Henna losing its allure as Tunisia’s ‘red gold’

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A bride shows her Henna painted hands, the day before her wedding in Gabes town, in southeastern Tunisia on July 14, 2018 In and around the Tunisian coastal city of Gabes, henna has long been a key driver of the economy -- so much so that the plant is known as "red gold". (AFP)
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A bride shows her Henna painted hands, the day before her wedding in Gabes town, in southeastern Tunisia on July 13, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 26 July 2018
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Henna losing its allure as Tunisia’s ‘red gold’

  • Water crisis and changing consumer habits are making farmers think twice about planting henna shrubs
  • Only 645 tons of the plant were harvested in the Gabes region in 2016/17 — down 20 percent from the previous season

GABES, Tunisia: In and around the Tunisian coastal city of Gabes, henna has long been a key driver of the economy — so much so that the plant is known as “red gold.”
But a water crisis and changing consumer habits are making farmers think twice about planting henna shrubs, despite their coveted leaves that have for centuries been ground down to paint nails, tint hair and ink temporary tattoos, especially for weddings.
“Gabes is dying because of the lack of water,” says farmer Houcine Akrout, as he digs intricate channels around his green plants to maximize water flow in the early morning sunlight.
Akrout is hard at work, because the local water supply will today run from a canal onto his land — a rare thing nowadays, due to government rationing.
Urbanization and rapidly rising demand for water from industry and agriculture have put immense pressure on Tunisia’s water reserves, according to the World Bank.
And a 2016 study of Tunisia’s water services funded by Sweden’s government found that losses from the irrigation network reach 40 to 50 percent.
For farmers like Akrout, that means waiting 15 to 20 days for access to the water supply.
“It’s very long for the henna plant which needs lots of water,” he tells AFP.
The situation is so bad he has uprooted most of his henna shrubs and replaced them with pomegranate trees — a much less thirsty species.
“Henna does not make me any money,” he says. “It isn’t profitable any more and I need to live and support my family.”
When it comes, the water supply costs 2.8 dinars ($1.10, 0.93 euros) per hour.
In mid-summer, the wait can reach up to 40 days, admits Amel Ghiloufi, head of the region’s plants department at the agriculture ministry.
And pollution of the water supply from a chemical plant has seen farmers abandon land in the oasis on the Mediterranean coast in recent decades.

The water crisis is having a dramatic impact on henna output.
Only 645 tons of the plant were harvested in the Gabes region in 2016/17 — down 20 percent from the previous season, Ghiloufi says.
But other factors, including a labor shortage, are also driving the long-term decline.
And it’s not only supply side pressures that undermine the market — demand for local henna is also falling, as people opt for foreign alternatives.
Over the centuries, henna leaves have been dried and reduced to a fine powder before being mixed with water, to create the paste coveted by people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The paste is used to color hair, palms of hands, arms and feet with simple patterns that last for a month or so.
But the process can be messy and people don’t always want to keep the art work for that long.
So imports of a treated version of henna from Sudan, Yemen and India are increasingly popular, with added chemicals limiting penetration of the skin and making it easy to wash from hands.
Ahead of weddings, the ready-to-use dye is handed out in decorated boxes to guests at bachelorette parties.
The processed imported versions are taking over from the local product.
And while once popular as a grandmother’s remedy for anything from migraines to skin problems, younger people are more skeptical of henna’s healing powers.
But for Ghiloufi the only way “to revive the sector is to break new ground,” by promoting henna’s natural benefits and diversifying into new markets.
In the capital Tunis, shampoos based on the plant have begun to find their way into health stores.
Only a few entrepreneurs sell Tunisian henna abroad — and they do so without state support — so exports are minimal, despite the “good quality” produced by Gabe’s farmers, says Ghiloufi.

In Jara, the main tourist market in the center of Gabes, huge stalls overflow with henna and incense — but the streets are empty.
Traders complain that the trickle of tourists is not enough to compensate for locals’ disinterest.
“Henna is sold all the year round. Our market was always full of clients who come from all over Tunisia!” says 85-year-old Hassen Mrabet, who has been growing and selling henna for half a century.
“Now sales are limited to the wedding season in July and August,” he adds.
Another trader bemoans the rising popularity of other beauty products and treatments, as lifestyles change.
New forms of “dye and manicures have replaced henna today,” according to 49-year-old Ismail.
“Tunisians have changed their habits and turned their backs on their traditions; henna is out of fashion.”


Yousra Elsadig brings her modest style to LFW

An image from the show in London. (Frederico Velez)
Updated 21 February 2019
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Yousra Elsadig brings her modest style to LFW

DUBAI: An independent showcase of emerging designers held during London Fashion Week, Fashion Scout once again lived up to its name — scouting out and presenting talented designers from across the globe from Feb. 15-17.

Arab News went along to a showing by a UK-based designer Yousra Elsadig, whose Boutique De Nana collection paid tribute to her former home country, Sudan.

“I am trying to depict the beauty of my homeland. It’s so heart-breaking to see what’s happening in Sudan. I want to dedicate this collection to my country and to put the focus on freedom, justice and peace,” she said.

Elsadig, who was named “Woman of the Year” by Barclays in 2017 and “Designer of The Year 2016 by the Modest Association of London, designs for women who want to dress modestly, but with imagination and style.

“The modest element is very important to me — women can be beautiful, feminine and modest,” she said.

Her designs have a simplicity, charm and quirkiness that comes partly from the use of recycled fabrics, as sustainability is a key message she wants to get across. 

Elsadig is unusual in combining her designer role with a full-time degree in optometry. In fact, the day before her LFW show, she sat an exam and then drove from her home in Wales to London. 

She is also the mother of two young girls, but if that’s a lot to juggle it doesn’t show. She was a bundle of warmth and energy backstage — calmly briefing the models.

Her family left Sudan when she was very young and she grew up in Canada. Her family then left Canada to live in Wales in the UK.

It was in Cardiff that she met her mentor, designer Sarah Valentin, who was teaching community sewing and textile classes with a special focus on recycling and sustainability. Valentin said she is thrilled to see Elsadig achieving such success.

“I saw her potential and creative ideas. It’s incredible that she is showing here at London Fashion Week.  I’m so proud of her,” she said.

As the models moved gracefully through the room, the clothes gave off a sense of confident, graceful and highly individual style — perfect for the modern, modest woman of today.