Or, A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl
I don’t remember feeling a warm embrace, beholding the outline of the Atlas Mountains in the distance, or sauntering down a ruddy-hued alleyway, my mother’s slender hand in mine, smelling sweet smoke curling around my tender locks; only a raucous clamour, the sound of clashing cymbals and waspish flutes, and every colour under the hot Moroccan sun. I first opened my eyes here, in this, the square of squares, the beating, bloody heart of Marrakech dripping with magic and mystery: the Djemaa El Fnaa. You can live your whole life here and still not have explored all its confounding labyrinths and secret passages, or seen every face, hardened and smooth. Be not fooled: the Djemaa is no ordinary square, and Marrakech no ordinary place. The Djemaa is alive, is knowing; its passages twist and writhe about beneath one’s feet, and its walls tell stories of sorrow, anger, and frenzied passion – but only to those who pay heed, and lend an ear.
So it has been, and so it shall be; indeed, it has been written – it’s my destiny, scribbled amongst the stars in the book of time. I am a henna girl, and proud of it. There’s honour in this work, and not a trace of the seedy business one so often hears about here. I earn my bread from the sweat of my brow, and not a morsel goes down this throat of mine that isn’t halal. Say what they will, and let them talk: mine is a noble profession, hamdulillah. A little bit of henna never hurt anyone, and I know naught of the questionable art of tattoos our wise men have forbid us from practicing. Are you still standing? Have a seat, ya binti, and I will make you as pretty as a pearl from the Gulf, or a peacock of Hindustan, depending on your fancy. Mashallah – look at those supple, slender hands; God has given me a most beautiful canvas. Now, where did my little bag of henna go? Anouar! Where has that boy run off to?
It’s a tough life, but I can’t complain – the Lord be praised. I can’t imagine it being any other way, really. Once upon a time, my grandmother had a little shop here selling bread baskets, bags, belts, and the like, before she moved to the Souk Bahja. Look – you see that spot right across from us? My mother used to sell hats and handicrafts there. You’re probably wondering how, then, I got into all of this henna business. Nobody taught me how to do things; God is great, and in Him do I trust. After school, I used to watch these two ladies at work, and shortly afterwards, bought a syringe of my own. That was back in the late 90s, when henna first became popular here. How old was I then? God only knows. I’d practice on my friends, and soon enough, learned the ropes. Sometimes it’s just as simple as getting your hands dirty, darling.
Ah, there you are, Anouar – say hello to this beauty, mashallah. Anouar’s been with me since he was a kid; he’s been taught well. He may look feisty, but won’t bite. A bright one he is, that Anouar – may God grant him success. I wonder, sometimes, what will happen to all these Anouars, to my daughter, to the children of the square. The Djemaa isn’t like it used to be. When I was a kid, it was real. Things have changed here, and it’s a man’s world; there’s no place for an old hag in the Djemaa. Henna is beautiful, henna is from heaven; but I don’t want to do this forever. I’m getting older, dear – I want to retire, I want to see my daughter go to school and create a future for herself. Where have they gone, the good old days?
Roll up those sleeves, pretty one, and don’t be shy; the others in the square will only do your hands, but Karima goes all the way up! Ah, I’m famous here – but I’ve earned it. I do henna in the Djemaa, at weddings, circumcision ceremonies, religious festivals. Yes, of course I’ll come to your cousin’s wedding. What was I saying? Wallah, I have clients who come from Italy, France, Spain, from all around the world. They all know me, and for good reason: I’m good at what I do. I was one of the first to do henna here in the Djemaa; all these others you see hollering about, they all came afterwards. I’ve travelled around as well – don’t think I’m just some country bumpkin. Yes, really! I was invited to France by a client of mine some years ago. A splendid place it is, France. But I wouldn’t think for a moment of living there. The Djemaa is where I was born, and where I will die – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Marrakech is home; why would I want to leave? It’s a tough life, habibti, but a good life. My soul is here, on these scorched streets, in this red earth; the alleys of the Djemaa are the lines on my hands, the veins of my heart. What would life be without the Djemaa, without Marrakech? Allah … I can’t bear to imagine. It’s a beautiful country, hamdulillah, and we owe all we have to the King. Long live the King! Long live the red Moroccan flag …
Just one more little swirl and we’re all done, gorgeous. Mashallah, mashallah. You’d better take care, now; with hands like these and a face as lovely as the moon, all the boys in the square are going to swarm around you like flies on pastries! May God grant you health and success, dearest; if anyone asks, let them know it was the work of Karima. You know where to find me. Anouar and I will be sitting on these little plastic chairs right here, where we’ve always been, sipping orange juice and painting henna. May God protect you, always. Anouar! Ya Anouar! If Marrakech doesn’t kill me, this boy will.
Many will come, and many will go, but the Djemaa will remain, as it always has. Gone may be its glory days, but its place will forever be in my breast
The sun is setting on the Djemaa, my beloved Djemaa. From the coloured stalls dotting the square comes the smell of childhood, of love, of life itself. We’ve been through it all, this square and I; and for better or worse, we’ve both changed. My head is buzzing with the whinny of flutes battering my brains from all directions, and my legs ache from sitting down all day. I have much to be grateful for, though. Clouds of smoke are billowing above the bright lights poking holes in the night sky, and tassels twirling about to the tik, tik, tik of burnished brass. The English are perhaps gawking at the absurdity and charm of it all, thinking if they got a good bargain on their little magic lamp and bright yellow slippers. They will have their tagine, washed down with burning red wine, wander about the square taking snaps, and retire to a fancy hotel somewhere or other. They’ll go back to London wearing their babouches and flaunting their sunburnt skin (God grant them health – they’re so awfully pale), telling their friends about their Moroccan adventure, about the delights of the Djemaa. They don’t know the Djemaa; the Djemaa is a beast, a lover, a tormentor; you grapple with it until it turns your hair grey, and still, it eludes you.
Many will come, and many will go, but the Djemaa will remain, as it always has. Gone may be its glory days, but its place will forever be in my breast. How can you not love your mother, the one who nourished you since the moment you first opened your tiny eyes? From God do we come, and to God shall we return, and it will probably be in this square that I’ll breathe my last, where I’ll for one final time look in awe as the sun is veiled by these daunting walls of baked, red clay.
In the meantime, you know where to find me: I’ll be sitting here with a bag of henna and a syringe between my fingers, waiting to adorn the Djemaa’s many pilgrims with tawny hues. Hamdulillah, it’s a beautiful life; praise God, the King, and the red Moroccan flag. Anouaaaar!
Cover image: Hassan Hajjaj – Karima (detail; courtesy the artist).