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Ibrahim El-Salahi Pain Relief at The Saatchi Gallery, London

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“An open hand will encounter henna”, Gasim Abu Zaid – a saying explained as “A kind and cheerful character has the allure of henna; precious things and fortunate incidents are drawn to it. Appreciation and friendship will beautify it, like henna adornments decorate your skin.” (Sand in my Eyes, pp 82 and 762.) Left, the hennaed hand of a dear friend in Northern Province, early 1980s. Sketch above based on photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID, Creative Commons.

Right, A Khartoum woman holds a coffee pot in her hennaed hand. Photo, wikicommmons. This post was inspired by memories of a most generous-hearted Sudanese friend who gifted me glimpses of her life and whose hands were always open to offer kindness and warmth. Sitting on rope beds in her courtyard in the dizzying late afternoon heat, I watched as she applied henna paste to her delicate hands and feet and waited for the stain to take. That was in the early 1980s. Thirty-five years later I came across the beautiful saying, quoted above, in Sand in my Eyes, Sudanese Moments, by Enikö Nagy, pictured below.

Below, henna designs popular in the 1980s. My thanks to Jackie Hall of FB Sudan Teachers Group for this photo.

This post reproduces two short edited extracts from Women of Omdurman, Life, Love and the Cult of Virginity, by Anne Cloudsley 1983, Ethnographica. Her accounts reflect life in the seventies and early eighties in Sudan and follow the timeless henna dyeing rituals of the women she lived with. The post also includes an extract from Sisters under the Sun, by Marjorie Hall and Bakhita Amin Ismail, Longman, 1981. For more glimpses of Sudanese life in Northern Province in the early 1980s, see Scenes from Sudan’s Northern Province.

An Open Hand Will Encounter Henna; Henna Rituals of 1970s as recorded by Anne Cloudsley and Marjorie Hall & Bakhita Amin Ismail

Setting the Scene

Below, a sketch based on a photo of a Sudanese friend’s wedding. I will be looking at Sudanese henna and other beauty rituals in more depth in coming posts.

You might be interested in two more posts inspired by henna; “Mothered by Lonely Women, Anointing in Robes of Red and Gold and Inscriptions on Rosewater See how fine henna tracery of Sudanese and Indian culture informs the work of Amel Bashir in Amel Bashir Taha Delicate Defiance


Below, a sketch based on a photo of a young woman in Northern Province, early 1980s. Seated on the edge of her angareeb bed, she waits for her hennaed soles to dry and set in the sun.

In Sudan henna dyes are imbued with both symbolic and esthetic charm. Accompanying joyful and propitious occasions such as weddings, they have been used since ancient times. Kushite tombs reveal the use of henna in funeral rituals. Brides and grooms have their palms and fingertips dipped in henna as do young boys upon their circumcision.

Henna is also used as a hair dye and is believed to have medical qualities; used to bring down fever, for the treatment of urinary infections, skin diseases and alopecia. (Gems from traditional north-African medicine: medicinal and aromatic plants from Sudan. 2012). See more in and

Above, a photo showing how the Lake Erie Sudanese community decorated a building with traditional Sudanese henna motifs. Read the inspiring story in See the fascinating connection between Nubian house decoration and women’s henna designs in Inscriptions on Rosewater

“Traditional henna designs”, as recorded in the early 1980s in Sisters under the Sun.

Above, a henna farmer from El Damer, holding sprigs of young henna plant. See the video clip at the end of this blogpost for more on the prized El Damer henna. An English transcript will be available shortly.

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Below, Two Accounts from Women of Omdurman; Preparing and Applying Henna and Layla el Henna; Bridegroom’s Henna Rituals from Sisters under the Sun

Preparing and Applying Henna

“The best henna leaves come from El Damer, two hundred miles north of Khartoum and can be bought in the souk. The henna shrub is small and its leaves tiny. The ordinary variety found in Omdurman and grown in many yards stains the skin a bright orange-red. The leaves of the Damer shrub, dried, pounded and mixed with water to a thick paste, stain the skin a dark brown. Grain is pounded in a large wooden mortar with a wooden pestle as thick as a man’s arm and at least as tall as the woman who is pounding. It requires considerable practice and skill. Sometimes Fallata women are hired for the occasion, but in Mahmoud’s hosh, Leila, Sakeena and the two Saedas pounded their own mortars, working at them in pairs, raising the pestles in turn. To help to keep the rhythm the other girls and women friends clapped, beat the dallukah drum or a tin tray, and enjoyed themselves generally. At one time, the rhythm of the pestle and mortar was helped by yet another ingenious kind of drum. Two or three gourds were cut in half and placed in a large tub filled with water so that they floated upside down. Drumming was performed by beating these gourds with sticks; the result was very sharp and strident. If a guest happened to arrive and the girls and women felt particularly exuberant they added to the general drumming and pounding by bursting out with the zagharid. Some say this kind of drumming used to be reserved for mourning and the beating was sometimes done with old slippers instead of sticks…..When the henna is ready the women paint the hands and feet of the bride. The paste must stay on for an hour or so as the skin gradually takes on a deeper hue. For a good result two or three new layers must be applied. It is a laborious task. Affaf decided to do the finishing touches herself. The palms and nails of both hands and the nails and soles of both feet may be stained in a variety of traditional patterns. It requires a good deal of skill to do this well and it can look very beautiful. It is said that the henna cools the skin and makes it soft; this is particularly necessary for the feet. The soles are always completely covered in henna. Slip-on sandals (ship-ships) are mostly worn and the skin, particularly round the heels, tends to become hard and thick as a result of the dry winds and abrasive sand. When henna is prepared and put into a large bowl it is customary, especially at weddings, to let unmarried girls dip their fingertips into the dish. Ideally, henna should be applied during the day, either outdoors or on a verandah where there is good light. It is still very much the custom for women to apply it regularly to their hands and feet, and a common sight is to see a young bride sitting on an angereeb in the yard, carrying out her toilet to the quiet accompaniment of a bleating goat and scratching chickens. The stain of henna fades somewhat after three of four weeks. Recently, among a select few, commercial hair dyes have been used to hasten the work of the henna. An eye pencil is used to outline the pattern which is first blocked in with henna, then the dye. Both are squeezed from a plastic bag as in icing a cake ……On the occasion of a wedding the last application of henna is completed at night and the women place lighted candles on the henna dish in order to see more clearly what they are doing…”

“She mixed the fine powder with water in an enamel bowl…a small quantity of the paste was put on a saucer with a piece of wood the size of a tooth-pick…The paste must be spread accurately over the area to be painted to get a sharp edge to the pattern. It is removed when it begins to dry out and is replaced, area by area, several times to obtain the right depth of colour. When completing the lacey edge of the pattern on the borders of her feet, Affaf sat sideways and placed some paste the size of a pea on the side of her thigh. She worked from there with her stick, placing the paste meticulously to keep the pattern even and regular. She coloured the soles of her feet completely and brought the henna round the nails of her toes to their upper surfaces. The fancy patterns usually extended along the inner and outer borders of her feet. The tips of her fingers were treated in the same way. Sometimes the whole of the palms of her hands were painted with delicate patterns…..salons have sprung up in the suburbs of Khartoum where those who could afford it could have the henna styled for them. European hair dyes were used to augment the henna and diluted salts of ammonia were used to speed up the process. Women who worked in these mud built salons were called hennanas, a new word in the Arabic language.”

The Bridegroom’s Henna Rituals on Henna Night

“The rituals of the Henna Night (Lailat al Henna) mark the beginning of the wedding festivities….A banquet is prepared and singers and musicians hired to entertain the guests. Later in the evening an angarib is prepared and covered with a colourful cloth on which the groom sits facing Mecca. A large tray containing lighted candles, perfumes, dates and sweetmeats is brought to the bed. Near the bed is placed a dish of henna from which the groom’s mother puts a tiny piece onto his forehead. She then stains his hands and feet. A friend then brings a deep dish and notebook and the guests come forward to make their contributions, called Nugta. Whenever someone makes a donation the amount is entered in the notebook and loudly proclaimed to all present. The total sum may amount to hundreds of pounds, especially if there is keen competition among the guests to outdo each other. After the money has been collected it sometimes happens that the groom will go with a few friends to his bride’s house for a very brief visit. The woman will be covered from top to toe with only her hands showing, but this is enough, for the purpose of the visit is merely for the groom to place a small piece of henna in the palm of his bride as a kind of blessing.”

Sisters under the Sun, p 163-4

You can see a more recent celebration of the bridegroom’s henna anointing in this vibrant, song-filled Aljazeera clip embedded below.

Below, a 2-minute report on henna growing and drying in El-Damer. The henna from this region is prized in Sudan. An English summary of this clip is available on request.

One comment on ““A Open Hand will Encounter Henna”

  1. Simon Boyd says:

    Henna is essential as anyone who has attended a wedding knows

    Liked by 1 person

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