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.”
In North America, though, the mehndi-spoiled may not be sacrificing a domestic ruminant, fighting the evil eye, signifying menarche, celebrating a wedding, or seeking the return of a husband’s passion. They may merely have been to Spamarama.
“Spamarama,” Natasha Papousek explains, “is a very Austin, Texas, thing; it’s an annual festival in celebration of Spam. They have a Miss Spam contest, they have people who make up songs about Spam, a Spam wrestling contest — it’s just very silly.”
So silly, in fact, that some of Papousek’s customers requested portraits of pigs. “But most of them wanted little flowers — the traditional stuff people want at fairs.”
Besides little flowers, wandering fairgoers frequently request Chinese characters or “something tribal.” There are also gender differences.
“Guys want things that look like tattoos, such as barbed wire. Although I did have one teenage guy — not at this particular venue — who wanted the Mother Goddess on his arm. I was taken aback.”
Henna is also turning into a party activity. “It’s just a little something that the guests can do,” Papousek says. “Everybody gets a little henna.”
The clients who arrange henna parties with Papousek are usually members of the upper middle class. She’s mixed henna paste for the 40th birthday party of the husband of a dentist (who also hired a belly dancer), a baby shower, and an “Arabian Nights” event for architects and designers, who ate hummus and pita bread.
Papousek has also set up her booth at something called the Natural Magic Festival and at a solstice celebration in Austin. “Instead of flowers and barbed wire, they got pentacles and cats. They were all just, like, very transcendental.”
Heavy-metal venues, which are another strangely routine place to see henna designs, are not transcendental. Papousek saw many teenage boys in black with multiple piercings. She saw roving bands of teenage girls wearing skimpy black clothing. She received the usual requests for Celtic knots and barbed wire. Boys were saying scornfully, “This isn’t a real tattoo.”
To reach a more sophisticated henna world, Papousek has twice flown from Austin to Cleveland (the cheapest fare she could find) so that she could then drive clear to upstate New York, home of Brushwood.
Brushwood is a nudist colony (“clothing optional” is the official term) that sponsors an eight-day summer festival called Sirius Rising. By way of explanation, the festival’s motto is “Hail, mighty Sirius, monarch of the suns! May we in this poor planet speak with thee?” The classes are “devoted to sacred tools and sacred spaces.” As the website notes, “Many of the common skills we take for granted were, and for some people still are, considered magical crafts and had their own mythical and mystical traditions, some of which survive in familiar but little-understood stories, rhymes, songs, and social customs. One of the things we hope to do at Sirius Rising is to recover some of the magic of the arts that built and continue to preserve human communities.”
The 50 or so workshops included classes and lectures by the aforementioned Catherine Cartwright-Jones and by Jeremy Rowntree, a programmer in the chemistry department at Oxford who is the creator of a vast henna website. Besides lectures in the “Moroccan and Tuareg Aesthetic as Expressed in Traditional Handicrafts” and “The History of Henna from 7000 BCE to Present,” Brushwood participants can study Magical and Ritual Aromatherapy, Spellworking with Stones, Tarot, Pagan Sexuality, Egyptian Ear Waxing, Ritual Brewing and Baking, Remystifying the Voodoo, Amulet-Making, and Landscaping for Nature Spirits.
Papousek doesn’t do spellworking. The first year, she went “because Catherine Cartwright-Jones was there, and she had a little henna conference within the wider Sirius festival.”
The next year, Papousek decided to make the festival pay for itself. “I said, ‘I’ve got to come up with something that I can teach so I can get in free.’ ”
One propitious night, she saw a Nova special on the traditional Roman bathhouse. Bathing Romans, she learned, migrated from the shower to a hot tub to a cold tub. “And I said, ‘Aha! Sirius has one of those! I could re-create a Roman bathhouse for people! I could get in free then, and it would be a fun thing to do.’ ”
Fun, but not simple. Papousek read everything she could find about Roman bathhouses and plumbing, the ritual of bathing and its importance in Roman society. She found traditional Roman recipes for ricotta cheesecakes. She read about the importance of the strigil, a skin-scraper that Roman bathers used to remove oil, water, and sweat.
Since strigils are rarely sold at Bed Bath and Beyond, Papousek was stumped. Then she noticed that tongue cleaners, a “metal scrapey thing” sold in natural health stores, looked exactly like Roman strigils. She bought three.
