This past Sunday night I had some people over to my place for some Pakistani food. Well, it was a little more elaborate than that. There were about 50-60 folks, I think, and we had lots of food and an Egyptian hookah and henna. And there was a lot of henna-ing going around, some of it very creative indeed. Which leads to the title of this post, though I should note that I write not because I am really in conflict about the goings on the other night, but merely to posit some questions.
Now, when I grew up in Pakistan, applying henna, or mehndi, was almost exclusive limited to a bride and her friends applying it on a special night before the wedding where there would be singing and dancing and all sorts of merry making in an exclusively female crowd. And, yes, as a little bit of a momma’s boy, I went to some of these as a young, young lad, where inevitably, as on just about any other occassion, the women would pinch my cheeks. I am not sure why Pakistani women like to affectionately pinch the cheeks of little boys, but it really hurts. However, I digress.
In Pakistan, henna is also used by women, and some men, to dye hair, which for dark Pakistani hair gives it an red-orange hue in the sunlight. More startlingly, some old men dye their beards with henna. This man has done both. In high school, some of the girls, and yes I joined them, dyed their hair with henna. One girl’s hair, which was sandy brown to begin with, came out orangutang orange, which is alright if you are punk rawk and all, but that was not really her thing. I actually have henna-ed my hair numerous times, but have given it up, because, well, it makes all that nearly-turning-forty white hair turn, you know, orangutang orange, and I am certainly to old to be punk rawk.
Though the Wikipedia article on henna implies that it can be used more broadly than just for weddings but also for other celebrations, in what sense is it OK, or not, for a bunch of folk in the American Midwest to apply it just for kicks? Does there need to be any connection or even nod to the culture(s) of origin or not?
Again, I am not really conflicted about the validity of our henna-ing the other night, but in our increasingly connected age are all similar appropriations OK or are some not cool? For example, Nathan and I went to see Vampire Weekend the other night, with their African-pop influenced, preppy music. Is it OK that they borrow African guitar stylings? Which begs the question, is it OK that African pop uses the electric guitar?
I am beginning to think my line of questioning is answering itself, and I have expressed earlier on this blog that I believe that present cultures are really nothing more than mash-ups and admixtures of previous cultures, as people come into contact with one another and rub off on one another, even as some of those interactions involve power of one group over the other and prejudice. Witness the history of rock and roll and jazz.
But, still, are there ever times when the appropriations can be too much, too silly, too assuming, too much like stealing? Do individuals have free reign to fashion their identities in any way they choose culturally, like the white, suburban lover of hip-hop who tries to dress the part? One of the reasons I am interested in people’s views is that I am hoping to write an article on the intersection of culture, race, and identity. Also, I think we are living in an age of great and exciting cultural exchange and formation, and wondered what thoughts people may have concering that.
P.S. I still don’t like fusion cuisine, though, I know that is entirely inconsistent and probably not exactly true as I am certain many things I love are cultural hybrids.