Henna is an art that most Moroccans cherish and adore. It is not just aesthetically beautiful, but also carries the rich heritage, culture, and traditions of Morocco.
Morocco has embraced the traditional art form of henna for centuries. Moroccans enjoy henna designs on women and girl’s hands during celebrations and on cultural occasions, painted by talented artists such as henaya Zahira. The Meknes native not only depends on this art form to make her living, but seeks to maintain this iconic element of Moroccan tradition and heritage.
Moroccan henna originated with Amazigh (Berber) tribes. Women used the henna plant, which grows in the Mediterranean area, to make a thick paste mix of crushed leaves and water. They used it to tattoo their skin with unique designs and symbols that distinguished Amazigh women from one tribe to another.
Throughout the years, and using a brush, little stick, or a plastic nozzle, Morocco’s henna art has developed and evolved. So have the artists, with their designs and style. However, many Moroccans still seek out traditional henna artists for their authentic and beautiful work.
Meet henaya Zahira
Born and raised in Meknes, professional henna artist and single mother Zahira, also known as henaya or nekacha (the Moroccan titles for henna artists) Zahira, is 55 years old and has practiced the art since she was 22.
“I have many clients that are good to me and never change me whenever they want a nekacha for their special occasions and events, because they like the quality of my work… in return I always do my best to please them and keep them satisfied with my henna artwork,” henaya Zahira said in an interview with Morocco World News.
The henna artist is well-known not only in Meknes but also in other parts of Morocco, with her beautiful work and easygoing, warm manner drawing people in.
Amid the coronavirus crisis Zahira was not able to work much due to the cancelation and postponement of the events and celebrations where the artist would work the most.
Having an unemployed 22-year-old son, no one else close to support her, and no monthly salary did not help the traditional artist in the tough times. Despite the struggle, Zahira still loves what she does and feels very grateful to God for everything that she has.
The unique story of Zahira’s inspiration
Zahira believes her talent is not something she acquired but something that sacred spirits gave to her in a dream when she was young.
“In my dreams, two women visited me, one was called Lala Aisha, and the other was called Lala Malika. They talked to me and showed me their hands which had different henna designs,” Zahira said.
“Lala Malika had the Nkitat design of henna in her hands, while Lala Aisha had a Fassi henna design in her hand, and I showed them my own hands that had both the henna styles. After that Lala Aisha gave me some money and told me Bismillah, (in the name of God) take this money, so I did.”
When Zahira woke up from her dream she did not find the money Lala Aisha gave her in the dream, but she found the henna plant crushed, made into a paste, and ready. She quickly bought a merwed (a stick used to put kohl around the eyes or henna on the hands), and she drew on her hands what she saw in her slumber.
“With no hesitation and without thinking, I drew on my hands the henna designs that I saw in my dreams, whatever I saw that night I put it on that day. I am truly thankful for God for this [gift I was] given because it is how I make my living in this world.”
Zahira has a strong and intimate relationship with henna and her artwork. She feels the most energetic and happy when she is applying henna for people on special occasions.
“Whenever I have work, and unfortunately something happens that makes me cancel my work, I feel sad and sick. Henna art is running in my blood and I love it so much,” added the artist.
Henna’s purpose in Morocco
Moroccans throughout the country use the lovely henna plant not just for designs on their hands and feet, but also as a natural hair dye and as a body wash for use in traditional Moroccan hammams.
Some Moroccans believe henna art on the hands is a symbol of good luck, some believe it protects from the evil eye, others apply it to strengthen the skin of their hands and, of course, many just love the beautiful designs and like to decorate their hands either on special occasions or even casually.
“Henna in Morocco is traditional and hereditary, from one generation to the other. For Moroccans, henna is very important in every celebration such as the 7 month anniversary of a newborn, weddings, and Eid,” said Zahira.
“It just [wouldn’t] feel right celebrating these occasions without applying henna on our hands, which makes the unique artwork very symbolic in our culture and traditions.”
Henna designs in Morocco
Henna designs and patterns can vary across Morocco, with geometric shapes, dots, swirls, floral designs, and tribal symbols with significant meaning, making the art intriguing and beautiful.
“There are many designs such as khaliji henna design, al khatfa, or damaa design, which resembles a vine of flowers, and nkitat henna design that resembles shapes and symbols made of many little dots, which is applied in Eid Al-miloud (the anniversary of the prophet Muhammad’s birth) or Ashura.”
With the rise of advanced technology and the internet, henna designs expanded in Morocco. Now you can find different designs, such as the Hindi henna style.
“Despite having other designs, the most common henna design in Morocco, and which most brides still opt to have before their wedding, is the Fassi design that originated from Fez.”
To make the henna paste, different henna artists follow different recipes. Their specific approach allows them to make art either more vibrant, or pigmented, or last longer.
“The first mix I have started with was henna powder, water, sugar, and rose water. Now we can add a little alcohol if the client is not allergic, or a squeezed lemon to make the design obvious, we can also mix it with tea and flower seeds.”
Zahira believes henna art is an essential component of the traditions, culture, and heritage of every region in Morocco. This makes her even more passionate and drives her to continue practicing her art despite any obstacles she faces.
To get in touch with henaya Zahira, and to have beautiful henna art designs made with love and skill, you can reach her through her phone numbers, 0762828822 or 0663879841. If you plan to visit Meknes, the well-known artist is the person to go to for an authentic Moroccan henna tattoo.