She perfumed olive oil. She mixed salt scrubs. She baked Roman cakes. She wrote a lecture about the history of the bathing ritual. She printed up packages of recipes for Roman-inspired health scrubs, flew to Cleveland, drove to New York, and “we went to it. We oiled each other up, we strigiled each other off, we massaged salt in, we rinsed that off, we ate cakes in the swimming pool. It was a really nice experience.”
In America, henna is most often that: an experience. A way to “discover ethnicity,” shock your mother, look like Madonna (who hennaed her hands for a music video), or all three. Is this a sacrilege? Typical American dilettantism, in which meaningful customs become fun activities at Daytona Beach and Ozzfest?
Revathi Iyengar of the India Fine Arts Society in south Florida told the Orlando Sentinel in March of 2002 that she wasn’t upset about the resurgence of henna among spring-breakers. “It’s not an affront to use,” she said, “although if the design is vulgar, then it would be repulsive to anyone, not just someone from India.”
In the same article, Cartwright-Jones likened the historical use of henna to “household magic” — a decoration that was believed to ward off the evil eye and encourage fertility.
“It is not sacred,” she said. “It is not found in sacred texts or applied to the body by priests or religious leaders. But it is a part of religious festivals, much the same way a Christmas tree isn’t sacred but it’s considered part of Christmas.”
By telephone, Cartwright-Jones also dismissed the notion that Americans have cannibalized henna.
“Henna has always moved,” she says. “If it came from your mother and your sisters, you own it. You’re very possessive of it. Sixty countries, 9000 years — no one owns it,” she said. “It’s just people picking up a tool and playing with it.”
The most persuasive evidence for this argument is the fact that henna is adopted and abandoned for the same reason: cultural envy.
In America, Cartwright-Jones says, it works like this: You work in an office. You shop at the mall. Then you leaf through a copy of National Geographic. You see henna, and it looks so much more interesting and vibrant than the mall and the office. Those faraway people — they have rituals but you don’t.
“You can only recognize ritual from a distance,” she says.
Conversely, the women of henna-using National Geographic countries look around them and see a hopelessly outdated custom of the rural poor. They look at Western magazines and movies. They see Revlon, Maybelline, Versace, and Ralph Lauren, and that’s what they want instead.
While this is, technically, cannibalizing (defined by Webster’s as “the dismantling of a machine for parts to be used as replacements in other machines”), it is, at least, mutual, and in at least one country, the parts of the machine may eventually go back to their point of origin and revive henna.
That country is Iran. The story of henna’s fall and possible rise there involves the intersection of three distant points — Vienna, Tehran, and Ohio — and two very different hennaria. The first is Cartwright-Jones, who writes about henna like this: “Henna is a purifactory and adornment serving a sense of ‘fitness’ as well as dispelling evil spirits who intend to befoul the sacrifice.” The second is a 16-year-old boy named Erfan Mahlodji, who writes like this: “I love henna and the traditions of Iran, but I live in Vienna, so I like to go to discos and dance. I wear HipHop clothes and Versace and jeans and listen to new music like Moby!”
They met through the Internet, of course, and became allies in the fight to save true henna — Cartwright-Jones with her scholarship, her website, and her small press, and Mahlodji with his grandmother’s notebooks.
The book they produced, called Hennaria: Traditional Iranian Henna Art, gives 51 henna designs and two histories — one political (verified and elaborated by Cartwright-Jones) and one personal. The personal history is Mahlodji’s: his parents left Iran, he explains, because many of their friends were killed. They fled Tehran on foot, stayed in Turkey for nine months, and obtained political asylum in Austria, where Mahlodji was born in 1986. When Mahlodji was seven, his maternal grandmother Forough al-zama Neyzarpour, a hennaria in Iran, began teaching him the designs. Through her and other Iranians, he learned the history of henna too.
“The beginning of diplomatic relations with the U.S.A. in 1883 destroyed the traditions of henna in Iran,” he writes. Between 1883 and 1907, Iranian politicians were anxious for their wives to appear modern in front of visiting Americans, so the women refrained from applying henna. If the wives had facial harquus (traditional Iranian tattoos), they hid them under thick makeup. In 1960, the Shah outlawed henna, the chador, and other traditional Iranian dress, and when Iran became an Islamic state in the 1980s, the chador returned, but henna had become “dahati,” or backward.
“Very few people know what henna once was in Iran,” writes Mahlodji.
A conversation with a La Jolla hairdresser named Maryam, who left Tehran 30 years ago, confirms this.
“Henna is Indian,” she told me. “In India, they do tattoos with henna. In Iran, I had a nanny who always tinted the nail of her hand, like we do nail polish, with henna. And toes also. And sometimes I saw that she was applying henna to the palm of her hand and the soles of her feet.”
