Monday, June 30, 2014

Will the Real Fassi Henna Please Stand Up? Researching Henna in Fes

Ramadan mubarak sa'id! The blessed month of Ramadan has arrived with a bang (literally — they fire the city cannons), the fast has begun, and I am, as hard as it to believe, officially at the halfway mark of my time in Morocco. And now, dear readers, your first long-awaited all-about-henna post.

Walking around in Fes, one sees henna all around — although not as much as I had expected. I would estimate that I only see about 2 or 3 women a day with henna, and sometimes that’s just hennaed nails or palms. But the other part that I didn’t expect was how challenging it would be to document. 

When I see people with nice henna, I’ve tried to ask them for a picture but sometimes it’s just someone passing in the marketplace so I don’t have a chance. Yesterday I saw a woman with her hands covered in fabulous geometric henna, but as I was about to ask her if I could take a photo she jumped in a cab. Even when I do ask I’m often refused — sometimes they politely say no, or just shake their heads and walk away; once a tourist with lovely Fassi strips didn't even respond (I'm assuming she thought I was a street hustler).

Every time, I get this terrible feeling of disappointment, mostly at myself — maybe I could have phrased the question differently? Maybe I should just point at the camera quickly instead of trying to engage in conversation? Maybe I should have asked earlier? Or later?

The fact that I am both male and a foreigner only makes things worse. Last week on my way home from class I saw a (religious) woman with hands and feet covered in gorgeous, fresh henna in heavy Sahrawi [southern Morocco / Sahara] designs. I started to ask her if I could take a picture but her friend interrupted saying that she had to go, and they moved to the other side of the plaza, giving me dirty looks the whole time.

A henna artist at work in Fes — notice that her client is
getting a khaleeji design while she herself is wearing
a fresh geometric 'true Fassi' style design.
Perhaps it’s the ‘One That Got Away’ Syndrome... But I feel like the henna that I haven’t been able to capture has been the nicest henna that I’ve seen. Although, it also makes sense that the women wearing the most traditional henna would also be the most traditional when it comes to taking pictures. 

I know I shouldn’t beat myself up but every time I miss an opportunity or bungle a conversation, it eats at me for the rest of the day. Who knew henna research was so emotionally complicated!

But, enough about my failures. Let’s talk about henna! What’s most interesting about the henna that I have seen is that most of it has not been what I think of as ‘true Fassi’ style, which is easy to recognize but hard to describe: a geometric, non-stacked, layout; triangular/diamond internal division; star/cross/tree/herringbone fill; zigzag edging, etc… 

The most popular style that I have seen is the floral style that Moroccans call khaleeji [Gulf], which varies in quality from excellent to incredibly sloppy. And while khaleeji is what is commonly done for tourists, I have seen plenty of local Moroccans wearing khaleeji as well. 

But more interestingly, several different people that I talked to have identified their henna as Fassi style, while their henna ranges from designs that could have been drawn straight from the ‘Fassi’ section of Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco, to people wearing patterns that I would not classify as remotely close to what I think of ‘Moroccan' at all. Is there such a thing as a 'Fassi' style? Is it the same as what we call Fassi style in North America? Is it unique to Fes? So many unanswered henna questions!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Awwadha, Afak [Again, Please]: Arabic Classes and the Music Festival

It seems I may have spoken too soon about the weather… The past few days have actually been much cooler than when I first arrived, mostly in the 20s C (80s F), and there have even been sprinklings of rain! Everyone is very happy about it and hoping that the cool weather will continue for Ramadan inchaAllah [G!d willing], because fasting in 100+ degree is no fun for anyone.

Out of the hundred or so North American students one can see milling about the Arabic Language Institute in Fes (ALIF), it seems that all of them are interested in Standard Arabic. My Darija [Moroccan Arabic] class began with a population of one! Well, there are three people on the list, but I was the only one who showed up for the first few days. Since then, one other student has shown up — an Arabic lecturer from Northwestern. No word from Student 3.

One of the 'nice' classrooms at ALIF,
reserved for the advanced students.
My classes are going well, though, and it’s amazing how much faster I’m learning the language with proper instruction. For example, instead of trying to derive the many complicated and irregular forms of the verb knbghi / bghit [I like / I would like] by hearing them in conversation, I have them all in one handy chart! 

The teachers are excellent — my Arabic is rapidly improving and although I can still only hold a very basic conversation, I’ve managed to communicate fairly effectively with my host family and other Moroccans. Darija is a fascinating language/dialect, and it is quite far from standard Arabic in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. I know that I have some linguistic-y friends so if people want me to write more about it I can.

The Centre is lovely — it has a small café, a beautiful courtyard garden and fountain, and a very well-stocked bookstore with an impressive selection of books on Islamic history and modern Arabic literature, in the original and English. And of course, free Wi-Fi! A very comfortable place to hang out. 

The building itself is a beautiful 19th century villa, with a hidden surprise — among the elaborate plaster carvings and colourful tilework, Hebrew letters! It turns out that the home was originally built by a Jewish family, and according to one of the older gentlemen that I met in the synagogue last week, it even served as a yeshiva in the mid 20th century.

Hebrew inscription, giving the date 5691 (1930).

Monday, June 16, 2014

Ma Fahemtsh [I Didn’t Understand]: First Days in Fes

Arriving in Fes, I was hit with a wall of heat when I walked off the train from Casablanca. While Casa was certainly warm, Fes is pretty hot — during the day it hovers around 38/39 C (that’s about 100-102 F), although it can go down to a balmy 30 C (86 F) at night.

I hopped in a cab and headed straight for le Centre Americain [the American Centre] — the local name for the Arabic Language Institute in Fes where I am studying Colloquial Arabic Moroccan, aka Darija. I checked in and filled out some paperwork, and then my host family came to meet me and take me to the apartment where I’m staying for the rest of my time here.

My host family is lovely! It includes my host mother, A—, her 20-year-old daughter F—, her sister N—, and N’s adorable 3-year-old son K—. They live in a lovely small apartment in the medina [old city] right next to a big palatial residence called Dar Tazi with gorgeous gardens.

My host brother/cousin! I understand about 5% of what
he says... I'll be lucky if I can leave Morocco with the
vocabulary of a 3-year-old.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Nabda [We Begin]! First Days in Morocco

Morocco Day One: Arrival

My flight was fairly uneventful, with the excitement of being briefly pressed into service to translate for an elderly Moroccan woman who spoke only Arabic — I hope it’s a good omen to get things off to a good start. Unusually, I didn’t see much henna in the airport — one Moroccan woman with dipped fingers, a Sudanese family with bold designs, unfortunately in black henna, and a number of women with black henna in the East African style.

East African style black 'henna' in
the Amsterdam airport.

I landed in Casablanca and met my Couchsurfing host at the train station. We dropped my things off at his place and went to explore the centre of the city — Casablanca is not a historically preserved city like Fes, it has a very urban and industrial feel to it, and yet there’s something beautiful about these decaying old buildings covered with graffiti and “For Rent” signs.

I would totally rent this building!

Yum! Fresh fish, Casablanca docks.
Walking around, we ran into some friends of my host and we went down to the docks together, where the fishermen were sorting the last of the day’s catch and putting away the nets. On our way back, we stopped in the market for some snails (a traditional Moroccan delicacy) and another woman at our table had the most gorgeous henna! Dense, precise geometrics (what I think of classic ‘Fessi style’) over the backs and palms, with an interesting floral strip (possibly stenciled) along the sides of her hand. I tried to surreptitiously grab a photo but it was very dark and she was on her way out; I should have worked up the courage to ask her to take a nice picture! I’m kicking myself. You’ll have to take my word on how beautiful the designs were, and I promise the next time I see henna I will make sure to stop and ask if I can photograph it.

My host parents were waiting for us with some delicious vegetarian harira [bean soup] which I greatly appreciated; luckily I already knew the most important phrase in Moroccan Arabic: tbarakAllah fik [G!d bless you], which is what you say when you’ve finished eating so that they don’t keep refilling your bowl. As it was I had to eat two full bowls of soup. 

We sat and talked in what is becoming my usual broken mix of fuṣḥa [standard Arabic], the few words I know of Darija [colloquial Moroccan Arabic], French, and English when necessary. I keep coming up with random words I remember from my Standard Arabic class — al-iqtiṣad [economy], ‘ilm al-insan [anthropology], al-madrasa al-ibdita’iyya [elementary school] — so my Arabic is probably a funny mix of randomly swinging between very colloquial and very formal.

Day Two
I got an early start today — I had accidentally set my clock to the local time in Amsterdam, which is an hour ahead of Casablanca, so I got up at six am. Fortunately that meant I could eat breakfast with my host parents before the dad left for work, which was nice.

Then it was off to the Museum of Moroccan Jewry, a rare and special place that has been open on and off since 2003; I think it was closed the other time I was in Morocco, so I’d never been. A professor that I know is actually doing research in the Museum Archives (housing the Rabat Geniza) so he offered to meet me there and take me around.

I want all of it. Silver jewelry, Museum of Moroccan Jewry.
It was really amazing — if you are in Casablanca, do not miss this treat of a museum! Many gorgeous examples of Jewish jewelry and silver from all over Morocco, including a full reproduction of a Jewish silversmith’s shop with tools and unfinished pieces, and of course many beautiful displays of hamsas and amulets, giant rings, jeweled headdresses from the south, and much more. 

And of course there are also many beautiful examples of Jewish ritual objects, from Torah scrolls to tallit bags, synagogue lamps and even several wooden bimot from various synagogues in Morocco.

Torah scroll pointer and ornaments, Museum of Moroccan Jewry.
Looks just like my room! Books everywhere. RGP archives.
But the best part for me was getting to work in the archives (and thanks to Pr. Oren Kosansky for inviting me in and to my new friend Maïa for showing me the ropes!). The 'Rabat geniza' contains thousands of documents, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, including Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic religious texts, legal and administrative documents, and personal letters collected from synagogues and Jewish community centres in Rabat. Pr. Kosansky's initiative, The Rabat Geniza Project, is cataloguing, scanning, and (eventually) transcribing and translating them. In fact, they will soon be hosting an exhibition at the Museum of selected documents from the Geniza. 

My dream job! Identifying Judeo-Arabic haggada pages with the Rabat Geniza Project.

I was generously invited to roll up my sleeves and jump in! We were working on some uncatalogued fragments of religious texts, and I was able to help identify several Hebrew texts while I was there so that they could be properly entered in the register. It was a great honour to be involved in the project.

I love the Andalusi architectural style.
Masjid Hassan II in Casablanca.
Finally, we finished the day with a trip to the gorgeous Hassan II mosque and a walk around the medina. I saw a few more examples of lovely henna, including full hand dips, resist/stencils on feet, and nice geometric work. 

Unfortunately the only example I’ve been able to photograph so far is this piece on a woman at the Hassan II mosque; it is a great example of what is termed ‘khaleeji’ [Gulf] style in Morocco, although it is quite different than both ‘true’ Gulf style as well as what is termed khaleeji or Arabic style in India. I also saw some neqashat working in the medina in Casablanca but unfortunately they were using black henna and doing only short khaleeji style strips.

Khaleeji style henna at the Hassan II mosque, Casablanca.

Overall, a wonderful introduction to Morocco. I’m now off to Fes, where I will be spending the remainder of my time. Stay tuned for more adventures!

Monday, June 9, 2014

"The Land of the Moors" — I'm Off to Morocco!

Tomorrow, I leave for Morocco, to participate in a six-week immersion program in colloquial Moroccan Arabic (also known as Darija). The program is hosted by ALIF, an Arabic language centre in Fes, where I will be staying with a host family. I should also note that my trip was funded by a generous grant from the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

I am very excited, even though there is still so much I don't know: what will my host family be like? Who else is in my program? Will I get hopelessly lost in the cobblestoned medina [old quarter]? Will I be able to understand a single word I hear in the streets? 

And of course, I hope that I'll be able to learn more about Moroccan henna while I'm there. Fes is renowned for its henna artists (the origin of the "Fessi style" we know and love) and I would love to be able to watch a local neqasha [henna artist] at work and even ask some questions. I don't know how much time I'll have outside of class, but at the very least I'm sure there will be plenty of beautiful henna around, and I'll make sure to grab pictures inchaAllah [G!d-willing].

My work in the Fessi style, 2014.

I'm also hoping to meet some of the local Jewish community. While Fes was once a centre for Jewish culture and life (the great rabbi Maimonides studied there, among other notable figures), unfortunately only a hundred or so Jews remain and there is almost no Jewish presence in the 'old city' of the Fes Medina. There are still beautiful synagogues and other historical buildings, and I'm looking forward to discovering more of Jewish Fes.

I'll try to post as often as I can, although I don't know how reliable my internet access will be and I don't know how much time I'll have to write posts. But I will certainly try my best to make sure that there's a picture and a brief update here at least once a week. Follow along by subscribing to this blog so that you don't miss a post!

The student manual that the program sent us included Budgett-Meakin's 1901 travelogue "The Land of the Moors" on the list of recommended introductory reading. And since I am a conscientious student, of course, I went straight to the library (or internet, as the case might be). Meakin writes that Fez is "the true metropolis of Morocco... rich in the richest gifts to the Eastern taste" (pg. 235), and concludes (pg. 274):
So much for the Fez of to-day, by far the most interesting town in Morocco, both as to its history and its contents, well worth a visit from the intelligent explorer able to appreciate and study things Moorish. What it may become in a generation it would be bootless to guess. There is just a possibility that it may still be the rambling city it now is, but the chances are all in favour of its seeing many alterations ere that, in its inhabitants, if not in its stones. It is by no means improbable that by that time the proud Fasis may have to own a different master from the easy-going shareefs of the present dynasty. Who can say?

A view of Fez, from Budgett-Meakin's The Land of the Moors, 1901

I do hope I qualify as an "intelligent explorer" and I certainly aim to study as much as I can and appreciate my time in "the most interesting town in Morocco." I look forward to the visit — whether I will succeed in navigating the streets of the medina, well, who can say?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

What Would Jesus Do (About Henna)? The Place of Henna in Ancient and Modern Christianity

We got a question on our Facebook page from one of our fans which was so interesting that it deserved its own blogpost! (Note for all of you readers, please feel free to do the same! I love researching henna questions so fire away!).

The question:
Can you tell me how relevant henna was in Christ’s time? Some of my Christian friends will not get henna because they believe it is ‘marking’ the body which is spoken of in the Bible. I believe the reference is more toward cutting rather than decorating, which I also think henna was used for, to prepare the body for burial. Can you give me some info that would be positive use of henna during Christ’s time?
A fabulous question, and one that I imagine many henna artists have encountered before! Feel free to forward this post to your relatives, send out to your church listserv, or print out and bring to your festivals!

I really wanted to answer this question just so I could make this
picture! "Sacred Heart" by Charles Bosseron Chambers (1883-1964),
with some added henna (by me).

There are two interrelated questions here
1) Was henna used in Jesus’ time? And 
2) Is henna use consistent with Christian principles, or ‘What Would Jesus Do (About Henna)’? 

I’ll try my best to answer both these questions, even though I should note that I am very far from an expert on Christian history or theology (and in fact I’m not even Christian myself).