26 Aug. - 1 Sep. 1999
Issue No. 444
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
The spiral and the coilProfile by Hanan Radwan
Redefining body art? Well, henna is a way of life
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Focus Culture Features Profile Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
"Hmm... Should I do this?" I wondered. Too late. In a trice, Sattouna had grabbed my arm and, with a plastic cone clipped at the tip, she quickly set to work. The henna oozing from the tip meandered across my wrist, leaving coil-like designs on the way. It tickled. I chuckled. Sattouna laughed and ordered me to hold still. A petal or two here, a few dots there, and I had an oriental bracelet etched on my wrist before I could say Bob's your uncle, had I been so inclined.
Sattouna then dropped my arm and looked around voraciously. She caught the eye of an unsuspecting friend who had accompanied me. "Come on, come on, let me do you up as well," she coaxed, leading her by the arm, and my friend watched helplessly as henna florets quickly sprouted on her arm.
We considered ourselves lucky. Women all over Cairo wait patiently in line for Sattouna's henna designs. Thanks to this vivacious Sudanese artist, Laylat Al-Henna or henna night -- the Arab version of a bridal shower -- is now the in thing. During the summer months -- the peak season for weddings in Cairo -- Sattouna's mobile phone constantly buzzes with calls for bookings. Those brides who do not make early reservations have to grin and bear Sattouna's late arrival at their showers -- she sometimes has two bookings per evening. Young female guests queue up gleefully after Sattouna finishes with the bride. They soon emerge with varied motifs on their arms, ankles, waists, palms, feet, necks, or even cheeks.
A long-standing tradition in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world, henna nights were confined mostly to Upper Egypt and some villages in the Delta and Sinai regions until recently. Now, everything has changed -- thanks in no small part to Sattouna. A henna night is a jamboree of festivities. The bride and her female guests (usually, men are not allowed to attend) gather after sunset the day before the wedding to sing, clap, ululate, and dance the night away. Refreshments, snacks or a full-blown supper may be served. Gifts may or may not be given to the bride. Depending on her financial capabilities, a bride may don up to seven different outfits. Candles are lit on a tray, which the bride has to circumambulate seven times. At many henna nights in Egypt, this is where the evening ends; the brownish plant paste is nowhere to be seen. But in keeping with the cultural code, some households insist on the grand finale: a skilled woman or hannana is brought to slather henna on the bride's palms and feet or to draw designs.
A serious ritual or just another wedding frill? "Where I come from [Sudan], a henna night is the core of our cultural heritage," Sattouna says. I nod. "No, no, you don't understand," she continues vehemently. "You simply cannot talk about culture in Sudan without mentioning henna. You will almost never see a Sudanese woman or girl without henna on her palms or feet. It is part of being a lady. As for weddings, I only need to tell you that if a close relative of any of the couples dies immediately before the wedding ceremony, the festivities may be called off or toned down, but the henna ritual will never, ever be cancelled."
To the Sudanese, henna is more than skin paint. It symbolises beauty, luck, and even health (the henna plant leaves which are crushed to make the paste contain nutrients that nourish the scalp and skin). It is also a morale boost. "Many women who are depressed put on henna and feel much better afterwards," Sattouna says. "Al-Henna Hanina" is a common Sudanese saying that equates henna with tenderness and affection.
In the Sudan, henna nights take on stately importance. A special bed with elaborate designs is made for the bride to sit or lie on while the hannana paints her skin. This bed -- the angarib -- is an important family heirloom. A special bed sheet called the hanbal, imported from Saudi Arabia, is placed on the angarib for the bride to lie on. Everything the bride wears at a henna night must be new, "from her dress down to her underwear", Sattouna explains. A Sudanese wedding dress is conventionally white, but red is the preferred colour for the bride's attire on a henna night.
Even if a bride herself is an expert hannana like Sattouna, it is considered socially improper for her to apply her own henna at her own wedding. "They brought another hannana to my wedding," Sattouna recalls. "Of course I gave her a hard time, telling her 'don't do this', 'do that', 'draw this here'..."
