• Burhana Islam

The Henna in Our Hands

Updated: Jan 24, 2018

Lately I've been wondering why I've fallen deeply and quickly in love with the old art of henna. I'm not entirely sure what was so enticing about the red ink that seeped through my flesh and found itself trapped within the depths of my fingertips. I felt like I fooled myself into believing that something about this meant more than the colours that stained my skin. On the surface, I lost myself in paisley patterns, intricate swirls and elaborate floral lace. Underneath, I was trying to grasp on to an almost forgotten part of my heritage, my history. Time would freeze for a moment, hours would slip away, halfhearted conversations would be long discarded and the darkness would embrace the sunlight, which once held a warmth that kissed my bare skin. I'd drag my eyes away from the paste only to be mildly surprised to see that life had pressed forward without me. Life had pressed forward without me.  Let's rewind these memories back to a time when we laughed under the stars of that wedding we never talk about, under a love that we were forced to leave behind. We painted our hands while they joined theirs. It felt permanent. It felt raw.  Pause.  We painted our hands while they joined theirs. That's the thing about henna. You pay attention to detail.  Her hands were pale save for the crimson ribbons which scarred that delicate skin. Ropes not ribbons, ropes. The colour ran down her arms, twisting and turning like blood in her hands. He said he never liked henna anyway. But she was like a porcelain doll dancing recklessly on the edges of a dusty shelf. She was like a porcelain doll ready to shatter onto the concrete earth. Those painted hands wrapped tightly around his like a promise that would never break.  Press play and watch that marriage fall away as quickly as the red stains on her skin, fading like the home back-home running rivers through her veins. Fast forward seven years and freeze the frame with the happy ending anyway. The porcelain doll paints her daughter's hands, telling her stories from another life, tales which are woven into the tapestry of the fingers she holds on to. Narratives of strong women caught up in crossfires of lost cultures- surviving the flames of the past- flow through her lips. Those words ignite small flickering smiles. 'You'll take after me,' she promises. 'Those little hands will be much stronger than mine.' Replay.  Let's switch to a more recent memory.  The aftermath of Eid after a month of self-reflection. I trace my fingers around tired palms. She tells me she was young once. In those days, henna was freedom and solace in the unstable arms of a brutal war. It meant warm nights under sleepy lanterns with stifled laughter. She reminisces and I listen to the words that tumble from her lips, the treasured stories that still hold light in her eyes. There seems to be centuries between the lives we both lived. I will never walk through the corridors of her memory palace. I will be spared that pain. That war faded with the hands of time. It faded like the prints on her palms. 'You'll forget these stories, my sweet girl.' She says this sadly in a tongue that I find difficult to decipher. 'They'll die with us.' I don't have the words to promise her otherwise, but I pay attention to the details of her past with the deepest conviction. That's the thing with human nature- we don't want to be forgotten.  Perhaps that's why I spend so many of my days now practising those lines, leaves and vines. It's that attention to detail that I want to practise in life. I've learnt so much by simply listening that I'm beginning to understand the significance of the stories we choose to leave behind. I'm trying hard not to waste my words. I've been taught to learn wisdom that way.  But lately, I've come to the realisation that henna is a means of swapping stories and since I don't have many of my own just yet, I can lend an ear and listen to echoes of the past that I left back home, that I left behind. Sometimes I can't help but reflect on how different my life could have been had tiny moments in history played out another way. Our stories seem to intertwine so easily with others. There are similarities in each so know we're not alone. But it's human nature to forget. These narratives tangle themselves in the branches of complex family trees. They scatter across foreign sands, spill out into the Indian Ocean and meet us on the concrete shorelines of the West. I guess it's then we realise we're a second generation struggling with our identities. Hopes of belonging fade like old stains on skin. 'Our kids will have it easier,' we say. 'Their future will be more stable than ours'. Perhaps this explains the recent revival of religion amongst our youth, amongst ourselves. We long for an acceptance that we lacked rights to the moment our elders crossed those seas. Their ships set sail in a wind without flags and we struggled to find ourselves under waves of nationalism. So we resort to the only alternative we know; we find some understanding in deen, or at least we cling on to the hope that someday we may. But how can we forget about the hands that raised us, the hands that have allowed us to be the people we are today? There are lessons in their stories. We just have to listen.  So when I'm painting palms, I pay attention to detail. I hold on to lost words like a promise made with the deepest of conviction. I absorb the stories of a generation that had it harder than us and a generation that may have it harder still. Our stories will intertwine- we'll make sure of it. They'll be like melodies that wrap around our flesh and absorb into skin. They'll become a part of our identity and colour our future. They'll be woven into the tapestry of our lives and it will feel permanent. It will feel raw.


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