Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hahiya jat! Lalla ‘Aisha! [She Has Come! Lalla ‘Aisha!]: Henna and the Jnun

It feels strange, but my Moroccan summer adventure is over, seemingly as fast as it begun. I learnt so much and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity… And of course, I can’t wait to go back! I still have so much to learn. When I said goodbye to the secretary at the Arabic program, I told her, "I hope to come back soon, inshaAllah [G!d-willing]!" She looked at me and said, "Oh, you'll be back." InshaAllah!

I’m still sorting through the material that I collected this time, so even though I’ve left Morocco you can expect at least a few more Moroccan posts. And of course, if you have any specific questions, ask away!

For my last weekend in Morocco, I took a trip to a few pilgrimage sites around the Fes/Meknes area, including one with particular resonance for henna artists — the mausoleum of Sidi Ali ben Ḥamdush (or Ḥamdouche), the founder of the Ḥamadsha Sufi brotherhood, and the grotto of the jinniyya ‘Aisha Qandisha, the Ḥamadsha’s feared and revered spirit-interlocutor. In this post I’m going to explore the henna connection to ‘Aisha Qandisha and the Ḥamadsha, and more broadly, the relationship between henna and the jnun [spirits] in Morocco.

Candles and henna leaves for Lalla 'Aisha in her grotto.

I obviously only have space here for a very brief introduction; for more fuller treatments of the jnun in Morocco, the definitive early work is Westermarck (1926), and Crapanzano’s work (1973; 1980) is now a classic in the field. Some good contemporary pieces include Pandolfo (1997), Ma‘ruf (2007), Kapchan (2007), and Maréchal and Dassetto (2014). 

I’ll also take this moment to plug a great source for information on Moroccan henna: the definitive work on the artistry, culture, and significance of henna in Morocco, by renowned artists Lisa ‘Kenzi’ Butterworth and Nic Tharpa Cartier — Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco (2010). If you’re interested in Moroccan henna this book is a must-have.

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.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hey Hannaya: A Moroccan Henna Artist in Action

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.