Bahraini woman brings henna art to P.E.I.

For four years, Asma Malik has followed her calling in P.E.I., bringing henna tattoos to the Island's small Middle Eastern community, and increasingly to Islanders of western heritage

'You have to have the art in you to bring out those beautiful designs and put them on the body.'

Asma Malik has been doing henna art since she was a girl. (Julia Cook/CBC)

Over the years, Asma Malik has lost count of the number of henna tattoos she has done.

"Oh gosh, it must have been thousands," said Asma.

"Not just hands. It can be applied to any other part of the body too."

Asma was born in the Middle Eastern country of Bahrain. Her family is Muslim and henna plays a big role in their culture. The leaves produce a reddish-brown dye that's used to colour everything from silk to hair to skin.

With practice on uncounted hands over the years, Asma Malik can decorate a hand in a few minutes. (Julia Cook/CBC)

"We had actually a tree, a henna tree in the backyard of our school," said Asma.

"I brought some henna leaves at home and I blended in a blender, put it in a Ziploc bag. It just, it just popped all over me and it was just the funniest thing ever and my mom laughed and laughed and she is like, 'You're not going to give up,' and I said, 'No, I'm not going to give up.' And that was the first time I ever did henna."

When Asma was in Grade 9 she attended a beautician school in Pakistan where she learned how to properly apply henna tattoos, or what's called the art of Mehndi.

An ancient art

Henna art dates back thousands of years, and may have originated in Neolithic times.

Asma Malik decorates the hand of Dihan Ahsan. (Julia Cook/CBC)

Henna artists either make their own applicators with sheets of plastic or use a jaccard bottle. A super fine henna powder is mixed with water and essential oils to create the paste. After the paste is applied to the skin it has to set for at least three hours. Then, it takes about 8 hours for the tattoo to darken to a reddish brown. The tattoo will last up to three weeks.

The designs typically include flowers, geometric patterns, and, sometimes, religious figures.

"As long as you're an artist, you can learn it, how to do it," said Asma.

"You have to have an eye and you have to have the art in you to bring out those beautiful designs and put them on the body."

In 1992 Asma moved to Canada. She first lived in Ontario and later moved to Saskatoon, where there was a large Middle Eastern community.

"Where there is a larger community, larger Indian or Pakistani or Eastern culture, you're so busy with your own community that you're just doing weddings and, you know, bridal showers and stuff like that."

A celebration

In Middle Eastern culture henna is applied for any happy occasion. Asma explains it's similar to the western tradition of decorating a Christmas tree.

They will sing, dance and put henna on, so it is a big part of our culture.- Yulia Kazi

"They decorate it just to have the Christmas spirit and just to show that we're getting ready for Christmas," she said.

"Henna is just like that. You just kind of show your feelings; that you're happy and that you're kind of getting ready for whatever celebration that you're having."

Four years ago Asma moved to P.E.I., where she has a business called EyeBeautiful and offers her services out of Tink 'n Ginger in Charlottetown. 

Muslims on P.E.I. are currently observing Ramadan, where they fast during daylight hours for 30 days before a multi-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr. Women will spend an entire day applying henna for the event.

Yulia Kazi, originally from Bangladesh, will be one of those women.

"That night we will just do henna. They will sing, dance and put henna on, so it is a big part of our culture," said Kazi.

On P.E.I. Asma tends to do more parties for people in western culture because the Island's Middle Eastern community is small.

Susan Holland has had several henna tattoos done by Asma. She had cancer several years ago, and wished she'd known about this service sooner.

"She does these beautiful henna crowns for people who don't have hair," said Holland.

"She'll do henna all around your head like a skull cap and it's really quite beautiful, and I wish I'd had somebody to do that for me at that time."

Asma may have lost count of the number of tattoos she's done, but she hasn't lost sight of why she loves doing it.

"Every time I make a henna design, it's like, it's like I'm doing something new, Every hand that I do henna on, it's just as much fun for me as it is for them."


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