Henna Painting

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The use of henna for decoration in Morocco goes back to the time when the Berbers first migrated to the area.  The tradition brings “baraka” or good luck to the wearer and is believed to protect against the evil eye and so it is often worn in weddings by the participants.

In preparation for her brother’s wedding tomorrow night, Zaina, an argan oil producer I work with, has invited me to her house for a traditional Berber henna painting.  I am told it is a “henna ceremony” and I am expecting a number of women there, but when I arrive there is no one else and I realize that Zaina is making this extra effort for my sake alone.  Zaina scurries off to fetch the henna artist while her 9 year-old daughter and 11 year-old niece dance around me in excitement and position me on pillows on the floor in preparation.  They serve me sweet mint tea and cookies as we babble together in French at the excitement of the upcoming event.  While the henna artist paints my feet, toes, ankles, soles and hands and fingers in the primitive Berber style, the girls and I talk about what we plan to wear and how to wear our hair.  They discuss wearing headscarves, which their traditional great grandmother insists that they wear outside of the home, even at this young age. Though they fully expect and want to wear them when they turn 16, for now, they tear them off any chance they get.  They tell me they are uncomfortable and hot and that their friends at school aren’t required to wear them.  Surprisingly, it seems that the Western ideal of beauty has spread to this rural countryside.  Despite the ample physiques of all the women in their lives, the pre-adolescents aspire to be slim and they complain to me about the size of their thighs in a way that reminds me of girls of the US.  We sit and talk for hours while I am being painted and while my feet are drying over a dish of burning coals.  The great grandmother appears briefly and gives me warm blessings in Arabic, kissing me numerous times on the top of my head.  At last, at 11 pm, when I am full of tea and chatter, I’m feeling sleepy and ready to retire to my hotel an hour’s drive away.  As I stand up to leave, Zaina invites me to stay for dinner.  Despite my strong protestations, she insists, and I find myself eating beef tagine with hard boiled eggs and olives with bread at midnight.

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