Monday, July 14, 2014

BshHal [How much]? Shopping in the Henna Market of Fes

With only a week left in Morocco, I'm trying desperately to cram in as much henna as I can. I can't believe my time here has gone by so fast! I still have a number of areas where I'm hoping to do more research, including the relationship between henna and the jnun and the distinctive characteristics of Fassi-style henna. In the meantime, I thought I'd do a feature post on the henna market of Fes, a lovely local piece of henna history hidden away in the medina [old city].

Words used to describe the medina in Fes include bewildering, overwhelming, a maze, a labyrinth, a sensory overload, and a maddeningly enjoyable experience. It stretches for almost 3 square kilometres (280 hectacres), a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the largest car-free zones in the world. Within the medina, goods are transported on hand-drawn carts or by one of the many patient mules and donkeys accustomed to its cobblestone alleys.

The medina is home to over 150,000 inhabitants, and many Fassis who live in the New City still come here to shop or work, not to mention the thousands of tourists from around the world who can be seen on every corner puzzling over maps, photographing the historic buildings and postcard-perfect marketplace atmosphere, and attempting (usually unsuccessfully) not to be hustled out of their last dirham.

The trick to capturing this serene moment:
go to the medina at 8 in the morning when
you can't sleep because it's already 35 degrees.

The medina is actually not a free-for-all sprawl, but is fairly organized and not difficult to navigate once you learn to orient yourself. There are two main thoroughways which run (mostly) parallel through the medina: Tal‘a Kbira and Tal‘a Ṣghira — ‘Great Slope’ and ‘Little Slope,’ respectively, alluding to the angle of the street. Most of the medina is on a slope, and so if you’re walking downhill you’re probably heading east, toward the ‘bottom’ of the medina, Place Rṣif, and uphill is probably toward Bab Boujloud, the main ‘entrance’ of the medina.

The majority of the buildings in the medina today date to the Marinid dynasty (13th-15th centuries), but there are a few even older monuments, including the oldest continuously-operating university in the world, al-Qarawiyyin, founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri.

Any small child will also be happy to direct you for a few
The commercial heart of the medina was historically organized by product, so there was the suq an-nejjarine [Carpenters’ Market], the suq aṣ-ṣeffarine [Metalworkers’ Market], the suq al-aṭṭarine [Perfumers’ Market], etc… And of course, there was the suq al-ḥinna [Henna Market]! Each market had its own shops, a square, a fountain, and often a small mosque (so that the merchants could quickly pray and get back to their booths).

To get to the henna market from Boujloud: go down Tala‘ Kbira, past Funduq Tazi, until it reaches a fork; follow the slope on the right, and eventually the road turns back into a covered market (qissaria), and you will see a sign for the Henna Market above a ceramics shop. Turn right onto a small alleyway and then quickly duck under a low doorway on your left, and you will find yourself in a small and serene open space: welcome to suq al-ḥinna

To be honest, sometimes I just come here
because it's quiet.

The centre of the henna market boasts two large plane trees, over a century old — some of the only remaining trees in a public square in the medina. Around the square, shops sell cosmetics and beauty products: not only henna, but soaps, kohl, perfumes, argan oil, shampoos, ghassoul clay, hammam gloves, and more. Today, there are also several ceramics shops in the henna suq, selling the beautiful blue-and-white pottery famous as a product of Fes.

Syringes for henna and other related goods.
The back of the market is Maristan Sidi Frej, a psychiatric hospital built in 1286; one of its secretaries in the 16th century was a young man named Hassan al-Wazzan, also known as the world traveller and writer Leo Africanus. 

As it turns out, Leo Africanus also provides one of the first references to henna in Morocco, mentioning that unmarried women paint their face, torso, arms, and hands. In fact, the first recorded use of the word henna in English (according to the OED) is in John Pory’s 1600 translation of Leo Africanus, A Geographical Historie of Africa. One can only wonder if Leo Africanus saw the henna merchants here on his way to work.

