There's only so much information you can get from asking women on the streets about their henna, so I decided to go to the source and find some ḥannayat ('henna artists' — in Fes they use the word ḥannaya rather than neqasha as in other parts of Morocco). In this post I'm going to feature the work of a local ḥannaya whom I spent some time with on Sunday; hopefully I will be able to see one or two more ḥannayat in action.
A— is the “resident ḥannaya” of Café Clock, a popular restaurant and cultural centre in the medina of Fes (with a sister café that just opened in Marrakech). She has been a henna artist for 17 years, and she began working at Café Clock four years ago. She works there ‘on call’ — if you want henna, you can ask the servers to call her for you, and she shows up within about half an hour. The café also hosts her on Sunday evenings starting at 6:30, when it’s not Ramadan.
|A working on a fusion piece.|
I first met A one Sunday afternoon at the café; she had come in to henna another client and I asked if I can watch. The client (a young woman from the Netherlands traveling with her father) pointed at a photograph showing two hands hennaed with full bildi (‘old-fashioned’) Fassi henna, but A did a more modern khaleeji/bildi fusion with some open space. The client was satisfied, though, and paid 150 dh (about 18 USD) for both hands.
I wanted to see more of A's traditional Fassi work, however, so I returned with a friend from school who had graciously agreed to be my henna ‘wing-woman’ and help me with my research.
A sat and patiently answered my questions about henna while my friend R— and her boyfriend J— ate lunch, and then she hennaed my friend while I took photo and video.
A doesn’t work at other cafés or public places; outside of Café Clock her henna income comes from private appointments and brides. She told me that she learnt henna art on her own, without a teacher, and that henna artists in Morocco work alone. “We don’t have any associations for henna artists like writers or teachers have,” she told me somewhat wistfully.
I wanted to let her know about the wonderful networking and camaraderie that we henna artists have in North America, but I wasn’t sure how to tell her, since I was ‘undercover’ and hadn’t told her that I was a henna artist (in Morocco it’s seen as shameful for men to be involved with henna or have elaborate henna themselves). Maybe I should have — I just don’t know how she would have reacted. I think I also wanted the conversation to be about her, not about me; if I see her again, I'll probably tell her.
A looked over some of the photos I had taken of henna on the streets, and identified the different designs for me, classifying them into two types — bildi, referring to the designs I call ‘true Fassi,’ and romi, ‘modern,’ referring both to the few floral pieces I’d seen and to the confusing fusion pieces which were full coverage but not classic Fassi, which she also called mukhallaṭ, ‘mixed.’ As it turned out, one of the pieces that I had photographed was actually her work on a private client! We had a good laugh about that.
For A, the bildiyya style of Fes is characterized by a very limited repertoire of elements: the space is divided into triangles and diamonds, which are filled with dots (nuqta), a tree (shajara), or a checkerboard (ḍama). Of course everything gets a zigzag around it, which she simply called zegzeg, or dots along the edge of a line. When I drew the fill motif from the first photo here, the tree whose branches (ghaṣn) are coming out of a double spiral, she said that was already moving into the romi or ‘modern’ style.
|A immediately identified this street photo of mine as an |
example of ḥinna dyal 'Aisha, henna for Lalla 'Aisha.
While she denied that the motifs have symbolic meaning, she explained that henna has a relationship with two jnun in particular: Lalla ‘Aisha, who prefers the dot fill, which A identified as an older style; and Lalla Malika, who prefers the more modern tree fill (this is also referenced in Emilio Spadola’s book on Moroccan Islam).
Thus the artist can modify the pattern, depending on which jinniyya the henna client wishes to appease, although I’ve seen quite a few pieces where the two fills are paired. I hope to find out more about this, and write more about henna and the jnun in another post.
And of course if the client wants extra protection, they can add an eye, which is usually drawn in a fairly realistic style — the only representational motif in Fassi henna (that is, you don’t see attempts to draw particular objects, flowers, animals, etc). I asked A why we don’t see the hamsa symbol (called khmissa in Moroccan Arabic) in henna, given its connection with the eye, and she confirmed something I’ve suspected: that it’s unnecessary. “You don’t need a khmissa, because the khmissa is the hand — when your hand has henna on it, it becomes the khmissa,” she explained. Thus a hennaed hand doesn't need a hamsa because it *is* a hamsa. This is also a point made by another scholar, Amanda Rogers, in her doctoral thesis and other work.
A took great pride in the quality of the henna of Fes, and explained several times that it was superior to the henna done in other cities, especially Marrakech. In particular, she noted the fineness of the zigzag, and the dots on the ends of the tree branches (ghaṣn) as characteristic of Fes. “In Marrakech, they do the henna too quickly,” she said dismissively, “everything is khsh-khsh-khsh [motioning with her syringe quickly back and forth]. But in Fes we do everything nicely and carefully. Even when I’m working here for tourists, I don’t want to do quick work. I make sure to do it nice.”
|A at work on a shajara fill.|
Later on, when she had finished my friend’s henna, I said how much nicer it was to have the traditional henna rather than the khaleeji. “Yes, this is better than the khsh-khsh,” she laughed, “this is the old style; it is from our grandparents, from our ancestors.”
