“Is Henna Sacred?”
National Geographic TV production company was making a documentary series on body art1 and went looking for a bona fide academic who could articulately deliver henna's history, traditions, chemistry, techniques and patterns in meticulous detail, four part harmony with full foot-noting, bibliography, the whole 60 countries and 9000 years of it She dug around for such, and called me up.
One hour long call later the producer decided I WAS INDEED the "world's foremost henna expert". That got me a plane ticket to Las Vegas where they were shooting a segment on body art at a world piercing convention. All I had to do was haul myself onto the jet, jump off, and be interviewed on camera for two hours on my favorite subject, then get back on the jet the next morning. Way cool. Kinda tiring, but way cool.
So, I hennaed my hand. I didn't manage to brush my hair properly, forgot my makeup, I'm overweight, but I think my hand looked pretty good. Well, the left hand anyway. I couldn't find any place to photography my hand that wasn't bathed in strange greenish neon and fluorescent lighting! Everything in Las Vegas looks weird and I don't think it's just the lighting.
Vegas architecture is hyperbole on acid, and the weather is from hell (108F, or 43C when I was there June 2). I don't know if only mutant aliens go to Las Vegas, or if regular people get irradiated flying into Vegas and become mutant aliens. I think slot machines are how mutant aliens communicate with their mother ship, which would account for them being unable to pass by one without checking in.
I got to the hotel and tried to make myself presentable, which was a hopeless case. Such is life. I better be able to impress people with my mind because my appearance ain't fer shit any more.
The producer was very cool, working on a world-wide documentary on traditions of body modification: tattooing, scarification, piercing, henna and whatall. She parked me in front of the camera for a couple of hours, asked questions and seemed pleased that I could answer without hesitation all sorts of scholarly, authoritative stuff on henna. The piercing convention was next to us and there was a didgeridoo huuuuuuuuuaaaaaaaaaauuuuuuuuummmmmmmmm going nonstop which drove the sound guy nuts because it kept coming over on the tape. Oh well. So my interview on henna history will have a faint, vaguely primeval aboriginal sound bed of huuuuuuooooooooaaaaaaawhhhhhhauuuuuuuuapapapapapapaaaaaaaaaammmmmm.
When we got done, I wanted to go to the piercing convention and maybe take pictures or draw the piercees. One does wonder why young healthy people volunteer for pain and pay good money for it when if they want to play the pain game all they have to do is get old.
I caught up with the pierced people at 4 am. I was doing east to west jet lag, three hours’ worth. Las Vegas is in a time zone of its own, with no clocks whatsoever, no time but NOW. Nothing ever closes. Ever. There was a cluster of them at the bar, swaying and drunk. They were getting more real by the minute.
I chatted up one pierceling and he said,
"Lookit ME! I'm like really wow cos like people take pictures of me and stuff and like and everybody like looks at me now. I'm just soooooo like weird. I'm like totally sooo different from everyone else. And I'm like sooooooooo crazy, like, you know. I come from this little stupid town you know like where everybody's really stupid and narrow, and like my parents are like really stupid, like and they never like understand anything. I dropped out of high school cos it was like really stupid and like I was like nobody, like with pimples and all and not even like cool enough to have a black trench coat and magic cards or nothin’ cos my parent's didn't like understand nothin’ or nothin’, like. Like nobody liked me. Everybody like hated me and shit. Like no gurl would date me or nothin they'd just look at me like I was fukkin invisible. So I got loaded a lot on ayahuasca and paint thinner and like started having these like really shamanic visions, like, you know, and like they wuz really powerful like, and I found out that I'm like all shamanic too and I see things and I started getting into like piercing and stuff you know. Like I see things in my visions and they like happen like. And like I had this vision about being all wild and like primitive like and I started getting into all these really heavy trips like. I've got 73 piercings, dude I'm like HARD-CORE, MAN! Like, my penis was in a magazine and stuff. You wanna see it?"
I smiled as he carried on, but politely declined his offer to view his rather tattered magazine.
Gotta love people who have ear spools so big it looks like they have on a Mickey Mouse hat with the ears lowered.
I also love the way that it’s obligatory for those who have nipple barbells to wear t-shirts tight and thin enough you can tell the gauge from across the street. MRI machines just love these people.
I thought they were much more interesting when they weren't keeping their persona shield in place, letting it drop from fatigue, inebriation, or playing slots. This guy slid into a machine, fell into the flashing light trance, believing he was special and his otherworld spirits would tell him the winning numbers.
They happily drained away their minimum wage paychecks gradually at 98% on the dollar.
Everybody else was special too, each in their own way. Cha-ching.
In 2003, people were swimming in the deep end of proclaiming all manner of tattoos, piercings, and every other marketable sort of cultural consumption to be sacred. Whether the body art was ever actually sacred or not, claiming one’s new ornament to be sacred or exotic or mystical made the wearer feel important and worth the price paid for it. Following Madonna’s “Frozen,” many people were convinced that henna must be mystical, ancient, and sacred. Some people speculated online that henna artists were priestesses. So, at the end of the several-hour interview, the producer asked me the obligatory question for the “Taboo” ‘body art’ segment, “Is henna sacred?”
I responded with an off the cuff answer which was probably the best quick response I’ve ever made in my life, and I’m glad they caught it on tape and included it in the program. I answered, “No, henna is not sacred. Henna is how women take care of each other.”