Penni Al-Zayer: American Henna Artist Married To A Saudi

I love, love henna. The first henna I had done was on my hands up to my wrists and my feet up to the ankles in Morocco. Since then, I have continued my love affair with it. Fortunately for me, my husband also likes it and even doesn’t mind the smell. The best henna I have ever used was from Makkah. Tara Umm Omar

LAILAT AL-HENNA FI SHARQ’IAH (NIGHT OF THE HENNA IN SHARQ’IAH)
By Penni Al-Zayer
Facilitated by Dr. Saleh H. Al-Zayer
2005

My awareness of and interest in henna always seemed to please and amuse the hareem,
the women of my husband’s family in his small village in Sharq’ia – the Eastern Province
of Saudi Arabia. They were quite surprised to discover that I was actually fairly skilled
in applying designs to my own hands, however, as a former wedding cake decorator, I
had been intrigued from the first time I saw it, and it was relatively easy to make the
jump from executing the lacy patterns of Australian-style cake decorating with an icing
bag to creating similar patterns with a cone of henna.

During the roughly thirteen years that I lived in the Kingdom, I discovered that both in
the capital city Riyadh in Najd, the central region where we lived, and in my husband’s
village, the Saudis do most of their socializing in the cool of the evening, likely because
of the brutally hot daytime temperatures. As my husband’s oldest brother and his wife are
very highly esteemed and well-respected leaders in the village, their home is a popular
gathering place and it is not unusual for large numbers of friends, immediate relatives and
extended family to congregate there, either to benefit from their wisdom or simply enjoy
convivial conversation and company. In keeping with the hospitality for which the
region is justifiably famous, guests are routinely served strong, sweet, mint tea in tiny
glasses and sometimes also small round bowl-like cups of bitter, cardamom-scented
Qahwa – Arabic coffee. The older daughters of the house often serve the refreshments,
always on a tray laden with fruit, nuts, dates and other small sweets. Cups are filled over
and over again as the ladies enjoy light gossip and discussions about life in their small
corner of the world, often into the wee hours of the morning.

We always spent time there with the family in the last days of Ramadan, and often on the
eve of the Eid, small premixed tubes of henna paste – usually Rani Kona – would be on
hand as they were available at every corner Baqala – small grocery shop. Of course it
always began with one request, but sometimes evolved into an evening-long project for
me, as I would be asked to decorate the hands of first one, then another and another of the
ladies. This was a fairly daunting task because seating is primarily on pillows on the
floor, and there are no tables or surfaces on which to rest the hands or elbows.
Unaccustomed as I was to doing back-to-back henna designs in such a posture, the end
result was often eye strain and an aching back, however I counted it a cheap price to pay
to offer this gesture of goodwill toward people who had opened their hearts and homes to
me. And I do believe they all took real delight in showing off their hands later and
shocking their disbelieving admirers by telling them that the work had been done by an
Amreekeea – an American woman.

To read further go here…
http://www.hennapage.com/henna/encyclopedia/saudi/Sharqialayat.pdf

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Tara Umm Omar

American married to a Saudi.