A was also very proud of her work at the Café, and she expressed her gratitude to the café owner for hiring her to do henna and treating her well. As an example, she told me that every year at the end of Ramadan the café hosts a henna night, paid for by the owner, for local children whose parents can’t afford a henna artist. She also told me proudly that she had many clients from Europe who met her at the café and would hire her to do henna, and best of all, she hennaed Duchess Camilla when she came to the café two years ago. What an honour! (And that puts me only three degrees of separation away from the Queen of England!).
I asked A about henna for men, but she shook her head, saying that in the Moroccan culture it was ‘ayb (‘shameful’) for men to wear henna. A groom might get a little henna in his palm, she explained, but only a circle, and little boys might get henna for holidays or for circumcision — but not patterns. “But for you, it’s different,” she said, looking at me and J, and explained that tourist men can get henna, usually their names in Arabic or a scorpion or other small design. She offered to henna J but he didn’t want any.
Having answered many of my questions, I let her get to work. She worked steadily on R’s hands — she did both backs and then both palms. She began each design with the parallel lines across the knuckles and then moved down the hand, laying the outlines and filling as she went. After she reached the wrist she went back and did the fingers — notice that the pinky finger gets a different fill than the rest (like an accent nail).
|A's finished work, bildi on the left and mukhallaṭ on the right.|
Note the floral shape on the right hand below the knuckles.
All in all, it took about an hour and a half. One hand she did in pure bildi style, and she asked R and me whether she wanted the same on the other hand — I said that she should do something different, hoping to see a different layout of bildi design, but A did the second hand in a mukhallaṭ style (but still lovely).
|The tools of the trade.|
Of course, she was using the traditional Moroccan syringe, but her paste was (surprisingly) not as stringy as I assumed it would be. It seemed like she was actually struggling a little with her paste, which was a little thicker than the paste she was using the previous time I saw her.
I asked her about her mix, and she told me that she buys the powder and mixes it herself; I wanted to ask her about other ingredients but I didn’t want to pry. She also told me that she mixes the henna a day in advance, and then she added spontaneously that she doesn’t use black henna, because she knows that it has prodwi (i.e. produit, ‘[chemical] product’) in it. Tourists want it, she said, and people who work in the street use it, but she believes it is better to use natural henna. You go girl!
Her work is not the finest that I’ve seen in Fes, but it is quite good, and she is very friendly and open to conversation (which is one of the main reasons I wanted to discuss henna with her). Of course, it was the heat of the day in the middle of Ramadan, so it’s also understandable if she wasn’t at her best. It also seemed like she was more comfortable working in the mukhallaṭ style rather than pure bildiyya henna, and her execution and composition are both better in the mukhallaṭ pieces I’ve seen from her than in her bildi work.
|A's work on my friend's palms.|
When it was dry, she went downstairs to get some sqa (sealant), which in this case is just mint tea with added sugar. She dabbed it on with a napkin, and made sure to explain that you have to use a napkin, not a kleenex, which would fall apart. She recommended that R leave the paste on for a few hours at least, but didn’t say anything about how to remove it.
|Applying the sticky sqa syrup.|
I asked A if I could try the syringe, and she said yes, so I drew a simple diamond — I didn’t want to ‘out’ myself as a professional henna artist — and even so she seemed impressed.
|Don't laugh! My sample work with |
When I joked about how difficult it was to use the syringe, she laughed and said that in the beginning her thumb would hurt a lot, but now she is used to it, and she only gets tired when she does non-stop henna for an evening, like the week before Ramadan or the day before ‘Eid and she has a lot of private parties where everyone wants henna.
I also showed her some pen sketches I had done of henna, which she said were very good. If I see her again, I think I would like to tell her more about my work as a henna artist, and maybe even show her some of my work.
When we were done, she went to see if anyone else wanted henna, but no-one did, so we paid and left. She was reluctant to name a price, and said that normally a strip is 100 dirham, and that this henna was bzzaf bzzaf (‘a lot more [than that]’). I wanted to pay her well and also thank her for so patiently answering my many questions in rudimentary Arabic. I also felt a certain kinship with her as fellow artists, and I knew that it was hard for her during Ramadan to do full bildi hands in the heat of the day, and in a restaurant to boot. All that combined made me feel pretty generous, and I gave her 700 dh (about 80 USD). While for North American artists that might not be a lot for a two-hour private appointment, it is a lot in a Moroccan context and she thanked me profusely.
All in all it was a wonderful opportunity to learn about Moroccan henna design from a local artist. If you're in Fes, I would highly recommend a visit to Café Clock, not only for the henna — the food is really delicious (the only vegetarian bstilla I've seen in the city), the staff are friendly, the organization provides a lot of wonderful cultural events for both locals and visitors, and it's generally a cool place to hang out with a gorgeous view (and free wifi!).
I am hoping to have a similar chance to watch other ḥannayat at work to compare notes, but I’m grateful to have had at least this one. I still have a number of questions, and I would love to be able to compare different interpretations of bildi style. I have seen some truly magnificent bildi henna and I would love to find one of those artists.
So as usual, stay tuned for more updates! In the meantime, I hope you liked this peek into the work of a Moroccan artist. I’ve been really thrilled to see that a few henna artists have been posting work online inspired by Moroccan henna designs that I’ve featured here on my blog. Awesome! That’s exactly why I’m doing this, and I’d love to see more. In the meantime, as they say here: bṣaḥa lilḥinna — literally, [wear] your henna in good health, and enjoy!