I first encountered henna in the Djemaa El-Fna in Marrakech, Morocco. This is a large public square that has been around, thriving in varying degrees for give or take 1,000 years. There are snake charmers, acrobats, kiosks selling dried fruits and fresh squeezed orange juice, and in the evening the place fills up with wheeled restaurants serving up traditional soups, skewered kebabs, a variety of salads and sweets, even roasting whole sheep heads, so you can eat the brains and the cheeks directly from their origin! (I have not indulged in this particularly delicacy). The place is a circus. A beautiful, enchanting and mysterious mix of traditional North Africa, the tourists milling through it and everything that happens in between…
An important feature of the Djemaa El Fna buzz is the population of “henna hustlers,” so accurately dubbed by Lisa Butterworth, master henna artist, or naqasha, in Arabic. These ladies are covered from head to toe in a djelleba and face covering of opaque anonymity. In my first experience – my henna hustler approached me (everyone approaches you in Morocco and this is exponentially true in the Djemaa El-Fna) and offered to henna my hands. It was only days after I had arrived in Morocco for the first time. I was with my closest friend at the time and the two of us were reeling from the feeling of having stepped through the looking-glass. To make a very long story short – our naqasha had cornered us in an alley just off of the main square and forced a childish scribble of black henna onto our palms. She then, in all essence, robbed us of most of our cash for the day – her fee. I couldn’t possibly tell you how much we paid for this first henna treatment. I’ve told this story so many times over the last 12 years that I am sure I have exaggerated and anyway it would be far too embarrassing. Later that day when we met up with some new Moroccan friends – “the boys” I wrote about last – we were teased endlessly for letting that happen. We’d been taken in the Djemaa El-Fna. A mandatory rite of passage.
Later that year, we met a PhD student from Montreal who was living just off the square herself, studying Moroccan women in the workforce- with a particular focus on the henna hustlers of the square. She spent hours everyday, sitting with them on the black tarmac, overturned milk crates as their chairs. This student became a naqasha in her own right and she came to henna our hands (mine and my friend’s) more gently and artfully than our first experience.
In spite of this poor introduction, henna struck a chord in my heart. Though I sported a black blobby stain on my palm for weeks, I was surrounded by examples of exquisite henna design. I was invited to weddings and other gatherings where I saw women’s hands and feet delicately swathed in swirling flowers or the geometric asymmetry of traditional Berber style henna designs. Never one to wear lipstick and mascara, I was smitten with this ancient, traditional make-up.
My love for henna grew. To me, it represented tradition and beauty in this North African/Arab world. Typical of the bulk of my time in Morocco, I admired Moroccan women and their henna – brides and older ladies, mostly – from afar. In Casablanca where I later worked and lived, women only hennaed their hands on very special occasions and the women of my generation were working, dressing in modern western style fashion and not so interested in this traditional art.
When I went to live in Abu Dhabi, I encountered an intensified henna culture. With more money and more leisure time, Emirati ladies can generally afford to go to salons or even invite the Indian, Filipina and Sundanese naqashat to their homes for the serious business of creating stunning designs. I immediately joined them. It wasn’t long before I would go alone to the henna salon, where it reeked of some crazy chemicals – I can’t imagine what they were using to make the stain darker and longer lasting. I did not care. Beauty and femininity were my agenda and like many women before me, I was willing to take a risk for it. This was another element of my bond with Arab women in the UAE. I learned which salons employed the best designers, offering the best prices and what time of day to go in order to avoid a long wait.
Like I said, some of the younger Arab girls and women have been perplexed by my fixation with henna. For them, it seemed comical for an American to feel fine going around at work and in casual public settings covered in henna. And this is where my thoughts pool. Right here. I have thought a lot about the aspects of Arabic or other “oriental” cultures I choose to adopt. I have a closet full of traditional Moroccan robes and dresses. In the UAE, I wore some of them to work, on other days I wore Indian sarwal kameez, which I had made for me from scratch at the Pakistani tailor, guided by my Pakistani friend who took me around the fabric shops where we drank tea while the shopkeepers unfurled roll after roll of beautiful prints, cottons and silks for us to scrutinize and choose from. For all of my life until my encounter with these cultures, I wrinkled my nose at typically western beauty traditions. In Morocco and the UAE, I embraced these traditional things with an avid passion, willing to spend time and money to perfect my look.
Applying henna often happens in large groups. The salons of urban UAE are always swarming with women of all ages. Brides from India to Morocco and many places in between sit for hours a day or two before their weddings surrounded by friends and family while the beautifying henna is carefully applied to hair and skin. Community, story telling, songs, teasing and caring (and for me, language acquisition) bloom from this tradition.
Walking down the street, an Arab woman will notice the henna on my hands. She will recognize me. A secret language between the two of us. It says: “I know a little more than you might have thought I would.” She’ll speak to me, ask me questions, I’ll get to practice my Arabic, be invited to another female social function.
Henna has been more than just an aesthetic pleasure for me. Wearing henna has often been one of several keys into a realm that may not have been wide open to me otherwise. Without any effort at all – boundaries have been broken down. Two women who may not have had anything in common were suddenly chatting: “Which salon did you go to?” “Oh, no, no, next time go to the one on Airport Road, they only charge 50 dirham for both hands.” “but your color is really beautiful.” “Next time we’ll go together.” And bam! we could suddenly feel comfortable where we thought we never would. Bam! We are sharing stories, asking shy questions, learning languages and really knowing for real that we are a compatible pair, that our differences are irrelevant – even if only for the few hours spent in the henna salon.