By Kree Arvanitas, All Rights Reserved

GLOSSARY - Spellings are approximate, as there are many varations in spelling of Arabic translations.


henna artist, plural is neqasset.  The root word is "neqsh" meaning simply, to paint.


old town, in Fes it is a hilltop covered with a warren of over 6,000 tiny streets


a north African spirit, malevolent, beneficent or neutral, plural djnoun ("genie" comes from djinn).


trilling sound made by vibrating the tongue against the palate or cheeks. It is used to mark joyful occasions, or as an acknowledgement of a woman's beauty or performance skills.

khamsa sacred design symbol, also known as the "hand of Fatima," a motif used by Arabs, Jews & Christians to ward off evil. It is a popular design to use in henna.


FIRST VERSION PUBLISHED IN "CARAVAN TRAILS, a journal for tribal bellydance," volume II, issue 3, 1999, published by gypsy caravan.

Part I is the tale of how I came to Morocco on my own, wanting to experience the magic of henna first hand. I touched down in Tangiers, Rabat and along the beautiful west coast, asking everyone I saw with henna where and why they had it done. While staying with a family in El Jadida I visited several henna markets including the souk at Azammour, interviewed henna artists called "neqasset", collected henna designs and learned some of the secrets of black henna. Now my comfortable nest is becoming a bit confining and I am anxious to push further south to learn more about the mysteries of the henna tradition. I am also on a bit of a schedule because I have tickets to the Sacred Music Festival in Fes, which requires returning north in a few days.


Stock Henna Photo featuring Meknes/Fesi style designs.  Henna'd fingernails can be clearly seen - and the henna looks as though it has been darkened by adding either walnut gall (khidab) or hair dye (PPD).  


Bride from El-Jadida

Photographer Najib Nazouari

Tinting & Effects by Kree Arvanitas




Marrakech - The word triggers all sorts of exotic associations as the gateway to ancient trading routes, but I awoke from my bus ride to see the glowing pink and yellow neon of the Marrakech McDonalds (bummer!). It was a harbinger, I'm afraid, of some missed connections and opportunities that are the bane of traveling on a schedule.

          Marrakech seems pretty modern on this highway into town and the bus station reminds me very much of places in New Mexico. However once I get to the main square, find a small hotel as a home base and begin walking around I see how unique Marrakech is. In the mornings it is a rather quiet medina, sunny, lazy, people sitting around drinking mint tea and reading newspapers. In the afternoon merchants start rolling in and putting up stalls in the square.

          By and by Marrakech begins to vibrate with the cries of the street hawkers, elderly water sellers, and the tall, dark and handsome men from the south dancing, drumming and spinning tassels enthusiastically around from the caps they are wearing. The sun goes down, the bonfires from various groups arise like beacons in between crowds of shoulder to shoulder bodies. It reminded me of being at a rave or Rainbow gathering! Everyone staked out their little piece of square, people coming down from the mountains to play music and sing and the energy rising to a condition just short of trance.

          People have asked me if I felt afraid as a solo woman and it's true, a crowd consisting mostly of men can be rather intimidating. This night on the square at Marrakech was not threatening, but being continually pressed against did lose it's perverse charm after awhile.. It made me focus on what I had come here to do -- look for the neqasset, the henna ladies.

          And there they were in the square, hunkered down on their haunches over a piece of cardboard, next to the sorceresses with their magical rocks, candles and something that looked a bit like Arabic ouija boards. It was quite dark and at first I was surprised at the henna-by-firelight. After watching for awhile, I was not impressed at the quality of the work. It was speedily done with syringes, sloppy work and relatively expensive compared to the much finer work at Azammour. I was more tempted to spend my dwindling money supply on the sorceresses! However, I did admire their energy, skill at working the crowd around them -- which I cannot do while I am focused on doing henna.

          I searched in vain for someone to invite me to a wedding. Perhaps next time! However I was given some beautiful photos from a Moroccan wedding. It is interesting to note how similar Arab and Jewish wedding traditions are here in Morocco. I found a web site with photos of a Sephardic wedding where the wedding costumes, dancing and procession looked almost identical to the picture I have. Although I was aware that Marrakech still has a thriving Jewish community I was not able to follow up on a lead I had to meet with a Jewish henna artist. 

          Next time, In'shallah!

          Time was running out for me and so I turned back north to the immortal city of Fes. The morning I left the bus station I met a beautiful woman cleaning the bathroom stalls. She had incredibly elaborate henna done on her hands and feet, up past her ankles and half way up her arms. (So much for no work until the henna fades!) Unfortunately, she spoke no French. I was able to ask her if she had the henna done in Marrakech and she shook her head no, but I was not able to understand her answer. The style of the henna was classic Fes, tiny, elaborately geometric patterns.

