clean, but also that by the time one is ready to start the cleaning process, the henna has somewhat solidified, an offensive sight to say the least. In fact, it is hell.

Yet it has been 10 years since my first home- henna session, and despite the recurrent annoyance, I never seem to get enough. First, there is the fact that I don't trust anyone with my hair, one of my most prized and admired traits, contrary to mother's opinion and embarrassment. At least people remember me straight away -- it is only possible to forget a mane like mine if a conscious effort is made to send it to mental oblivion. Second, I usually decide to embark on lengthy and arduous processes in the middle of the night during an attack of insomnia. Complex tasks are never planned as far as yours truly is concerned. Thus it goes. Toss and turn in bed in a frustrating quest for sleep. Get up in anger. Head to the kitchen. Bring out henna and other ingredients. Mix, mix, mix. Let the contents settle while the necessary comfort items are brought to the bathroom (music, cigarettes, a drink, etc). Put on a tie-died shirt to protect my shoulders from turning bright orange. Take one deep breath and one long look at the henna basin and... ready, steady, GO -- the plunge. From then on it is a mechanical, Tolstoyan process: losing myself completely in the alternating motions of sinking my fingers into the henna and applying it to a lock of hair, sinking my fingers, applying to a lock, sinking, applying, sinking, applying...

The third reason is that, although my hands turn fluorescent orange for at least a couple of weeks, nothing beats digging one's fingers into a half- solid, moist substance and feeling its cool contact with the skin -- like playing in mud, like shaping wet sand, like gardening, like devouring a ripe mango with its juice trickling down one's arms, all the way to the elbows, like kneading dough, like wringing washed clothes, like modelling clay, like eating a slice of watermelon with a dripping chin, like licking the remains of chocolate cake batter from a plastic dish. Such is the sensation with the henna. Earthy. Real. Sensuous. Human.

The most direct result of a night of henna is a shower of compliments on the morrow. Yelps and gasps precede flattering statements about my hair from every direction, and I would be lying through my teeth if I claimed I did not enjoy those moments of aesthetic adoration. The second consequence is that knowledgeable feeling when I am asked how on Earth I managed to get that most gorgeous of auburn henna tints. Nonchalantly I make the list of ingredients: coffee, tea, hibiscus, gazelle's blood (a bright red powder procured at the spice shop) and pure henna (preferably Moroccan or Sudanese). On one henna occasion, my listener was so engrossed in my description of the mix that she actually believed me when I said, "Oh I just mix the henna with yoghurt, vinegar, raw eggs, coconut oil, hibiscus, tomatoes, fuul, ta'miya and some besara."

But the single most gratifying moment on the morning after is seeing the expression on my colleagues' faces when they notice the palms of my hands. "What ever happened to you???" some of them screech in horror, imagining a nasty skin irritation. Or better yet: "That looks absolutely dis- gus-ting!". I love that line. Yes, I admit, it makes me feel superior. It makes me feel that I know who I am, that I am blessed with an awareness of my identity as an Egyptian, as an African. I am from Egypt, the pride of Africa. I have inherited my ancestors' wisdom in dealing with my hair and with the heat. They knew thousands of years ago that henna on the skin lowers one's body temperature and began applying it to the soles of their feet and the palms of their hands where all the nerve endings meet.

The irony of the matter is that no one believed my account of the ancestral, natural form of air- conditioning until I mentioned that as long as my palms are orange from the henna, my shower gel solidifies on my hands in the shower. Only then do they believe, briefly expressing an almost infantile amazement at the small wonders of the world. It lasts a few seconds until their facial muscles contract once more into contorted repulsion.

How do I react? I grab as many of their exposed body parts with my henna-stained hands as I can with a wicked smirk.

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