One great thing you’ll notice when you start to learn Arabic language skills is that it’s also a great way to start to immerse yourself in Arab culture while you’re learning. Since this is the time of the year when most people are talking about the holidays, and since some cultures see December as a lucky month be a bride, today’s subject is going to be on the Egyptian tradition of Henna Night (or in Egyptian Arabic, ليلة الحنة / leelit ilḥenna).
In Egypt, there is a tradition where, the night before her wedding day, the bride gathers with her girlfriends to celebrate the Middle Eastern version of the bachelorette party known as Henna Night – a night considered by many Egyptian girls to be the second most important night of their lives. Indeed, as much time and effort goes into the planning and preparation of Henna Night as that of the time and preparation of the wedding itself. In fact, Hinna Night is seen as the real wedding by some Egyptian women because they get to dance freely, wear different revealing costumes, and generally be themselves without any men around. It is also usually the last night that the bride spends at her parent’s home.
Legend has it that Henna Night was started in Ancient Egypt by the Egyptian gods of the pharaohs. The evil god Set was jealous of the goddess Isis’ love for her husband, the god Osiris, so Set hatched a plan to murder Osiris, chop his body into several pieces and scatter them throughout Egypt. However, even when Set’s plan came into fruition, Isis’ love was still so strong for Osiris that she sought out and collected every part of her late husband’s body from all across the land. With each body part she collected, her hands became stained red by her husband’s blood, and ever since, red hands are seen as a symbol of a wife’s loyalty and true love for her husband. Thus, the tradition of dyeing the palm of the hands red with henna began.
While each girl waits her turn to get tattooed with beautiful creations of henna butterflies, eyes, anklets, and Nubian-inspired designs, to name a few, there are the dances with the bride, the singing of Henna Night songs, and plenty of the زغرودة / zaghroodah, the high-pitched ululation made by Arab women on such celebratory occasions.
There are also sugar cubes on a plate for the unmarried girls to eat in hope of becoming the next bride, and if that doesn’t work, there is the peculiar tradition of pinching the bride’s knee and saying “قرصة ركبتها من أجل الزواج من بعدها في نفس الأسبوع” /”qarsat rukbatuhaa min ʼajl azzawaaj min baʻdahaa fee nafs alʼusbooʻ “, or I pinch her knee in order to marry after her in the same week.” Some also follow the tradition of throwing salt on the bride to ward off the “evil eye” cast upon her by her unmarried guests.