Henna designs as part of religious festivals, celebrations or merely self-expression are a familiar story in this part of the world. But a more recent evolution of this art form is in vogue - and it's called a henna crown. Gaining favour in different corners of the world - from the US all the way to Australia - these intricate designs are being drawn not on hands, but on the heads of chemotherapy patients, as a way to help them cope with hair loss. And they are redefining what people see when they look at these cancer survivors now.
While some survivors wear colourful turbans and others prefer wigs, henna crowns are gaining popularity as a welcome alternative to going bald - not least because it helps individuals feel empowered and comfortable in their own bodies. And though the trend is yet to take off in the UAE, Dubai-based Safa Munafer is hoping to change that story.
Fuelled by the desire to spread happiness and make a difference in people's lives, the Sri Lankan expat, who is better known as Sara, took on her first customer in September this year. Adriana Truica, a 49-year-old Romanian and mechanical engineer by profession, was close to completing 18 weeks of chemotherapy to fight ovarian cancer when she decided to get herself a henna crown.
"I wanted to do this firstly for myself - not for the people that surround me or who see me walking on the streets," says the mother-of-two. "I was close to finishing my treatment and wanted to add something before crossing the finish line. This was my very own celebration that I made it this far and that I was able to muster the power to be strong, not only for my family but for myself as well."
For Sara, who started her henna services three years ago at the age of 21, it was a "dream" to be able to use her talent to contribute to society. "Ever since I had my baby girl, I felt extremely blessed, and wanted to give back to the world in some way. do something good in return," she explains. "The only way I could think of was to do what I am good at, which is creating henna designs. I've seen that the concept of henna crowns is popular in different parts of the world, but not here yet, so I wanted to spread that joy here too."
Commenting on why she began offering the service, Sara says, "I want survivors to feel comfortable in their skin, and to walk around proudly with their heads held high. Whether they wear scarves or not, the designs are there to bring beauty, internal happiness and peace to them as individuals. This is my way of contributing to the world by using my talent for a good cause."
How it began
Sara's passion for henna started when she was just eight years old, when she did her cousin's bridal henna. It was not the most professional work at the time, she recalls, but that is when it all began. Years later, when she got married and moved to Dubai, her husband encouraged her to start offering henna services here too. It was one midnight three years ago, when both of them were brainstorming a suitable name that Safa, who didn't want to use her real name, suggested the nickname 'Sara'. "We didn't think this would turn into a huge thing, so presently we're thinking we should have used my real name," laughs the founder of Dubai Henna by Sara.
The majority of patients that undergo the harsh treatment usually lose their hair, which can be a very difficult period to cope with, not only physically, but psychologically too. Sara says she wants to be a ray of sunshine in as many patients' lives as possible through her henna crown initiative. It's why she's offering her services free of charge and according to the individual's convenience. "For me, it's all about making the person feel at home," she says. "In salons, it's different because there is a formal setting, and people who go there might fall sick. I want to ensure a more personal human connection and interaction."
Going the extra mile
Initially, when Sara started her services, she used to purchase henna from various salons in Dubai. After some time, however, she realised that the products being provided were not the best. The growing uncertainty of the ingredients used from external sources did not sit well with her. "I decided I was only going to continue doing henna if I made the paste myself, because only then would I know what I was using, and be 100 per cent sure that my clients could trust me."
Knowing fully well that patients undergoing chemotherapy are required to exercise caution in what they expose themselves to, and stay away from products that may prove harmful, only makes Sara gladder that she mixes her own organic henna paste that is both vegan and not tested on animals. Despite it being an expensive process, the beautician goes the extra mile to not only assure her clients that they are getting the best in quality service, but also that they are in safe hands.
At first, she tried and tested multiple henna powders and essential oils to create the mix, but nothing worked. It was a "great challenge" to find the right henna powder but in the end, with perseverance, the barrier was overcome. The formula is not held top-secret, as she reveals the ingredients are merely henna powder, water and essential oils - either lavender or eucalyptus. "One way for clients to distinguish organic henna from others is that, over time, there is a natural fade, whereas other henna can be scrapped off instead," she explains. "I also noticed that the henna I initially bought in shops or from various salons years ago smelt just like the petrol station."
Sara offers mixology courses for anyone interested in mastering the art of making natural henna, as it takes the perfect balance of all three ingredients to ensure the desired pigmentation is achieved. Henna reacts and plays differently with different skin tones, so utmost care is required to achieve the right effect.
Sara is currently attempting to reach out to various hospitals in a bid to collaborate with them and their patients. Unfortunately, she has yet to receive a go-ahead. "It was not that they weren't interested. They were really interested - but I've yet to hear back." She intends to persevere, however, and hopefully, get to a place where people are reaching out to her instead.