Relying on their own imagination and creativity, hannanas have no blueprint, and improvise as they draw. The paste is made by crushing green and greyish-black henna leaves, a plant oil called mahlabiya, water, and a liquid concoction made from a "secret formula" which hannanas like Sattouna would rather die than divulge. At the beginning, match sticks were the hannana's brush, followed by medical syringes and now the qurtas or plastic cone. Sattouna obtains her henna from the Sudan when she goes to visit friends and relatives. It takes from one to three weeks for the design to fade away.
The Sudanese groom is not exempt from a henna night. "He must have henna on him at the wedding, even if only on his little finger," Sattouna says. Instead of professional hannanas, grooms are painted by older female relatives and the rituals for male henna nights are more sedate, taking place later in the evening. The hannana simply plasters henna on the groom's palms, fingers, soles and toes in such a way that the edges are cleanly rounded. Dainty lace designs and floral patterns are out, of course. "No Sudanese man can get away from henna on his wedding," Sattouna repeats.
Simply mention the idea of a henna night to a groom in Egypt and you're done for. Even Cairene brides who do perform the ritual usually consider it little more than a fad -- a fun addition that prolongs the festivities and gives the guests something new to rave about. Does that bother Sattouna? She simply shrugs. But then again, this is Fatma Ali Osman, an easygoing woman who doesn't bother to speak in long sentences and never troubles her mind by remembering names, dates, or other such details.
Her fame name -- Sattouna Al-Magrous -- is an interplay between praise and mockery, but that doesn't disturb her. When she was a child, her mother nicknamed her Sattouna, which translates into Egyptian Arabic as Sitt Al-Banat or "the best of all girls". In a school festival at which she danced and sang as a child, former Sudanese President Jaafar Numeiri noticed "this plump little girl the size of a magrous [a Sudanese army truck] but who nevertheless moves with remarkable agility on stage," she recalls, and then bursts out laughing.
But don't be taken in by Sattouna's carefree demeanor -- this woman has boundless ambition. After all, her efforts were in large part responsible for the resuscitation of henna nights in Cairo.
It all started with a neighbour's wedding nearly two decades ago in Sudan. Before then, Sattouna had always enjoyed messing around with leftover henna that her mother used to adorn herself. As a schoolgirl, Sattouna loved to draw designs on her friends' palms and feet. They liked the artwork on their bodies and kept asking her for more. She also loved to listen to her mother sing traditional Sudanese folk songs, and started humming a few herself. Soon, she was grabbed by the school administration to participate in festivals and cultural activities. "One of the good things about the Sudan is that once somebody notices that you have talent, the whole neighbourhood hears about it and you immediately become popular," Sattouna says, waving hands embellished with floral henna gloves.
She was not surprised, therefore, when a neighbour "ordered" her to be the hannana for her daughter at her wedding -- she was just terrified. "I kept giving her all kinds of excuses not to do it, like 'I have to study for my exams' or something," Sattouna reminisces. "But she wouldn't take no for an answer and out of deference, I had to accept. I was so scared! With henna, you can't afford to make mistakes because you wouldn't be able to wipe them out. And this was a bride. She had to be done up properly or else she would be shamed before her guests." Sattouna's fears were unfounded, and she soon became a hot item at wedding festivities.
At the same time, one of her brothers -- she has eight siblings -- introduced her to Abdallah Al-Qazim, a Sudanese singer who honed her vocal skills and helped her form her own band. Soon, she was singing Sudanese folklore and popular songs at weddings, festivals and other social occasions throughout the country. She enrolled at the Faculty of Fine Arts and studied drawing, music and theatre. A good-looking lute player by the name of Ahmed Abdel-Karim joined the band and became Sattouna's personal voice trainer. A love story between them unfolded for the next five years before they were eventually married in 1989 after her graduation.
The couple chose to spend their honeymoon in Cairo. Lazy days at the beach and romantic Nile cruises were not the reasons for their choice. Sattouna badly wanted to develop her career as a singer and saw Cairo as a gateway to audiences in the Middle East and Europe. Henna was the last thing on her mind. Through the Sudanese community, she was introduced to Ali Hassan Coban, a Nubian singer who helped her make her first album. It was not successful, but Sattouna was not daunted. "I considered it a trial run," she says simply.
