Henna art, in a design of royal caliber, gloved Andrea Jones' hands in culture and saturated her mind with opportunity.
She felt a smidgen of what the hennaed women she'd seen at area theme parks felt when they had their hands and feet adorned with the plant pigment. She sampled life with a tattoo, albeit temporarily. Through Pakistani henna artist Zahra Ali, Jones said that she also has learned about a culture some in this war-weary and security-wary age assume they know.
"It just shows that you can get to know people from other countries and have it be a beautiful thing, not just a weird thing," said Jones, an African-American who works in the mortgage industry and has also had her eyebrows threaded - tweezed with thread - at Zahra's. "Everyone in Pakistan and Iraq . . . they're not all against the U.S."
It's curious that Ali, a former photographer and namesake of the Style by Zahra salon on Hungary Spring Road, provides such a multipurpose service considering she's using a "junk skill" she learned in the summer schools of her youth. She cast henna, or mehndi, aside in maturity until a birth made her recast it and other skills into a profitable venture.
"Sometimes you think your skills are junk, but it's treasure for other people," she said.
Ali, who will apply henna designs at "Punjabi Mela: Festival of Punjab, India" on Saturday at the Richmond Raceway Complex, said her henna customers diversified in 2001 to include more non-Indian and Asian people. She said she still does the traditional bridal henna designing - two a month - but now she's doing it for non-Indian and non-Asian brides marrying into the culture.
Young trick-or-treaters dressed as Indian princesses also offer their palms and feet alongside the occasional bride with a desire to incorporate the beauty of the art into her Big Day. All are in sync with the celebrities, supermodels and athletes hypnotized by henna, whose history is debated as much as its safety.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves of the use of henna in hair dye, not direct skin application. According to the FDA Web site, questions have been raised about the safety of ingredients that may be added to henna products. Henna advocates say pure henna, which stains an orange-red color, is safe.
Henna historians describe it as a cosmetic and a natural healing product that also keeps skin supple. Perhaps that's why some say it was used in ancient Egypt to stain the fingers and toes of Pharaohs before mummification. Others recount the spiritual prowess of henna as a body-art amulet for warriors sent into battle. If they died, the adornment would make them more presentable to the examining angels.
Ali, a henna artist for more than a decade, said the transformation from plant to the symbolic orange-red "color of life" parallels women's hardships. The harsh process begins when the henna leaves are taken from the plant and dried, she said. Next, they're ground into a fine powder, strained and strained again and finally mixed with water to produce the perfect dye that will bring color to people's lives on special occasions. Then there is woman. Marriage plucks her from her family stem and grafts her to another where she must change, adapt and bear children to "give color to this life," Ali said.
At one time, marriage and motherhood were the only paths young women in her country could follow. Not anymore. Those summer classes of her youth symbolized a shift in a society that decided to give young girls options by teaching them skills such as flower arrangement, cosmetology and henna design.
Ali's passion for henna, however, was born of love and necessity. She loved getting it done, as did many of her peers. Yet Ali said her mother tired of carting her to get it done. With four other kids to mind, time was at a premium.
"She said, `If you want it, learn to do it yourself,'" Ali said.
She picked up a matchstick, dipped one end in the henna dye and drew a shell with a dot on it for her first attempt. Soon she was practicing on neighborhood kids who have grown into adults who fondly remember being her guinea pigs, she said.
Ali came here to live with two brothers at 17. Her focused life eventually developed into marriage, motherhood and a career as a professional photographer. Then her second child, a son, was born with Down syndrome about 2 1/2 years ago. The diagnosis forced Ali to refocus her life. She needed to change careers to devote the extra time to his care, she said.
"When they brought the news to me and my husband . . . I said we're not going to shed tears over what he has and what he's not. We have to get strong and promise this kid a normal life," said Ali, whose son is in day care, developing on schedule with "normal" kids and excelling at a budding modeling career.
Business came to her, Ali said, once she passed the word she was working at home doing henna and eyebrow threading.
Eyebrow threading is an ancient technique of plucking hairs with thread tied and twisted into an instrument reminiscent of the childhood Cat's Cradle.
It's another popular skill Ali said she learned in her youth and mastered into a moneymaker that accounts for 85 percent of the 600-plus clients monthly at her salon, which also offers hairstyling and facial treatments.
"It's almost painless," client Aretha Hargrove said of the treatment, which creates the perfect arch she's been looking for and didn't find with waxing. "Once she starts, you feel the burn against your skin but she does it so quick you don't have time to think about it."
Ali, who rarely advertises, said she's so busy she is training help.
"I believe in accepting change and making change in life," said Ali, who is active in local Down syndrome organizations and hopes to create an organization to help families of Down children.
"Collecting money is no big deal. It's what you will do with that money to contribute to someone's life."
Want to go?
Punjabi Mela: Festival of Punjab, India
* WHAT: The second annual event celebrating the culture of Punjab, a large state in northern India internationally known for its colorful clothing, vibrant dances, 24-karat jewelry and its food.
* FEATURING: Live entertainment, Indian food, henna art, traditional Punjabi clothing, carnival games and door prizes. Zahra Ali of Style by Zahra will apply henna and offer eyebrow threading, a technique that removes hair with thread.
* WHEN: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday at the Richmond Raceway complex, 600 E. Laburnum Ave.
* COST: Free.
* DETAILS: For more information about the festival, call (804) 639-6681, (804) 651-4038 or (804) 868-8283. To contact Zahra Ali, call (804) 683-2261.
(The Original Article is Framed in the salon.)