“I got married in 1978. On my wedding day, an old school teacher of mine came to do my hair. She was Egyptian and owned a blow-dryer. Beauty parlours did not exist.”
Fatma Al-Mughanni, also known as Umm Bassim, was born in Khorfakkan prior to the unification of the seven Emirates, and has been devoted to collecting and preserving objects from her immediate surroundings since the age of twelve.
Her home is a cluster of pre-1970s material culture, and Fatma is a keen story-teller. As she speaks of the henna tradition, she reveals the significance of symbols that were drawn on women’s bodies. The elaborate floral patters, she says, were imported to the UAE from India in the 1980s. Prior to that, henna drawn compositions consisted primarily of basic geometric shapes and very few vegetative elements. Henna cones were not common either. The powdered plant was mixed with water in small coffee-cups, and the paste was applied to the body using a match stick or a fine twig. It took several applications to obtain a dark brown hue, as locally grown henna produced lighter tones of the colour.
“Yes, the shapes do have significance”, Umm Bassim says. “People did not represent live creatures. They would never draw a bird, or cat, or any animal for that matter. All motifs were inspired by the physical environment people lived in. For instance, a palm tree to us Emiratis is a mother, a nurturer, a home, a sanctuary. So when a woman drew elements of a palm tree on her hand, it was as though she had placed life itself into her palm. A triangle is a mountain. Drawn on a woman’s hand, it would mean that the glory of the mountains was with her wherever she went. A circle is the moon, it is beauty. Women would place it on the inside of their hands, and surround it by stars in the form of dots.”
According to Umm Bassim, people received good by means of those symbols, and hence shapes were carefully selected. They directly related to the community’s beliefs and to aspects of their everyday life. For instance, when the moon or the stars appeared a certain way, it could mean that a fishing trip was more likely to be successful. Thus, the symbols women chose to render on their bodies were meant to amplify the probability of favourable natural conditions.
Reducing nature to basic geometric shapes is a sophisticated exercise in abstraction, and the formal simplicity of the resulting elements has allowed for versatility in their usage and representation across a variety of mediums. Geometry has found its way into jewelry design, textile embroidery, and needlework on cushions of the Emirati majlis.