Henna was the most common cosmetic 60 or 70 years ago, she said, and “when I was in Tehran, 30 years ago, it was still very popular. We had a gardener in the north of Iran, and his wife and mother, they had the same designs. For Nowruz (Iranian New Year), probably.”
Of designs like those in Mahlodji’s book, however, Maryam knew nothing.
From 1960 on, Mahlodji’s grandmother kept her henna patterns. She waited. When her grandson was old enough and she could travel to Vienna, she taught him how to make henna paste (lime juice, henna powder, rosewater, and an ingredient identified only as “sweets”), and she gave him her papers, which contained patterns from 11th-century Isfahan, 16th-century Gorgan, 17th-century Kashan, 18th-century Karaj, and 1920s Tehran. Her notebooks showed how to intensify a husband’s love (interlocking hearts and leaves for the inner thigh, navel, and lower back), how to protect men and women from the evil eye (a lattice so complex that the evil one would be unable to penetrate the skin), how to express your growing love for Allah (stars), and how to tell if a seven-year-old child would have much happiness in life (the elaborate flowers and lattices drawn on the child’s hand would brighten to a ruby red). Mahlodji learned to draw pomegranates, stars, the name of Allah, paisleys, fish, flowers, and a simple henna pattern for the hand and the right cheek to be done when “something terrible has happened.”
He also learned to disco, wear Versace, use exclamation points for emphasis, and pray five times a day. At 15, he decided he wanted to visit Iran.
“I figured, no problem, I’m Iranian!” he writes. “So I went with my dad to the Iranian consulate in Vienna, and we brought our papers and everything, and we got an appointment for the next week to pay the fees and get the permits.”
In preparation, Mahlodji hennaed his hands with Iranian designs from his granny’s notebooks.
“Well,” he writes, “I went in and started to take out a cigarette, and oh, my Lord, the consul official started screaming that Allah doesn’t want our bodies to be tattooed! I explained that it was henna, and henna was used in Iran a long time ago and that I’m researching Iranian history and I learned it from my granny. Then he said, ‘Iran doesn’t need kids like you! You are NOT Iranian! You have become Austrian, and Allah doesn’t want you to enter his holy land!’
“That made me really sad,” Mahlodji writes. The next time he went to the consulate, he wore no henna, and the passes were granted.
Ever hopeful, Mahlodji hennaed his feet for the trip and wore sandals. Naturally, the airport police stopped him, but it wasn’t so bad this time. The police were female, they wore traditional chadors, and they numbered about 20. They wanted to know how he managed to decorate his feet like that. Mahlodji produced his sketchbooks and his grandmother’s papers and launched into an impromptu henna lecture.
“They were all VERY interested and wanted to have henna done,” he writes, “but I’m over 15 so I’m not allowed to see women without the chador.”
His grandmother could, though, so he told the police where she lived, and the next day, six policewomen wearing chadors came to his grandmother’s house. After his grandmother overcame her fear, she laughed and said, “Erfan, you’re a henna prophet! You’ll make henna modern in Iran again!”
Paradoxically, Mahlodji’s most effective method of enticing fellow Iranians to try henna (besides modeling it) was to return to the Internet, where he had first met the Ohio hennaria, and show them pictures of work done by American henna artists. He showed them photographs of American rock stars with their hands hennaed.
“Then, suddenly, they thought henna was cool.”
Elsewhere in his account, Mahlodji laments, “If you’re in Iran, to be ‘cool and fashionable,’ you have to have stuff from another country.”
In La Mesa, Natasha Papousek continues to expand her repertoire of patterns. She is especially fond, right now, of the Persian designs that Cartwright-Jones and Mahlodji have brought to the United States. Like most people with careers based on foreign nostalgia, Papousek doesn’t make a living doing henna. Last year, she netted less than $2000, so she teaches science-enrichment classes for elementary schoolchildren (a job that prevents her from doing henna on herself, since that would make her look too “out there”). Meanwhile, she maintains her website and branches out into other crafts that require a steady hand and a carrot bag: white-frosted gingerbread cookies, elaborate cakes, filigreed candle holders. Her favorite memory of doing henna continues to be the time she drew on the pregnant belly of a woman who knew there was something wrong with her baby and wanted a blessing of some kind. With nothing but henna powder, lemon juice, lavender, and geranium, Papousek went to work, drawing signs and symbols for strength, courage, growth, and abundance, hoping to find them in pigment and history, in the deep-brown pictographs of renewable skin.