Natasha Monahan Papousek is not Iranian. She is not Lebanese, Moroccan, Indian, or Pakistani. She lives in La Mesa, she has the red hair and pale skin of her Irish-Czech-Norwegian-American parents, but she’s a henna artist, a decorator of skin, what Persians call a hennaria. Although people in some 60 countries have been drawing on one another with a paste made from henna leaves for at least 4000 years, none of those countries is Ireland, Czechoslovakia, or Norway. So why is a Papousek doing, as her father puts it, “that body-art thing”?
Probably because, like most Americans who do henna, Papousek has always been drawn to what might be called foreign nostalgia, the longing to enter a world distant in both time and space, where every habit feels like a ritual, and every ritual feels like art.
When Papousek was growing up in Nashville, the Papouseks and the Monahans were trying to live in the present, in America, where they wanted to fit in. Papousek didn’t learn how to make Czech Christmas cookies, dance the paterka, or go to ceilidhean. It wasn’t until she was 29 years old that a college roommate corrected her on the pronunciation of “Papousek.” (The Americanized version is Pa-POO-sek, but a Czech would say Pu-POH-shek.)
But Papousek did see, all around her, people with a more nostalgic approach. Her mother was a math professor at Fisk University, a historically black college, so they lived near the school in a largely black neighborhood. Papousek watched Roots on TV and met Alex Haley in person. She watched as her neighbors began to wear African-print clothing and play conga drums. She spent a lot of time with the elderly Chinese man next door, listening to his stories about China, looking at real Chinese objects.
Papousek was so affected by these experiences that she majored in Asian studies, then went to graduate school in ethnomusicology, which eventually led to a belly-dancing class in Austin, Texas, where Papousek lived until her husband became an assistant professor of astronomy at San Diego State.
“For me,” she says, “part of the allure of belly-dancing lessons was learning about the wider culture and not just the dance.” Decorating the skin with henna is part of Middle Eastern culture, she says, and dancers, “particularly the ones with tribal-fusion outfits — the ones that are trying to discover ethnicity — will have henna.”
Papousek’s husband gave her a henna kit for her birthday. Always a doodler, she sketched with henna on her own skin. She traced Arabic designs on the wrists and hands of every dancer in the class. She found herself studying patterns, women’s culture, and the history of henna in India, Iran, Turkey, and North Africa. Within the year she was doing henna in booths at fairs and conferences.
Along the way, of course, she had a few problems, like getting the paste right. Since the source of henna leaves, a plant called Lawsonia inermis, thrives in hot, arid climates, a henna artist in Texas can theoretically start from seed. Turning leaves to henna paste, however, is like turning grapes into wine. Frustrated with her initial experiments, Papousek asked another henna artist where she could buy paste ready-made. “Her supplier was the Pakistani wife of a gas station owner,” Papousek said, “and she’d pull up to the gas station and ask for the henna.”
So Papousek made a gas station run. The woman sold her a packet from the refrigerator. It looked fine, but once Papousek had the paste on her skin, it started to burn.
“Six hours later,” she said, “I had a blister in the pattern of the design, and that lasted about a week. That was really scary. That was the defining moment for me. I would make my own henna from then on, and then I could control what was in it.”
This was a wise decision. Because henna doesn’t dissolve easily in water, some hennaria mix it with gasoline, which yields a darker stain. Street vendors trying to simulate tattoos may add a black hair dye called PPD (paraphenylene diamine). Although hennotannic acids stain only the dead cells in the epidermis, PPD seeps into the deeper layers of the skin. Catherine Cartwright-Jones, an Ohio henna artist and scholar, says she has documented 300 cases of bad scarring over the past several years, and the Environmental Protection Agency reported in 1994 that short-term exposure to high levels of PPD may cause asthma, gastritis, vertigo, tremors, convulsions, and comas.
To avoid bad henna, sniff it. It should smell like spinach or grass, Cartwright-Jones says, and it should be brick red, not black. Ask about the ingredients. Traditional additives include black pepper, clove, coffee, tea, orange flower water, rosewater, yogurt, sugar, egg white, frankincense powder, cardamom, walnut-hull powder, dried limes, and pomegranate syrup. Papousek’s recipe calls for tea tree oil, lemon juice, sugar, and essential oils of geranium or lavender, and the result is a heavenly chai-latte smell — neither spinach nor gasoline.
Getting henna applied to your skin by Papousek is thus like being a wedding cake with feet. You sit still, you hold out whatever digit or limb is ready for adornment, and she applies minute lines, swirls, dots, and crescents with a pastry tool called a carrot bag. When you’re filigreed, she heats you with a Sunbeam steam valet. Then she glazes you with a mixture of lemon and sugar, presses strips of cotton fluff over the glaze, and wraps you with toilet paper. For the next six hours, you are pastry. You are art. You cannot possibly do housework.
In Rajasthan, women who refrain from doing housework to preserve their beautiful hennas are referred to as “Mehndi spoiled.” (The word for “henna” in India, where there are 17 official languages, is some variation of the word “meh’ndi.”) Catherine Cartwright-Jones, the scholar who is tracking bad henna cases (and who is earning a Ph.D. at Kent State in the art, history, and geography of henna), has been studying mehndi for 11 years and drawing skillfully on proffered American limbs for the same period. She has found evidence of ceremonial henna use by Muslims, Hindus, Armenian Christians, Coptic Christians, and Sephardic Jews. She has written about henna’s role in female purification and Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of sacrifice, explaining that the feast “requires every head of household to sacrifice a goat, sheep, or other domestic ruminant in memory of Ibrahim’s devotion to God.”