Monday, June 30, 2014

Will the Real Fassi Henna Please Stand Up? Researching Henna in Fes

Ramadan mubarak sa'id! The blessed month of Ramadan has arrived with a bang (literally — they fire the city cannons), the fast has begun, and I am, as hard as it to believe, officially at the halfway mark of my time in Morocco. And now, dear readers, your first long-awaited all-about-henna post.

Walking around in Fes, one sees henna all around — although not as much as I had expected. I would estimate that I only see about 2 or 3 women a day with henna, and sometimes that’s just hennaed nails or palms. But the other part that I didn’t expect was how challenging it would be to document. 

When I see people with nice henna, I’ve tried to ask them for a picture but sometimes it’s just someone passing in the marketplace so I don’t have a chance. Yesterday I saw a woman with her hands covered in fabulous geometric henna, but as I was about to ask her if I could take a photo she jumped in a cab. Even when I do ask I’m often refused — sometimes they politely say no, or just shake their heads and walk away; once a tourist with lovely Fassi strips didn't even respond (I'm assuming she thought I was a street hustler).

Every time, I get this terrible feeling of disappointment, mostly at myself — maybe I could have phrased the question differently? Maybe I should just point at the camera quickly instead of trying to engage in conversation? Maybe I should have asked earlier? Or later?

The fact that I am both male and a foreigner only makes things worse. Last week on my way home from class I saw a (religious) woman with hands and feet covered in gorgeous, fresh henna in heavy Sahrawi [southern Morocco / Sahara] designs. I started to ask her if I could take a picture but her friend interrupted saying that she had to go, and they moved to the other side of the plaza, giving me dirty looks the whole time.

A henna artist at work in Fes — notice that her client is
getting a khaleeji design while she herself is wearing
a fresh geometric 'true Fassi' style design.
Perhaps it’s the ‘One That Got Away’ Syndrome... But I feel like the henna that I haven’t been able to capture has been the nicest henna that I’ve seen. Although, it also makes sense that the women wearing the most traditional henna would also be the most traditional when it comes to taking pictures. 

I know I shouldn’t beat myself up but every time I miss an opportunity or bungle a conversation, it eats at me for the rest of the day. Who knew henna research was so emotionally complicated!

But, enough about my failures. Let’s talk about henna! What’s most interesting about the henna that I have seen is that most of it has not been what I think of as ‘true Fassi’ style, which is easy to recognize but hard to describe: a geometric, non-stacked, layout; triangular/diamond internal division; star/cross/tree/herringbone fill; zigzag edging, etc… 

The most popular style that I have seen is the floral style that Moroccans call khaleeji [Gulf], which varies in quality from excellent to incredibly sloppy. And while khaleeji is what is commonly done for tourists, I have seen plenty of local Moroccans wearing khaleeji as well. 

But more interestingly, several different people that I talked to have identified their henna as Fassi style, while their henna ranges from designs that could have been drawn straight from the ‘Fassi’ section of Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco, to people wearing patterns that I would not classify as remotely close to what I think of ‘Moroccan' at all. Is there such a thing as a 'Fassi' style? Is it the same as what we call Fassi style in North America? Is it unique to Fes? So many unanswered henna questions!

Let's go straight to some photos. Here’s an example of some of the nicest ‘true Fassi’ henna that I’ve seen so far. Managing to capture this made me smile the whole day! Freshly done here in the medina of Fes, she identified this as taqlidiyya, ‘traditional,’ and bildiyya, ‘country’ or ‘folk’ style henna. Everything here is what I would expect: the banded layout, the zigzag chains and edging, the interior division into diamonds and triangles, and the linear fill. 

Freshly removed and fabulous 'true Fassi'. I also love her ring.

There are a lot of really wonderful elements here — I love the little extra bit of negative space created by the ‘rings’ on the first two fingers, and the rows of interlocking diamonds are very well done. Her palms and feet were similarly covered. This was obviously done by a very talented hannaya [the Fassi term for a henna artist, also known as a neqasha].

Here's another example of what I'm calling 'true Fassi'. My host mother gets the credit for this photo, not only spotting the woman while we were on a walk but convincing her to let me take a picture. My host mom still thinks it's odd/amusing that I want to stop women in the street to take pictures of their henna but she has proved several times to be a willing accomplice, which may in fact be very helpful. 

I'll make a henna researcher of her yet!
The woman wearing this, like the woman above, called this style bildi ('folk'). While it's not quite as finely done as the example above (and to be fair, it's also pretty well worn), it's still immediately recognizable as the classic 'true Fassi' style: the large triangle on the top of the foot and the smaller triangles along the edge of the sole, the parallel lines throughout, the interior division into diamonds and triangles (in fact, in the same way as the photo above), and the linear fill, are all classic elements. Note also that the familiar zigzag edging has been replaced with the simpler and older dots-on-the-line technique, something we also saw here.