One day -- she doesn't remember when -- she was asked by the Sudanese students at the American University in Cairo (AUC) to stand with them at the Sudanese booth on International Day, an annual event organised by the university to promote harmony between students of different nationalities through cultural displays. Students flocked around the Sudanese booth upon hearing of a certain artist who could design "henna tattoos" for a nominal fee. But Sattouna particularly remembers one student called Salma: "She came up to me and asked if I could draw designs for her sister, who was soon to be married. I told her, 'Why don't you organise a full henna night instead?' and I explained how we do it in the Sudan. She was thrilled with the idea and asked me to help her organise the event. The guests who came that night found the idea stylish and wanted to copy it. That's how I began to be known in Cairo."
Sattouna's henna nights have now become so popular that ballrooms in five-star hotels are frequently reserved solely for this event. As at wedding ceremonies, there is no shortage of pomp and glitz. The bride is swathed in a red gown and bedecked with huge chunks of artificial jewelry, all supplied by Sattouna for the night. Her head is then covered with a red shawl, which a close relative unveils as she joins her guests to dance and clap to Sattouna's songs. Sattouna also joins the fun, swaying to the music, dancing with the bride, and dragging guests onto the dance floor. When the music is over, she takes out her plastic cone and the henna artwork session begins, first with the bride and then with the other guests.
Usually, the designs drawn on the bride are never repeated on the guests. In any case, "I find it very boring to draw the same design twice," Sattouna says. "But there are exceptions. For those who like to go all the way in a wedding ceremony, Sattouna draws uniform designs on the arms of the maids of honour, depending on which side of the couple each of them will stand, and on their hands if they are to hold candles or throw salt or flower petals at them. Starting at LE15, Sattouna's artwork may cost up to LE50 or more per design.
But prices don't deter customers. In fact, many of Sattouna's bookings during the off-season winter months are made by foreigners and society ladies who choose to add a little bit of fun to their monthly coffee gatherings by "drawing themselves up", as Sattouna puts it.
Some women ask for snakes, butterflies or Pharaonic designs. "Once a bride asked me to draw a scorpion on her navel. I told her 'are you crazy? Do you want your husband to run away from you on the night of the wedding?' In the end, she gave up the idea," Sattouna recalls with theatrical gestures and a guffaw.
Many of her animal designs also find their way onto the arms, chests, and legs of macho men who like to show off at the beach, club, or at parties. The American pop singer Prince is even rumoured to visit Cairo annually "to do two things: go to Khan Al-Khalili and call me up to draw designs on him," Sattouna recounts proudly.
Whatever the preferences, Sattouna's plastic cone and her henna nights are the linchpins of her rise to fame. What many people don't know is that she is also a budding singer and actress. They may have noticed her small part in the blockbuster film Sa'idi fil-Gam'a Al-Amrikiya (An Upper Egyptian at the AUC), singing Chocolata along with actor Mohamed El-Heneidi. But they may not have heard of her success as a singer in Europe, where she holds up to 20 concerts per year. They may not remember that the play Makhaddat Al-Kohl (Kohl Pillow), in which she acted and sang with her husband and brother, won first prize at the International Experimental Theatre Festival in 1998. They may know little about the forthcoming play in which she will participate in October.
But for Sattouna, singing and acting are the bread and butter of her future career. "I know that hannanas are becoming more widespread in Cairo and that this whole thing is turning into a commercial business," she says, leaning back on the couch with a grin and a shrug. "I also know that henna nights may be a passing fad in Cairo. But so what? I will still have my singing and acting."
But will she abandon her botanical palette? Her answer is crisp and adamant: "Henna is in my blood. I'll never give it up." Still, she does realise that the future of henna designing in Cairo is very similar to the designs themselves: pretty and eye-catching, but they don't last too long.
(photos:Randa Shaath )