I actually don’t know whether the henna market was around in Leo Africanus’ time, but by the early 20th century it was well-known as the place to buy henna in Fes. Édouard Michaux-Bellaire describes the scene at the turn of the century (Archives Marocains, 1907, pg. 311-313):

The henna market in 1911.
The little place in front of Sidi Frej is about 10 metres on each side and surrounded by shops, where they sell henna and ghassoul, or mineral clay. This is what is called the Henna Market. There are two kinds of henna: al-hinna ad-doukkalia, from Doukkala, and al-hinna al-filalia which comes from Tafilelt; this latter one is better…

The henna and ghassoul, brought to Fes on the backs of mules and donkeys, are first placed in the fundaq [inn] where the mule and donkey drivers unload, and from there, are brought by zerzaya [porters] on their backs or on mules to the suq al-hinna, to be sold to the shopkeepers of this market by qontar, namely 100 pounds. 

The sale is done by auction in the following manner: the one who has brought the henna or ghassoul gives it to a dellal [auctioneer] who distributes samples among the shopkeepers of the different products, indicating the price and quantity of each product and its quality. 

The shopkeepers outbid each other and buy it. The sale finished, the product is weighed in the large scales hanging from one of the walls, and delivered to its different owners… Another peculiarity of the suq al-hinna is that henna and ghassoul cannot be sold there in large quantities for resale in Fes. It is a monopoly.

The scales mentioned by Michaux-Bellaire belonged to the muḥtassib [accountant], or ‘price-controller,’ who was one of the main figures in the economic life of early modern North African cities. The muḥtassib was responsible for maintaining the order of the market, which included fixing the market value of basic commodities (grain, oil, flour, butter, soap, honey, meat, coal, and milk) at reasonable rates, monitoring the quality and purity of merchandise, and ensuring that vendors used accurate weights and measures. The role of the muḥtassib was abolished in the mid-20th century, but his scales are still hanging in one of the booths on the side of the henna suq. I imagine that in its heyday, his office must have been a busy place.

Public scales in the henna suq.

But it was henna, of course, that the henna suq was famous for. As Michaux-Bellaire noted, the henna itself was not local to Fes but was imported from the south, where henna is still grown in Morocco today, and Fes was the centre for its redistribution. John Horne writes that not only local women but also professional henna artists came to the henna suq to buy their henna powder (Many Days in Morocco, 1925, pg. 112):
The [henna] market is steeped in romance, for in Morocco, as indeed in all Arab countries, henna is considered a sign and joy and seduction, and plays an important part in the life of the woman. The henna merchants know all the intrigues that surround the society marriages of Fez. When a bride performs the ceremony of the Grand Henna the day before she goes to her husband, it is here that the hennayas, or henna stainers, buy the powdered root and these ladies are notoriously talkative… To stain the hands and feet in the ordinary way is easy enough, but only the hennayas have the secret of the designs most seductive to the bridegroom when he sets eyes on his bride for the first time, and the women present her to him with the words, “Behold her sweet beauty! Behold she is delicate as the date and fine as amber!”

A hand-coloured postcard of the henna suq, circa 1940.

Today, henna can be found in the henna suq in a number of forms: dried leaves heaped up in baskets, piles of bright green powder, and shelves of yellow boxes — the popular Moroccan brand of henna powder, Henné Sahara Tazarine — as well as scattered packages of premixed Indian cones. 

Henna and related goods.
The vendors also carry other accoutrements related to henna — including syringes and merweds [kohl sticks], stencils, and colourful booklets with photographs of henna of varying quality (mostly harvested from the internet, it seems) — as well as various other cosmetic items. 

Henna is no longer sold off in public auctions, but the shopkeepers still compete with each other to offer you the most exclusive deals. They're happy to explain the different cosmetics to you and will aggressively offer samples of the various perfumes, soaps, and oils that they have for sale.

While hannayat [henna artists] sometimes work in the henna suq, it’s not a centre for henna art (the way that Jmaa el-Fnaa is in Marrakech, for example). When I first visited, one of the vendors told me that if I wanted to do henna, ‘the lady is there,’ but I was in a rush, and she wasn’t there the following times that I visited (during Ramadan, it should be said).

If you’re looking to get some henna art done, there are better places to go in Fes; but if you want to stock up on fresh henna powder, pay homage to some Moroccan henna history, or just take a breath from the madness of the medina, then the henna suq is worth a visit.

BshHal, a sidi [how much, sir]?

1 comment:

Amy Phoenix said...

Noam, I've been following your blog since it was suggested to me in the Henna Hub on Facebook I believe. Thank you so much for these interesting and informative posts. I really enjoy learning about the history of henna and look forward to continuing to learn through what you are sharing.