The image of the Yemeni Bride is that of a mixture between East and West, tradition and modernity, simplicity and extravagance. She makes her grand entrance into the wedding hall looking like a Disney Princess in her white dress, delicate veil, and shimmering tiara. Her Henna-covered hands and feet, however, tell a total different story, one of an Arabian princess.
The leaves of that small flowering shrub known scientifically as Lawsonia inermis are crushed and made into powder. It is then filtered twice and mixed with water or lemon juice in order to create a thick paste. Occasionally, oils such as Lavender are added to aid the flow of the paste and also to ensure the longevity and richness of color. The color varies between light brown, reddish-brown and dark chocolate; all depending on the skin type and the body part decorated. The paste is then poured into cones and is made ready for decoration. Henna – pronounced as /hinna/ in Arabic – has been used in creating beautiful, temporary body art for thousands and thousands of years.
Far from the typical arts that Yemen has been witnessing for centuries, Noura Al Absi takes Henna art to a total new level.
Originally from Taiz, Noura Al Absi was born and raised in Dhamar governorate. Her love for Henna art started at a very young age. As a child, she spent a lot of breaks drawing flower patterns on her school notebooks. Her passion has even spread to reach her friends that often went home with brightly ink decorated hands. During Eids*, kids would choose Noura’s neat, little flowers over their mothers traditional Henna patterns.
Once she finished high school Noura enrolled in the Faculty of Engineering – Architecture Department at Dhamar University. Being a woman with a highly independent character, she looked for means of support while she was still a student. Her search led her to the little artist she once was in her childhood and so she began decorating the hands of classmates and relatives.
Upon graduation, Noura joined an engineering company in Al Hodaidah for three years. She later considered seeking better opportunities as her job was not very rewarding. She needed something that will help her grow, and thus left for the capital. Noura reached Sana’a by the end of 2015, a time too critical as it was the beginning of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Her hopes were demolished as all doors kept shutting in her face. Most engineering companies were either closing or laying-off their employees to minimize expenses, and those who were actually hiring paid very low salaries and given the fact that Noura was living on her own, such income would not cover her expenditures. She tried to find other occupations to keep her afloat but her chances were close to none. It was then when she decided to officially revive that old passion.
At first, Noura thought she did not stand a chance of starting a henna art business in Sana’a, as it was already swarmed with professional Henna artists. Despite her apprehensions, she decided to take the risk. She started off small and simple, creating her own logo and business cards using phone apps. She would send her number and wait on whatsapp for customers. Knowing that social networks have an impact on enforcing various businesses, Noura started her page on Facebook. Her friends were her dedicated models, always allowing her to decorate their hands, take photos and post them on her page. “The Facebook page played an important role as customers felt more comfortable viewing my designs before contacting me,” Noura said.
Noura’s greatest support was her friends, who worked hard to spread the word and provide her with customers. Her family, on the other hand, opposed the idea. They were angered by the fact that she had wasted five years of hard work in hopes of becoming an architect just to toss it away and become a henna artist, instead. Watching her name build up and her passion increase, they soon changed their minds, realizing that being a Henna artist will never change the fact that she is still an engineer.
Through the course of working as a henna artist, Noura’s biggest challenge occurred a few months after opening her first shop, which was also her own residence, at the beginning of 2016. Due to the escalating political disorder, salaries were cut off. Since henna art was a luxury, it had to be disposed of when necessities were at stake. The number of customers declined, dramatically, and Noura found herself unable to pay the rent. She had to move to her sister’s house, which was in an area so far from the center of the city. This distance posed a challenge for both Noura and what was left of her customers. With determination, Noura soon overcame this obstacle and soon managed to get a grip on her business. She opened her new shop in a livelier area of town in April 2017.
Working as a henna artist in Yemen is never an easy thing. Firstly, you have to have the courage to break the norms and stand up in the face of society. It is too unfortunate that such occupations are looked down at in our Yemeni community and is often associated with the activity of the lower classes. Regardless of the stereotype that Yemen holds against Henna artists, Noura does it with her head held high. “.. the society continues denouncing such activity, but for me, I view it in a totally different light. Hennna is an art, and I am sorry some people fail to see that. I love what I am doing, and if this particular art was taught in institutes, I would be the first to sign up!”
Secondly, Noura says that her beloved art often becomes a challenge during seasons. She spends long hours–sometimes starting at 10 am until 5am–bent and drawing. Some customers are so uncooperative that her work becomes even more challenging. They take so much of her time and drain her mentally until she finally achieves the image they had in mind! In spite of this, Noura’s fatigue disappears completely as soon as she is finished with a customer. Her pain evaporates once she sees accurate lines and beautiful patterns she just created.
Noura is an artist, who seems to be interested not only in Henna but in all forms of art. She likes to sing, dance, and is highly fond of drawing. She contributed to two art galleries at Basement Foundation and would love to soon learn a musical instrument.
“I believe that when we focus on art, peace spreads! Art–in all its forms–help us focus on our potentials, and during a time of war, it helps us recover the dreams that the ripped away from us. It also helps enhance our relations with the world. It is about time Yemen is linked to things other than Terrorism.”
Eid* is an important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide.