The henna ceremony is a cross cultural celebration, practiced among the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews alike. It transcends borders and religions and represents the joyous moments of life.
Depending on the cultural context henna can symbolize fertility, fortune, good luck, protection and happiness. It has been used since antiquity to mark auspicious occasions- marriage, the birth of a baby or religious holidays and continues to do so today.
Below: A Moroccan-Israeli henna celebration with family
In Israel this ritual still flourishes in communities originating from North Africa, India and the Middle East as well as among Palestinian. Before my own marriage, a modest henna party was organized by my family, albeit an eclectic one. I was draped in the colorful garments of Kurdistan to honor my grandmother’s heritage but my uncle, a proud Moroccan from Casablanca was adamant that his country be represented as well. As a compromise the groom wore the scarlet fes and flowing robes of the Maghreb and platters of Moroccan confections adorned the festive table. The music, however, was strictly Kurdish. The zurna blasted from the tape player and escaped into the neighborhood, eliciting curious glances from passersby. In the small apartment we managed to whoop and dance as my grandmother twirled the tray of henna above her head. She placed a blob of the paste in the palm of my hand and closed my fingers over it.
Today modern henna rituals are a cross between a discotheque and a costume ball, with the aunties and grandmas joining right in. Many families hire a henna specialist to manage the event. As tradition is lost with the older generation this lucrative business has sprung in its place. Instead of a heirloom dress passed from mother to daughter, the henna mobile arrives at the reception hall crammed with all the necessary paraphernalia – costumes, robes, hats, scarves, tents, tables and even wigs, for the hosts and guests alike. It’s a carnival in a minivan. Most of my friends agree that the henna ceremony is pure fun, without the stress and the formality that accompanies most weddings.
There are still small communities in Israel who have retained their folkways. My friend Iris, whose parents were born in India, celebrated her henna the way her mother did- in a close knit all-women group. As the mehndi artist painted intricate designs on her hands, friends and family pampered the bride to be. Without the DJ’s and crowds, it is a much more contemplative and spiritual gathering.
While henna is usually reserved for milestones but it can be purchased any time at most spice stores around the country. Many women use it to dye their hair a funky red color or use the powder to prepare the henna paste. Often other ingredients are added to it as a fixative or for symbolic value, including lemon juice, orange blossom water and garlic.
Some may say henna possesses mystical properties, others are more skeptical. One thing is for sure- it has been bringing people together for thousands of years.
Warnings: Henna is derived from the crushed leaves of Lawsonia inermis, a plant endemic to Africa. Although it is rarely allergenic in its pure form, it should be purchased from a reputable vendor since contaminants have been found to cause adverse reactions. Also, black henna is not related to the henna species and can cause severe scaring.
Moroccan Sesame Seed cookies
A Moroccan henna ceremony would not be complete without their wonderful pastries, including these sesame cookies. The original recipe calls for frying the batter and dousing it in sugar syrup. Instead I baked them and omitted the sugar syrup for less sticky results. These cookies are compatible with the vegan diet, without resorting to weird substitutes or hard to find ingredients. They are also perfect with a cup of mint tea.
The recipe was adopted from the Hebrew cookbook My Mother’s Moroccan Cooking by Rachel Kinan published by Korim.
3 cups sesame seeds
2 ½ cups flour
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
In a large bowl combine all the dry ingredients and mix until uniform. Add the oil, stirring until incorporated. Slowly pour in the water, a little at a time, and continue to mix. It might not be necessary to add all the water. The batter should be smooth and slightly tacky like Playdough but not goopy.
Preheat the oven to 165⁰C (330⁰ F). Divide the dough into three parts and cover in plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator for 20 minutes if the batter is sticky. On a piece of parchment paper, roll out the dough so it is about ½ cm (0.20 inches) thick. Using a cookie cutter, (I used a cup with a thin rim) cut out the cookie shapes. Roll out the scrap dough left over and cut out additional shapes.
Place the cookies on a parchment lined baking tray. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden.