Before arriving in Azerbaijan, henna was something that I solely associated with intricate brownish red patterns painted on hands at bas mitzvahs. It was only until I complimented my host sister’s glowing hair that she casually told me she dyed it with henna. I loved how natural and subtle it was, transforming an average brunette coloring into a evasive red-brown, asking to be admired. Without much expectation, I asked her whether I could try putting in my hair sometime. “3-cu gun olar? (How about Wednesday?),” was her reply.

A week and a half later, we were on the 79 bus to get to my host grandmother’s apartment. We had two yoga mats in tow, thinking that we could still do our daily workout even with the henna clay in our hair. We didn’t end up making it on the mats for the workout, but more on that later. We reached my host grandmother’s twelfth floor apartment and met her in the kitchen, where she was sharing some Quba apples (a region known for its delicious apples) and firin, a rice-pudding like dessert with my host uncle. After snagging a few apple pieces for ourselves, we got started with the henna preparation.

Fizza, my host sister, showed me the half kilo sack of henna that her grandmother had brought from Dubai a year and a half ago. She explained to me how the quality of this henna was excellent, and that they’re more inexpensive to buy in Dubai. While we poured about half the bag into a bowl, Fizza went to get the black tea that she had brewed a few minutes ago. I wasn’t particularly in the mood for tea, but figured there was no harm in having a glass or two. When she brought the teapot to the table, instead of pouring into some glasses, she poured it directly into the henna powder. Black tea?! She smiled at my surprise, and told me that when she made henna with her grandmother for the first time, she was shocked as well that instead of plain hot water, black tea was used to make the henna clay. My host grandmother said it worked better to bring out the red in the henna. Lesson number one in never doubting a grandmother’s logic, even when it means massaging black tea henna clay into your scalp.

As we mixed the henna, waiting for the tea to cool down enough to put on our heads, my host grandmother explained to my the cultural context of henna. She told me how henna was used as a hair dye as well as a finger nail polish used by Muslim women, since it doesn’t contain alcohol like industrial dyes and polishes. She is from the Quba region of Azerbaijan, and recalled how she would grow the henna plant in her backyard, harvest the leaves, dry them, crush them, and end up with her own homegrown henna powder. I remain fascinated by the coalescence of earth, ancestry, and piety within henna powder.

Though we didn’t end up using the yoga mats for any workout, we lay down my purple mat for us to sit on as my host grandmother massaged the henna into our hair. Fizza had her hair done first, and I watched in anxious excitement as brownish red clay dripped down her cheek, pooled on the nape of her neck. I wiped the henna off with a tea towel, because any henna that sits on the skin too long would dye it (temporarily), and I figured Fizza wasn’t going for an orange-forehead look. After my host grandmother finished massaging the clay into her hair, she covered it with a Bravo grocery store plastic bag, and then wrapped her head with a towel. Next, it was my turn. I got on the yoga mat, and hoped for the best. My host grandmother said a short prayer, and got started. It really was like a head massage, with perks. Even the henna that would escape my scalp and drip down my face was like a cool, tickling refreshment. After about 20 minutes, my host grandmother wrapped my head up, and now we only had to wait. After application, henna should stay in one’s hair for about 4-5 hours in order to give time for the hair to absorb the color. My host grandmother recommended I lie down, since anytime I was in a vertical position henna drops would inevitably dribble down onto my neck. I took her advice, and promptly had a much needed nap.
I woke up with a heaviness in my head that I hadn’t ever experienced before. The weight of the henna clay, combined with my already thick hair, made the last few hours of waiting uncomfortable but bearable. When it was finally time to wash out our hair, Fizza and I headed to the tub. I kneeled and leaned my head over while Fizza rinsed my hair out for me. When I arose from the tub, face wet and eyes closed, I stumbled over to the mirror to see what I’d been waiting for.

“Braveheart’a oxsayirsan! (You look like Braveheart!),” my younger host sister Jale exclaimed.

Braveheart resemblances aside, I looked in awe at my red brunette self, colors transforming according to the light. I felt relief at having bargained with my stubborn hair and come out on the winning side. Looking at myself once more in the mirror, I smiled, and walked back out in the kitchen and into the conversation, tea, and life of my wonderful host family.

By: Gianna Brassil

Program: Eurasion Regional Language Program, Baku, Azerbaijan

Term: Spring 2019


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