SEARCHING FOR THE HENNA DJINN, PART 1

HENNA CRAFT IN MOROCCO
FIRST VERSION PUBLISHED IN "CARAVAN TRAILS, a journal for tribal bellydance," volume II, issue 2, 1999, published by gypsy caravan.

Part I - In the Beginning

            She called softly at first from the turquoise lid of a box of Turkish delight. My pappous gave me the sugar pistachio candy as a special treat. A dark-eyed princess finely decorated with jewels and a diaphanous blouse smiles slyly at me as I licked the powder sugar off my fingertips.

            As a child I heard her voice in the melancholy wail of music from faraway places: Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Greece, so different from the doo-wop dominating the airwaves of those days. I must have been about 7 or 8 when I saw a program on 'the Blue People of the Sahara' -- the Tuareg. Through the rustling indigo tent flaps and the patient plodding of tinkling camels I heard her calling. Brightly patterned rugs, massive jewelry with crazed patterns running riot, joyful dancing by the bonfires under a crisp, clear desert night, clearly she was saying, 'come to me.'

            I had no name for her, only a restless desire to see more, do more, be somewhere else--be someone else.

            She refused to leave me as I drew and drew and drew, manic curlicues on paper, in the margins of my school books. I copied Moorish tiles, imagined I was a calligrapher in a former life -- all precursors to the designs that flow out of me now as I earn the mantle of neqasseh, henna painter..

            Perhaps then the only surprising thing about finding myself in the labyrinth of Tangiers on a sunny spring morning is the 40 years it took me to get here, notebook, colored pencils and henna kit in my pack.

TANGIERS. Strolling around the crowded medina, greedily absorbing the richness of Moroccan colors, patterns decorating every square inch of the souk, somehow these romantic visions of mine are made tangible, earthly, gritty and real.  I had come to Morocco on the trail of the henna jinni and she is everywhere.

            That first day in Tangiers I saw a number of women with fully henna'd hands and I longed to stop one of them and say - who did that? where is she? My limited French and my consciousness of being FOB (fresh off the boat) prevented me. What I needed was a guide, a woman who could lead me to the right places. It was simply too overwhelming.

 

Poppy Design, described as "Khaleeji"

Taj, or Crown design

 

RABAT-SALÉ. I headed down to Rabat, the seat of Moroccan government. Rabat-Salé  is actually a double city on opposite banks of the Bou Reg Reg river, with a fascinating history for us pirate buffs..  Salé was the origin of the "Sally Rovers" - the Barbary Pirates.  I wanted to see the Museum of Oudaia with its special collection of traditional Moroccan clothes and jewelry, Berber, Arab and Sephardic Jewish.  I found a comfy, cozy little hostel to stay in and got out my henna kit -- a sure way to make new friends and collect information!  Several Moroccan guys work around the hostel, Salim, Abdul and Aly, and we hang out, listen to RAI music, talk about politics and culture and other cool stuff, and they all want me to do henna on them. They are amazed that I know who Aisha Kandisha is (a whimsical and sometimes malevolent djinn - I have a tape with me called "Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects"), and are quick to share information about her. Although she is connected to henna, she is not the henna djinn.

            Later one of the Moroccan gents working at the hostel brought by some friends of his: Ali, his wife Najaat and their toddler son. Najaat was the first neqasseh I met, the first henna artist. She is called on to do wedding hennas as well as arrange the clothes and jewelry for brides. She works in the traditional manner, going to the brides' homes to work. She uses a syringe and a bowl of henna, squirting the patterns rapidly over the skin. I show her the henna booklet I have brought with me of my work. She is very amused by my chemo patients with henna patterns on their bald heads.

            Najaat explains some of the different styles of henna patterns to me - Marrakshi, Khalidji, Kuwaiti, Rabat, Fesi. I can't see the difference between some of them and ask her to explain. "It's a melange," she says.  Is henna magical?  "Oh, no," she firmly denies. "That's old superstitious stuff."  Najaat doesn't really want to talk about it.  She does henna on my right hand and right foot, a field of Kuwaiti poppies.  It comes out a nice bright red, but doesn't last more than a few days. The henna djinn is teasing me. "Not here," she says. "Go further."  I do, and continue my journey south.

Stock Postcard from Morocco

SIDI BOU ZID. I am fortunate to have Aicha and her family to stay with for a few days. They live in a small town about an hour south of Casablanca. Aicha is in her late twenties, a handsome woman with a proud, strong face. She has a modern outlook and an outgoing personality. She's actually a perfect guide -- she's curious, asks the right questions and drives a hell of a tough bargain!

