Guest Blogger: Henna Virgin in the Moroccan Hinterlands

Guest blogging for the first time, I present to you Nicole E Wójcik,  Health Sector Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, normally blogging at When you get a chance take a look at her blog.  She has had some really interesting experiences, living in a small village in the south of Morocco.  I love her keen eye for culture, language and people as well as her wit which veers into sarcasm tinged with fondness for her current home.

This is for real!: A Peace Corps Volunteer’s First Night in the Countryside

Escape routes clearly marked

It was six days after arriving in Morocco that I had my oh, shit! moment.  The oh, shit! moment is a phenomenon whose legend is passed along orally among the Peace Corps volunteers serving in Morocco, and while the conditions of it vary from volunteer to volunteer, it’s been known to happen to even the most seasoned of world travelers.  Mine happened on a chilly afternoon in early March.  I was covered in henna, balanced on my tailbone and both elbows, with a steaming charcoal brazier between my legs to help dry the henna on my hands and feet.  I watched the steam float up from the coals, and it dawned on me how just how drastically my life had just changed.  Oh, shit!, I thought to myself.  This is for real.

The scene of the crime: a Moroccan village

The offer for henna had come after my first tea with my new host family, with whom I’d end up living for my two months of language and cultural training.  I was encouraged to eat my fill of homemade bread and olive oil, apricot jam and syrupy-sweet mint tea, and was then left in my host family’s narrow, unfurnished sitting room with my sixteen-year-old host sister, Nadia, and her thirteen-year-old brother, Noureddine.  We smiled shyly and stared at each other (Morocco is a very visual culture, and staring is common) while MTV Arabia played on the television at the front of the room.  They were getting to know me, and I was getting to know, well, everything.  I found myself jealous of the sheep and the donkey in the courtyard on the other side of the wall I was sitting up against, as they seemed to be having a much more in-depth conversation than I could hold with my hosts.  At this point in my service – day six in Morocco, and day one in the province of Azilal – I still could not introduce myself in Tashlheit, the local Berber dialect spoken by my family; I was limited to salaamu alaikum, the formal Arabic greeting.

A sleepy morning in town

Lowering the volume of the television so that Fares Karam was merely belting instead of blasting, Nadia said the word henna and made a motion that looked like writing on her palm.  I smiled, and before I could nod my head she had flown out of the room.  The volume of the television was returned to its former level of Blasting, and I wondered how this would all play out.

After about fifteen minutes, my host sister returned with her arms full: a metal bowl inside of a plastic bag, a syringe, a lemon, a dull knife, a dishtowel, a roll of cheap scotch tape and a few cotton balls.  She smiled at me, and motioned to a pillow behind me.  I brought it over to the middle of the room where she had put her things down, and sat down on it.  She shook her head disapprovingly.  The pillow was not for sitting.

I watched as she unwrapped a corner of the metal bowl and exposed the army green substance that was destined for my extremities.  She sucked up a bit of henna into her syringe with her mouth, and pushed it out of the tip.  She repeated this two more times, as if to test the texture.  She then grabbed my right hand, muttered bismillah – in the name of God – and got to work.

Without taking so much as a moment to brainstorm about how the design was going to look, she went to work on reproducing what I learned later to be her trademark henna style: flowers and vines.  She started at the tip of my index finger and worked down onto my palm and wrist.  Once my palm was covered, she moved back up to my fingertips, adorning my thumb, middle, ring and pinky fingers with small designs that covered the pads of my fingers.  She then had me turn my hand over and repeated the process on the top of my hand.  Index finger to wrist, and thumb to pinky finger.  She even went so far as to color in my fingernails.

The left hand was decorated in much the same fashion, though she managed to work in my name – spelled NIKOL – into the design on my wrist.  After she had written it, she looked up and met my eyes.  We smiled at each other, and I realized that she was as excited to be doing my henna as I was to be receiving henna.  She said something to me in Tashlheit, and I smiled and nodded.

Henna revealed...worth the wait and the indignity

Putting her artist’s cap back on, she took a quick look at my hands, nodded her head and then motioned for the pillow.  I could no longer grab it, but instead leaned out of the way so she could pick it up.  Rather than going under me, the pillow ended up supporting my knees.  I had known that henna is also applied to the feet, but I had never thought through the mechanics of how that is done.  I leaned back onto my elbows, and watched as she rolled up my pant legs to get to work.  It was a chilly evening – cool enough to see our breath – and I wondered what kind of time commitment I had agreed to.