FES - Truly one of the most magical cities in the world, Fes is draped gracefully at the southern foot of the Rif mountains. Thanks in part to the French occupiers who built separate "new towns" instead of razing the older parts of the city, the medieval old town is alive and thriving.  I stayed at a very spartan but pleasant hotel near the gate of Bab Bou Jaloud with its shimmering blue mosaic patterns covering one side (the other side is green).  Sunrise on the parapet of the hotel was a highlight of my travels!  Imagine -- the sky turning pink, the muezzin calling the city to early morning prayer, the swallows proclaiming the beauty of the morning with trilling zaghareets and the stirring voice of Oum Koulthum pouring into the streets of the medina. Nothing could have prepared me for such beauty and morning meditation took on a whole new rosy hue.

          Every day Fes uncovered new treasures to me. I ducked into one of the ritzier hotels one day -- looking for croissants and a non-squat toilet. In the dining room was a really sweet mural of a Moroccan harem, with a henna artist preparing the bride for her big day.



Henna Design "Malika's Gates of Heaven"

Style from Royal City of Fes

          I found one excellent artist after another in Fes simply by asking questions and also by attending the Sacred Music Festival. Each lady has a different story to tell and a different style. In Fes there are no public henna stalls, although plastic henna stencils and piles of fresh henna are sold in the souk. Each woman I speak with works privately and by word of mouth. It is also interesting that all of the neqasset I encounter, one young woman stands apart from the rest:

          Zohra is a henna master, a true neqasseh. Her companion must do the interpreting between us, however, Zohra does not speak French. With animated gestures, she shows me her work. She does henna on drums, on goat skins, on paper. She is a fountain of creativity and uses whatever tools she has available, not only henna, but magic markers, thread, Berber dafs (little square camel or goat-skin drums). The goat skin paintings are incredible -- demons and creatures and elaborate viney borders. Zohra is not hampered by tradition, she builds on it.

          Zohra is also a generous soul and I find myself drawn to her, returning day after day for more conversation. We establish a connection that is the beginning of true friendship. She is unusual in that she does not use the Moroccan style syringe to apply her henna, she uses an Indian style rolled cone. It shows in the control and preciseness of her work. She showed me a large tar she painted with a classic Fesi style design.

          One day I asked Zohra about the magical properties of henna. She confirmed to me that in some of the more remote places henna is used as a healing and exorcism tool. Her companion was stuck on a word, which he did not know in French, and Zohra acted out a "trance" motion for me, and she was excited when she knew I understood her. She went on to describe to me that henna repels and attracts, depending on which patterns are used. I asked her if the trance sessions were aligned with any particular feast or holy days, and she said yes.

         In a trance session, the neqasseh uses her connection with the spirit world to determine which patterns are needed to assist the woman requesting the henna. Perhaps the woman is depressed, sad, unable to express feelings of loss. The neqasseh determines which spirit has gotten its clutches on the unfortunate woman - perhaps Aisha Kandisha herself is causing spiritual mayhem. Aisha is a powerful djinn, a spirit that dwells around wells and pools of water, and can cause symptoms which westerners might call bi-polar or manic depression. Henna patterns incorporating certain diamond or dot patterns frighten Aisha away and create protective energy around the wearer.

          Perhaps a woman seeks a neqasseh for another reason -- she is wanting to bring more positivity into her life, more calm, more well-being, more beauty.  Which henna spirit would she ask?


MALIKA - Zohra's answer is what I've been hoping for. Yes, Virginia, there is a henna djinn and her name is Malika!   Attract her attention and you will feel like a queen, no matter how hardworking, how tired, how old, how poor you are.  Malika brings love, laughter and abundance into one's life -- although it may not be material or immediately obvious.

          Zohra tells me that Malika lives in a beautiful palace on a floating island. Her palace is guarded by a beautiful gate

          Her favorite colors are mauve, blue and yellow. She loves music, she loves shiny objects. When Malika blesses your home, everything changes, love walks in. And Malika LOVES HENNA! There are certain patterns that attract her, especially star and flowery shapes incorporated into the Fesi style.

Moroccan Bowl & henna improv on a Saharan theme, paste on

          I was told many times by many women, "La henna, c'est la tendresse, c'est pour l'amour."

         My experience in Morocco not only made me a better henna artist, it made me a better person. I learned first hand that:  

  when henna is done in the name and spirit of Malika;  

  when the henna artist opens up her heart to the person she is working on;  

  when she acknowledges the beauty of the wearer and works from a deep desire to please;  

henna becomes a conduit between two people that can become something other-worldly, super-natural and divine. Henna is a balm that raises the spirits and creates happiness in both  giver and receiver.

The secret name of the Henna Djinn is Love.





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