Under the shade of an olive tree, sipping on freshly squeezed orange juice you just bought from a vendor at the street corner, you sit in comfortable silence with your new Moroccan friend Amine, who has been kind enough to show you around his beloved Marrakesh.
Yesterday, Amine took you to Djemma el Fna Square, a large open space in the middle of the city filled with orange juice vendors, street performers, and merchants. As you weaved your way through the crowds, admiring the colorful carpets for sale and sampling the sweet dates being offered by merchants, you came across a small stall covered in a red tarp. There was a group of tourists inside and one Moroccan woman, the owner of the stall, who was hunched over the hand of one of the female tourists and seemed to be drawing on her. Curious, you stepped forward for a better look and discovered that the woman was drawing intricate and beautiful designs on this young woman’s hand with what looked to be a dark brown paste. Amine, always eager to teach you about his culture, stepped up beside you and began telling you the history and significance of this beautiful tradition.
The tradition of Henna tattooing, also referred to as Mendhi, has been part of North African and Indian cultures since the 7th millennium BC. Thought to protect those who wear it from illness and the evil eye, Henna has, and still does, play a major role in three very important ceremonies in Moroccan culture, Id-al-Adha, circumcision, and marriage festivities.
Id-al-Adha is a three day Islamic holiday marking Abraham’s devotion to God when he agreed to sacrifice his only son Ishmael. God took pity on Abraham and gave him a sheep to sacrifice instead. Id-al-Adha is celebrated by the head of household presenting a sheep to be sacrificed; during the ceremony the sheep, the sacrificer, and guests of the ceremony are decorated with Henna and three days of feasting and celebrating ensue.
Islam requires male circumcision and in the 19th and 20th centuries the surgery was performed on boys from ages 4 to 14 in a public celebration. The boys, the family, and guests of the ceremony were adorned with Henna as part of the ritual celebration.
Wedding ceremonies are some of the most elaborate and anticipated of all Moroccan festivities and typically begin seven days before the day of the wedding. “The Night of Henna”, the night before the wedding, the bride is given a ceremonial milk bath by her negaffa, or female attendants, to symbolize her purity and is then painted with Henna. The bride is painted with symbols of protection and fruitfulness, often with the name of her groom hidden within the symbols. The intricate designs, which are usually floral and geometric shapes, are meant to ward off evil spirits, bring good luck, and increase fertility.
While Henna is used during these ceremonies and festivals it also has a place in every day life acting as a hair conditioner, hair dye, and to heal abrasions on the skin. Tourists can also experience the tradition of Henna tattooing by visiting stalls in city souks and within Berber villages.