With my legs hovering off of the ground and my hands covered in flowers, vines and an interpretation of my name, I watched helplessly as the scotch tape was applied around the perimeter of my feet to create a border.  My host sister dove back into the metal bowl with three fingers and smeared the cold, earthy-smelling henna onto the soles of my feet in a thick layer.  When both feet were sufficiently covered, she wiped her hands off on her small hand towel, and picked up the syringe once more.  Each of my big toes was decorated, and my toenails were all covered in henna.  Nadia finished with my last pinky toe, smiled at me, and started collecting her things.  She re-wrapped the bowl in the plastic bag, grabbed the syringe, towel and tape and left the room.

Okay, I said aloud to myself.  This isn’t so bad.

I watched a little bit of TV while I waited for my hostess to return.  A re-run of an old Road Rules episode was just starting when Nadia returned with my host mom in tow.  She smiled at me and asked a question.  I smiled back and tried, telepathically, to pass along the message that I had no idea what she had just inquired.  She said something else to me, again with her beautiful, toothless grin, and I chuckled lightly in response.  Maybe she had just made a joke?

She made a face as it to say, “oh, you poor thing,” and stepped around me to get to the other side of the room.  I watched helplessly as a heavy blanket was thrown over my torso.  My host mother, a woman only two-thirds my size, tucked the blanket around me like a professional.  She had me shift my weight from side to side a bit as she tucked the blanket under my bottom, all the while making sure that the blanket didn’t come into contact with the henna on my hands and wrists.  I was watching her make sure that I was properly covered when I felt a warmth on my calves, so intense that it was penetrating my jeans.  I turned back around to find a mijmar, or charcoal brazier, being scooted into place between my legs.

I found my eyes darting back and forth, not unlike a tennis match, as both mother and daughter helped me get into place for the long haul of henna drying.  My host mom had given me a pillow for my head and two more for under my knees, so now I was laying with my back on the ground, my arms outstretched and starkly perpendicular to my body, and my legs propped up in the air, straddling the mijmar.  As my host mom arranged the pillows, my host sister had taken my hands and started applying lemon juice to the henna with a cotton ball.

What, host mom?  Okay, I’ll roll over a little bit so you can re-adjust the blanket.

-Oh, host sister, what are you doing?  Lemon juice?  Really?

No, host mom, the coals aren’t too hot.  Okay, sure, you can put the mijmar there.

-Okay, host sister, I’ll flip my hand over.

When the pillows and blankets were properly in order and lemon juice had been sufficiently applied to all four henna sites, it was then time to relax.  And relax we did, without moving a muscle, for an hour and a half.  A cold, self-conscious, no-end-in-sight hour and a half.  I had known this family for less than twelve hours, and I was now strewn about in their living room, arms outstretched and legs up in the air.

While it was too cold to doze, I felt myself fading when my host sister suddenly snapped-to, like she had just remembered that I was lying on the sitting room floor behind her.  She grabbed the knife, looked at me menacingly and then…

No, I’m kidding!  She did grab a shabby kitchen knife from the windowsill, however, and used the back side to scrape off a bit of henna from my wrist and my big toe.  Satisfied with the color that had developed, she placed a notebook under right hand and forcefully scraped the henna off of it, onto the red plastic cover of the book.  It was an uncomfortable, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better way for henna removal than the back of a dull knife.

Village mosque

Though a bit painful, that little knife got the job done.  I used my newly-freed hand to fold the blanket down from my chest and started the process of henna removal on my left hand.  My feet were next, and I still remember being impressed with how well the scotch tape held the henna border on the sides of my feet.  After I was sufficiently cleaned up and instructed through elaborate hand gestures not to wash my hands or feet until tomorrow, I found that I couldn’t stop smiling.  The artistic big guns had been brought out for me that night, and dinner had even been delayed until my henna was dry.  I was still a stranger in a foreign land, but my family had left their mark on me, claiming me as one of their own.


5 Responses to “Guest Blogger: Henna Virgin in the Moroccan Hinterlands”

  1. What a wonderful story! Can’t wait to see the pics.

  2. […] and also: There is an extraneous indefinite article buried somewhere in the article.  Find it and win a […]

  3. My Woj is a celeb!

  4. Stunning photos! I adore the post so much! 😉

  5. Wow, this story had me in tears! Totally reminds me of the pretty much telepathic communication I had to have with my in-laws during my first couple of visits to Morocco. And reminded me of the first time the neighbour came over with a plate holding a bowl with henna, the foot of an old stocking and a syringe. Beautiful story!

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