            Aicha arranges for her and I to go on a henna tour. Her brother Mohammed drives and her 6 year old daughter, Leila, is excited to be with us because she is going to have her hands henna'd!

            First stop, Sidi Bou Zid, which is a shrine to a Moslem marabout, a holy man. Outside on the steps is a small marketplace with a few henna stalls. The women are young, apparently from the south. They have sandwich boards with faded, ragged henna photos pinned to them. I realize after awhile that the photos were not their own work, but 'boiler plate' photos. All the booths have the same photos! They all invite us, 'Come to me, you will get your best henna here.' I watch them work. It's nice design work, but fairly sloppily executed.

EL JADIDA. Next stop, to the souk at El Jadida where a couple of neqasset are working on the street. They have no stalls, just a box, a pillow and the ubiquitous sandwich board. Here I learn that guys get henna, too! I watch as three young men in their early twenties line up patiently to get scorpions, daggers, crowns on their arms and hands. The henna artists are so busy, there's no time to talk. Aicha suggests we go to Azammour -- famous for henna artists.

 

FIREGIRL, pen and ink by Kree Arvanitas, 1999.

LEFT CLICK on photo for larger version

AZAMMOUR. We arrive in the early evening. The medina is several blocks long and lined with garage-like stalls lining the street. It smells pungent and wonderful, roasting food, spices, and the peppery smell of steamed snails in garlic broth, which I eat bravely to amuse Mohammed. Leila is going at the snails with gusto. There are booths for shoes and booths for herbs and booths for clothing and kitchen utensils. Every few steps there is another henna stall. We walk up and down watching the various artists and I buy henna photos and a syringe with two tips. Finally, we choose Fatima's stall and Aicha drives a bargain -- Fatima will talk to me while she's working on customers, she'll do some designs on paper for me and Leila will get her hands painted.

            Fatima's stall is hopping - it's the happening place in the souk. She has a line of customers waiting, two other neqasset working with her, sometimes on the same customer, and several little girls whose purpose was not immediately obvious to me. The roughly 10' by 12' stall has benches along the sides with funky old pillows and a storage/ supply area at the back.

            There are bowls of henna all over the floor and several charcoals hibachis lying around. The girls, ranging from about 5 to 10 years old, are wearing several layers of ragged clothing, spring chill is in the air. The girls are go-fers -- they stir the henna and tend the charcoal braziers.

            I watch as Fatima and another artist use their syringes to work on a wonderful, jolly older lady with interesting facial tattoos (Berber), a headscarf and flashing gold teeth when she laughs (which is frequently). She is having extensive henna done on her hands and feet, and she is teetering on her ample behind, holding her legs in the air as two artists work on her. As an outsider it is my prerogative to ask stupid questions, and I ask - is she getting married? My question is translated and she laughs so hard it's a wonder the artists can continue to work on her. I am told that henna is done anytime somebody feels happy or wants to have happiness brought into their lives.

            Another customer is having henna scraped off her feet with a credit card size piece of wood. The mystery of the braziers is explained to me. Fatima demonstrates the secret of obtaining "black" henna, Moroccan style. After the henna is scraped off a paste is applied to the skin. The paste is made out of water, cement and ammonia crystals, which are obtainable from the chemist stalls. This caustic solution is painted over the henna and the fire girls bring the braziers. The customer holds her hands/feet over the fire until it becomes unbearably hot. Then the girls race back, move the brazier away and wait for awhile, repeating the process over and over again for an hour or more. The girls take their responsibilities very seriously -- a customer could get burned! They are constantly flying back and forth in the stall.

            After the paste has set, it is scraped off again. The henna patterns under the paste will turn black. Then henna is reapplied to fill in areas - where this has been done, the henna is red. The results are a beautiful, two-toned henna. The whole process can take 6 to 8 hours.

            Aicha asks a few questions for me. Fatima also denies any magical connections with the henna, but we leave with a recipe for the henna paste and Leila has beautiful rosettes painted on the palms of her hands. Again, they are amused by my chemo patient pictures. Fatima does some beautiful designs, and clarifies some of the differences between Khalidji style and Marrakshi style for me. She tells me that she has learned everything from others - she has never seen a book with Arabic designs. She has studied Indian design books, however, and is aware of how different the designs are from the Arab designs.

            I come away from the experience at Sidi Bou Zid and Azammour with a new sense of humility. These neqasseh are quick, skilled and wonderful artists. If we had a henna-slam they would wipe me off the floor! But they were kind to me and very happy that someone from America was interested in them and their traditions. They were generous with their time and advice and I thank them all.

 

 

Part II: On the Road to Marrakech & Fes - the Djinn's Name At Last

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