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Keeping Henna Alive at the Somali Mall

At Shop 110 in Minneapolis, women find bonding and beauty.

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The “Somali Mall” in Minneapolis is located on Pillsbury Avenue, and it’s called the Karmel Mall. It consists of two buildings with a garage parking lot in between. The main entrance sign is emerald green with the words “Suuqa Karmel, a Somali Mall” in white lettering. There’s another “Somali Mall,” but this is the most popular one.

The traffic by the mall is brazen, with cars stopping in the middle of the street to drop off and pick up people. Inside, the shop colors are garish and vibrant, and the hallways are narrow. Clothes — abayas, diracs, skirts, hijabs, baatis, jewel-encrusted dresses — line the walls. I’ve been told by elders that walking through Karmel Mall is like walking through a market in pre-war Casa Popolare, Mogadishu. Here, the colors and overpowering scents coalesce, sticking to skin and to clothing. Often, my little brother will tell my dad he smells like “the neighbors”— the Somali tenants that live directly across the street — or “the Somali mall,” which is to say that these places bear a familiar scent of sundry spices, perfume, cooked food, henna dye, and frankincense. These scents tell a story of cultural and economic resilience despite 25 years of displacement and hardship; they tell the story of Mogadishu some 8,000 miles from here; they tell a story of diaspora.

At Karmel Mall, the shops close during prayer times for ten to 15 minutes, a brief reminder that money is less important than God. The call to prayer — the azan — blares through the speakers at noon (Zhuhur), 2 p.m. (Asr), 4 p.m. (Maghrib) and 7 p.m. (Isha). Somehow, time doesn’t stop at the henna parlor, though, for neither the artists nor the patrons — almost like the rules don’t apply to us. I’ve been brought up accustomed to this kind of rule-breaking — something I’ve begun referring to as a sort of magic — that takes place in feminine spaces like gardens, kitchens, hammam spas, and henna parlors. Here, women from all walks of life come to get their henna done, discuss issues of the day, and practice their art.

Shop 110, Sabrina Seyf’s henna parlor, has tan, blue, and pink walls and bright pink drapes. The ceiling is exposed, industrial style. The floor is tiled. The clients are seated on fadi arbeed (Arabic-style couches). There’s another room with a vanity sectioned off that used to function as a makeup studio but is now a glorified supply closet. In that room are framed images of adorned Somali women.

Sabrina, 27, is a fourth-generation henna artist and the eldest of three girls (all henna artists). She’s arguably one of the best Somali henna artists in Minnesota, judging by her cult-like following that boasts the likes of Venus Williams. Her mother, Momma Asha, used to do henna for the daughter of Siad Barre, Somalia’s former dictator before the country’s civil war. Their henna parlor is a family enterprise through-and-through, with even Sabrina’s babies present.

Today, there are three young women waiting to get their henna done, and one older niqabi getting her henna done. I watch as Sabrina delicately chips crusty henna flakes off of the niqabi’s hand with a butter knife. She never looks at her phone when applying henna, or when waiting for it to dry. She’s engaged in the banter, and her laughs fill the room and her art. The process still enthralls her, even after nearly two decades of her life doing it.

“I started doing henna 19 years ago,” Sabrina says quietly as she continues to scrape henna off the client’s hand. “First you start off scraping it off, after that you start filling it out, and then I went to designing.”

Henna art is a 5,000-year-old tradition with roots in India, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa. Henna powder from grated henna plant mixed with water is used to make the red-colored paste of henna dye. The paste is then applied through a squeezable bag and dries in 20-30 minutes, staining the skin. Then, it’s scraped off. This process usually takes anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour. A single hand and arm might take 25 minutes, feet might take longer.

Henna designs last anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on many environmental factors. Henna designs are worn by Somali women on the hands, feet, arms, and sometimes on the neck/chest area for special occasions, especially weddings and the celebration after Ramadan known as Eid. Sabrina makes up her designs and doesn’t use pre-made templates, unlike a lot of the white henna designers found at local American malls. In 1996, when the shop was first opened, Momma Asha set a standard price of $5 per hand (depending on how much dye is used), and it’s never gone up, even though the rent has gone up and they’ve had countless opportunities to inflate the price. Typically, white designers, like the one at Southdale Mall, charge at least $20 a hand. I asked Sabrina why she doesn’t raise the price, and she said it’s for two reasons: If she’s the best and the cheapest option, she’s more competitive that way, but also, she does it more for the love than the money, which is also why she doesn’t expect tips for her work.

Sabrina often does revisions of bad henna designs for disgruntled customers who made the mistake of getting their henna done at the wrong place. Bad henna designs are usually too big, too dark, and not specific enough in detail, while Sabrina’s designs are ornate and intricate. Bad henna designs exist because some henna designers picked up designing randomly and aren’t life-long, authentic henna artists. Authentic henna artists start off as scrapers as children and fillers as tweens before becoming henna designers.

In Sabrina and her sisters Halima and Sagal’s case, scraping began at roughly five years old and designing began at approximately ten years old. It’s not considered child labor, per se, but rather a way of life. Sabrina’s family is from Benadir, also known as Xamar, which is the deep south of Somalia, where henna designing is part of their culture. This is her family’s primary source of income; they cater to clients from all walks of life, and have even done henna for people who’ve come from different states and countries. But their most loyal clients are young Somali brides-to-be and their wedding guests.

A woman named Asma Jama, who is scarred on her face after falling victim to a hate crime, tells the room of women her story.

“So I am talking to my cousin, and she goes ‘If you’re in America speak English,’” Asma says in a light Swahili accent, recounting her now-viral story of having a glass beer pitcher hurled at her face.

Asma’s friend chimes in: “The woman who hurt her was so happy, laughing in court. Six months in jail, five months probation. Now hate crimes are a felony. It was a slap on the wrist and now it’s a felony.”

Sabrina’s sister Halima, 18, interjects about the time she called a white guy who discriminated against her a “cracker” at a movie theater. This is par for the course with young Somalis: loving, spirited interruptions. The women commiserate over their shared experiences in Trump’s America. Sabrina’s is a place where their voice matters and culture is a point of pride. Sabrina and these women, and many like them elsewhere, are keeping Somali traditions and henna alive for generations to come.

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