Here’s one more example of the ‘true Fassi’ style, what the woman wearing it called khfifa [‘light’], i.e. partial coverage. This was one of the first pieces I spotted in Fes and I was excited to see it because I was beginning to worry that no-one was doing the traditional style anymore.

I was with my host family, and the fact that I stopped a
woman in the street to photograph her henna was the
funniest thing they had ever seen.
The woman wearing it was reluctant at first to have it photographed because it was fading, so she didn’t think it looked nice, but I insisted and I’m glad I did.

This is fine work and the layout is nicely done — these would work well as medium-sized festival or party designs. I especially love the little floating star on the left hand which is almost identical to what you see on Fassi embroidery.

The bands are subdivided into triangles and diamonds, filled with the usual geometric 'trees', nets, and chevrons. The zigzag edging, and the wiggly spikes on the right hand, are also very typical. I love the little fingertip bands on the left hand.

Note also the little khaleeji-style flower on the top end of the right hand, a little cross-over from another popular style in Morocco. Artists often say they do the khaleeji style for tourists because it's faster, but personally, I can't imagine that this kind of design takes that much longer than a floral strip. Imagine how nice it would be if tourists to Fes all got these kinds of beautiful Fassi-style designs!

So far so good — the classic 'true Fassi' style is alive and well. But what about this? I spotted this at one of the evening concerts during the music festival and stood next to this woman for half an hour until the concert finished so that I could ask her if I could take a picture.

The guy next to her saw me staring at her hands and kept
giving me weird looks, but it was all worth it.

This was done in Fes, and the woman wearing it identified it as ‘Fassi’ style. While this henna has many elements that I recognize as Fassi, especially the use of parallel lines to divide up the space and the bands of triangles at the wrists, the fill is frustratingly unclassifiable — the unusual wavy and rounded elements on the left hand, the viney and floral parts on the right… The palms were a similar mishmash. What’s going on here?

And then what about this? These hands belong to the secretary at my school and while she also insisted that this was Fassi henna I couldn’t believe my eyes!

Floral Fassi. Fascinating.

The only ‘Fassi’ elements that I can see here are the diamond chevrons in the centre of the right palm. This is totally different that what we think of as Moroccan henna, and yet here it is in Morocco — and it was done with a syringe, too!

Embroidery shop in
the medina.
Passing an embroidery shop in the medina, I noticed a cloth with a floral pattern very similar to this floral henna that had been identified as ‘Fassi.’ I realized that an embroidery shop owner might be a good person to ask, since the familiar ‘true Fassi’ henna patterns are almost identical to terz Fassi, the beautiful geometric embroidery of Fes. 

In fact, with a few modifications, one could copy a Fassi henna design directly from a piece of embroidery or vice versa, and it would be perfectly recognizable. I demonstrated this in class the other day when we were discussing Fassi crafts and my friend mentioned embroidery; I went to the board and drew the pattern, and the teacher was flabbergasted that I could reproduce terz Fassi from memory, when really I was just drawing a henna pattern.

In any case, sure enough, once the shop owner got over her surprise that a white male was asking her in Arabic about embroidery patterns, she provided some useful information. The dense floral style, according to her, is indeed ‘Fassi,’ just like the geometric terz Fassi, but it is a more recent development. In fact, she said, the difference is that the floral embroidery is bl-makina [machine-made] while the geometric style is fl-yedd [by hand].

So perhaps, the floral style in embroidery is an innovation from when mechanical sewing machines became commonly used in Fes (I would guess sometime around the late 70s or early 80s) and the henna patterns followed, although obviously the true traditional style is still done in both embroidery and henna.

The classic style of terz Fassi, done fl-yedd. Note the
similarities to classic 'true Fassi' henna.

The newer machine-made floral style. Note the similarities
to the floral henna above.

I also suspect that more and more Moroccan artists are becoming familiar with other styles of henna, especially those done in the Arabian Gulf and South Asia, and are attempting to emulate more ‘global’ henna styles.

InchaAllah I can confirm this with a local henna artist, and I still have many more questions about the development of henna patterns in Fes. I took a research trip to Suq l-Hinna [the Henna Market] to see a little bit of the local henna history in Fes, and a few of my classmates have agreed to be my accomplices in recruiting a local henna artist to see Fassi henna in action, which will hopefully happen next week inchaAllah. Stay tuned for more updates!


Holly said...

Fascinating. A bit late to try, but perhaps if you had business cards with the logo of your university and your academic credentials that you could give people they might be slightly less skittish?

E J said...

Sounds like your host mom or other female members of host family who know u could be great help. Women may fear consequences of being seen speaking to male bodied stranger )-: