Moira & I had been trying to get niqash (black henna) on our hands for weeks. I asked Altaf (our teacher) about where we could go to get it done. She said she had a friend who could do it, and she attempted to set up a time to take us. However, the date kept getting pushed back again and again for various reasons. Just days before Moira left Yemen, we gave up on trying to work something out through Altaf.
Last Wednesday, Moira, Celine (my roommate) and I found a person who could do the niqash for us. It was the sister of the man who runs the sweet shop near our school. He took us to his family’s house just after 6:00 pm and turned us over to his sisters. One of the older daughters of the family, who did the niqash, was not available when we arrived. We sat with a middle daughter, Amal (which means hope), and talked to her for more than an hour.
Amal is twenty years old. We talked about her plans for the future and our own. Amal studied English in school and spoke quite well, probably at least as well as I speak Arabic; however, she did not like to speak English very much. That left me as the primary translator. Celine had been in Yemen for 2 months, and studied Arabic before, and could speak at a upper-beginning level. Moira had only studied Arabic for the four weeks she has been in Yemen, so she barely spoke at all. The experience as translator—explaining to the other two the gist of what Amal said and helping Celine say what she wanted to say—helped me to realize that I do really know a lot of Arabic. My time in Yemen has really paid off.
Once the sister came to do the niqash, she started with Moira. It was amazing to watch her work. She made up the design as she went. Each of our designs is different. The niqash was like black ink, and she applied it with a very fine paintbrush. Once the niqash was applied, we had to sit very still while it started to dry. After it had dried for about 15 minutes, the mother of the family put Vaseline on our hands to keep the niqash from drying too fast and cracking off before the dye had enough time to soak into the skin. A few minutes later she came back and put talcum powder on the Vaseline. I have no idea what purpose that served. To keep the talcum powder on, she put tissues on our hands, stuck on by the Vaseline.
While we sat there waiting for our hands to dry enough to go home, the mother, daughters and daughter-in-law showed us some wedding clothes that they were perfuming with incense. Then they brought out the jewelry that a bride would wear. They thought it would be fun to dress one of us up as a bride. I was the lucky one. With my hands out of commission, I sat there and let them do what they would to me. They took off my hijab and took my hair down from the bun it was in. The jewelry they put on me consisted of a beaded headband that had two big beaded tassels on the sides, a choker necklace with beads hanging down in a triangle shape, and a long necklace of several strands of beads. All of these were bright turquoise, as you can see. They also added a similarly colored veil.
After they had dressed me up, they decided I should have makeup as well. This meant bright lipstick, eyeliner and super bright turquoise and pink eye shadow. I felt very painted! It was fun to dress up and take pictures though. Once the picture taking was done, they took off the veil and jewelry and up my hijab back on me.
By this time (nearly 10:30 pm), our hands were dry enough we could leave. We were repeatedly warned, however, that we could not get our hands wet until morning. I was still very “painted” when we left. In a society that considers it bad form for a woman to wear makeup in public, I was quite embarrassed to have to walk home with all that makeup. Fortunately, we were not far from where we lived. Once we got home, I had a hard time taking all that makeup off without being able to use soap and water. I had to carefully get some tissues wet and wipe at it. The eye shadow was so thick that at first I was just smearing turquoise all around my eyes. I got most of it off before I went to bed, and the rest waited until morning.
The next morning I saw Moira and she told me how she had put her hand against her face in her sleep and transferred some the niqash to her cheek. When I saw her, it only looked like a few extra freckles, but this was after she had scrubbed at her face for some time. I gave her some hydrogen peroxide and this took off most of the remaining stain. After I took a shower, I was looking in the mirror, getting dressed, and suddenly realized I had done the same thing. The whole pattern from the back of my right hand had clearly transferred to my left cheek during the night. I got enough of it off with hydrogen peroxide to make myself presentable, but I did look like I had more freckles on one cheek than the other for a few days.