Archive for the people Category

A Moroccan Tashelheet Wedding (via Life in Marrakesh)

Posted in amazigh, culture, henna, morocco, people, weddings on July 10, 2010 by kenzilisa

I guess it’s wedding season in Morocco…so many posts about Moroccan weddings, all with henna. Enjoy!

A Moroccan Tashelheet Wedding I am here in Taos, New Mexico.  But I still have a lot to share from back home in Morocco.  In fact, yet another benefit of blogging is that I can stay connected to my Moroccan home, and revisit some things that touched me. A few weeks ago, at my parents' farm out in Ourika, we heard lots of music and noise.  My first thought was "world cup fever".  We grabbed the kids and rushed outside.  We didn't see any football fanatics, thank goodness.  Wha … Read More

via Life in Marrakesh


The Secret of Pigeon Poo (via Human Planet. On location with this landmark BBC Earth production)

Posted in culture, morocco, people, travel on July 7, 2010 by kenzilisa

Like most travellers to Fez I have been to the tanneries. The guides/shills always take you there because it’s such an overwhelming experience, plus they take you to leather shops afterwards to get you to part with your money (and get their commission).

The Secret of Pigeon Poo   By Patrick Murray, Technical Co-ordinator, Human Planet     Morocco is a land steeped in a history as rich and as colourful as one of its most prized commodities – leather.  We made our way to the ancient city of Fes (or Fez) where men have been tanning leather for over six centuries. This elaborate process has barely change … Read More

via Human Planet. On location with this landmark BBC Earth production

Moor between the covers! Get yours now!

Posted in amazigh, art, culture, design, henna, history, jewish, moor, the book, morocco, people, traditions, weddings, women on June 22, 2010 by kenzilisa

This groundbreaking book is the product of more than a decade of careful study in an effort to preserve the ancient henna traditions of Morocco. Moor offers a wealth of historical and cultural information about henna in Morocco—a distinctly women’s art form that struggles to maintain its identity in a rapidly changing world. Moor contains over 100 pages of meticulously cataloged Moroccan henna patterns—both traditional and original. Learn the origins and meanings of the Moroccan designs you love, how to create effective Moroccan designs of your own, and how Moroccans incorporate henna into their lives. Fall in love with Moroccan henna—for the first time or all over again

Finally! A very happy announcement!

Posted in algeria, amazigh, art, ceramics, classes, critique, cuisine, culture, design, food, henna, history, jewelry, jewish, language, mauritania, moor, the book, morocco, music, people, politics, sahara, tattoos, textiles, traditions, travel, tuareg, tunisia, Uncategorized, weddings, women with tags on June 1, 2010 by nictharpa

We are very pleased to announce that “Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco” is now available for purchase!

Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco

Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco

The first book of its kind, “Moor” is the story of henna in Morocco, giving you a first-hand account of how the Moroccans use henna for magic, beauty, and protection. After more than a decade of research, Lisa “Kenzi” Butterworth and Nic Tharpa Cartier are proud to present their findings in this groundbreaking book.

“Moor” contains more than 40 pages of text covering the history and culture of henna in Morocco, as well as an in-depth design manual that gives step-by-step instructions for learning Moroccan design elements and creating authentic and beautiful Moroccan-style henna work. The book also features more than 20 full-color photos of Moroccan-style henna work, as well as over 100 pages of Moroccan henna patterns from traditional and modern sources. “Moor” is the first comprehensive manual covering all aspects of Moroccan henna, and will be invaluable to henna artists, fans of Moroccan culture, and anyone interested in the beauty and rituals of exotic lands.

The book is currently available as a digital PDF download, for $43, from at the following link: or as a full color printed and bound copies  through at the cost of $52 for a softcover printing and $70 for a hardcover.

B’saha! Wear henna in good health!

Through Colonial Eyes: North African Jewish henna in the 18th – 20th centuries

Posted in amazigh, art, culture, henna, history, jewish, morocco, people, traditions, weddings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2010 by kenzilisa

Guest Blogger: Noam Sienna, henna artist and scholar
Jerusalem, Israel and Boston, MA

North Africa, until recently, was home to many ancient and significant Jewish communities, stretching from the very edge of Western Morocco all the way across to Egypt. It is unclear when the first Jews arrived in North Africa, but it appears that already in the Roman period groups of Jewish merchants were settling in the Roman province of Mauretania—present-day Morocco— as well as the other Roman provinces of North Africa. These Jews, as they migrated southwards, settled among the Amazigh [Berber] tribes, working as silversmiths and jewelers. They developed their own dialect of Amazigh, called Judeo-Berber, and lived in the Atlas Mountains among the Amazigh tribes there. The Arab conquest in the 7th century brought more Jews, who settled in middle and western Morocco, speaking Judeo-Arabic. These Arab and Berber Jews were joined by Ladino-speaking Iberian Jews [Sephardim] who arrived after the expulsions from Spain in 1492, Sicily in 1493, and Portugal in 1497 and settled in the urban centers of northern Morocco. These communities spread and flourished in Morocco until the beginning of the 20th century, when emigration began towards the Land of Israel—then Ottoman Palestine. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the vast majority of Jewish communities in the Diaspora, including the Jews of North Africa, were expelled, fled, or otherwise migrated to Israel in the following decades.

A Jewish Amazigh girl from Tinmal/Tin Mel in the High Atlas area.

North Africa (known then as “the Barbary States”) was a popular destination for travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries; there had been significant European presence in North Africa from the 18th century onwards, leading to the French military conquests of Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1881, and the signing of Morocco as a French Protectorate in 1912. Colonial European travellers—both Jews and non-Jews—often mention henna use by Jewish communities in their writings, which provide us with our main knowledge of Jewish henna practices in this period. The mentions are generally short, without information about the techniques or patterns used, or the symbolism represented by the henna ceremony. This lack of detail has several causes.  Firstly, these travellers were outsiders who generally did not speak the local language, and were often there only for a short time; their information came from their informants rather than what they observed directly. They were rarely ever present at actual henna ceremonies; they usually saw only the hennaed hands and feet. Secondly, these travellers were for the most part European men (although some were women), who were uninterested in, and sometimes even strongly repulsed by, foreign women’s standards of beauty, the practice of henna, in particular. Furthermore, as men, they were not privy to the world of the women in these traditionally conservative societies, and not particularly interested in it, either. In the rare cases when they did have opportunities to observe henna use and were interested enough to record it, they were hindered by their unfamiliarity with henna or the way it worked. For these reasons, these early descriptions that we have of Jewish henna use contain many gross misunderstandings and misinterpretations, along with a severe lack of relevant detail. Nonetheless, they represent a significant source in tracing the history and geography of Jewish henna traditions.

One such traveller’s account comes from the English physician William Lemprière, who visited Morocco between 1789 and 1790. He described the appearance and dress of the Jewish women, presumably from his own observation; he then briefly described their wedding ceremonies, but it is unclear whether he actually saw any, or whether he is merely reporting what he had heard about them; he also does not specify if he is speaking of a particular Jewish community or of a particular area. He writes:

Their [the Jews’] marriages are celebrated with much festivity for some time previous to the ceremony, and the intended bride, with all her female relations, go through the form of having their faces painted red and white, and their hands and feet stained yellow, with an herb named HENNA. A variety of figures are marked out on them with a needle, and then this herb, which is powdered and mixed with water into a paste, is worked into the holes made by the needle, and these marks continue on the hands and feet for a long space of time (Lemprière, 1793, pp. 204-205).

. The other side of the bag is labeled in Arabic.”]It is highly unlikely that the henna was rubbed into broken skin, as this would lead to a permanent tattoo, and Lemprière notes that the stain is long-lasting but not permanent. Furthermore, we have no record of henna being used for tattooing; in cultures that practiced both tattooing and henna (as in North Africa), the two art forms were separate traditions and were not linked in cultural practice. Rather, it is probable that Lemprière had been told that the henna was done with a needle, and he interpreted that to mean that it was tattooed. However, it was common in Morocco to use a needle, a khol stick, or a small twig as a tool to draw patterns on the skin; this technique continues to be used until the present day. Elsewhere, Lemprière describes the Moorish women of the sultan’s harem as having their hands and feet hennaed with patterns as well, clearly from his personal observations. The dark red, almost-black color on the palms would result from multiple, repeated applications of henna:

The inside of the hands, and the nails, are stained of a deep red, so deep indeed that in most lights it borders on black; and the back of the hands have several fancy marks of the same color. The feet are painted in a similar manner with the hands (ibid., pp. 397-398).

A French diplomat, Narcisse Cotte, also noted the use of henna at Jewish weddings. He describes the process of beautification and preparation for the wedding in the mellah [Jewish quarter] of Tangier:

Les cils sont noircis avec une poudre qu’elles appellent koheul, et cet artifice prète à des yeux naturellement grands et brillants un éclat singulier et des scintillements étranges. Les unes se contentent d’étaler du vermillion sur leurs joues; les autres les couvrent d’un fard blanc, et y dessinent, avec du cinabre, des triangles qui rappellent les barbares peintures en honneur parmi les sauvages du nouveau monde. Toutes ont les pieds et les mains teints d’une couleur résineuse d’un rouge sombre: elles l’obtiennent en pressant du henné, sorte de poix gluante, autour de la partie qu’elles prétendent ainsi embellir. Enfin, en passant sur leurs lèvres et leurs gencives une écorce colorante, elles obtiennent une autre teinture rougeâtre qui met le dernier sceau à tant de charmes (Cotte, 1860, pg. 148).

[The eyelashes are blackened with a powder that they call koheul, and this artifice gives their naturally large and shining eyes a unique sparkle and strange glittering. Some of the women please themselves by spreading vermillion on their cheeks; others cover them with white make-up and paint on them, with cinnabar, triangles that bring to mind the barbaric painting practiced among the savages of the New World. All of them have their feet and hands painted with a resinous color of a sombre red: they obtain it by pressing henna, a sort of sticky paste, around the parts that they desire to embellish in this way. Finally, in passing over their lips and gums a coloring bark, they obtain another reddish tint which puts the final stamp on their many charms.]

A Jewish bride from Rabat, from Jean Besancenot's Costumes de Maroc.

Similarly, a contemporary British traveller, James Richardson, described the use of henna and other cosmetics in a Jewish wedding in Mogador [present-day Essaouira, a city on the western coast of Morocco]. He did not see the henna ceremony itself, but only its after-effect.

Her [the Jewish bride’s] face was artistically painted; cheeks vermillion; lips browned, with an odoriferous composition; eye-lashes blackened with antimony; and on the forehead and tips of the chin little blue stars. The palms of the hands and nails were stained with henna, or brown-red, and her feet were naked, with the toe-nails and soles henna-stained (Richardson, 1860, pg. 189).

These descriptions of the Jewish bride’s appearance and decoration are consistent with drawings and photographs of Jewish brides from the late 19th and early 20th century, e.g. in Besancenot’s Costumes et types du Maroc (1942).

A British colonel recorded in his journal an interesting ritual use of henna by the Jewish community of Taza, in northern Morocco, to prepare for the holiday of Pesah [Passover]:

The Jews have been extremely busy the last few days, white-washing their houses, and making preparations for the celebration of the feast of the passover, which commences to-morrow… The Jewesses here not only dye their nails, but also their hands for this festival. Their manner of performing this operation is as follows: having made a paste of henna as thick as dough, they cover their hands with it to the thickness of a penny piece, they then have them bandaged up for the night; in the morning the paste being rubbed off, their hands are left a beautiful red; and so firmly does the dye take, that it remains on for eight or ten days, without any occasion for renewing the operation; at the expiration of the eight days, which time the feast lasts, they wash their hands and return to their usual occupations (Scott, 1842, pg. 81).

He seems to suggest that since the henna lasts for the duration of the festival, there was some connection between the presence of the henna and the special time of the holiday; the henna seems to have been a way of marking a particular time as ‘celebration time’.

The European Jewish historian Nahum Slouschz spent many months travelling through Morocco; he made seven trips between 1906 and 1916, including a trip in 1913 through the High Atlas recording life among the Amazigh Jews – one of the few contemporaneous records we have of Jewish life in this region. He notes that in Teluet [today in the province of Ouarzazate, south-central Morocco], the Jewish women would dye their hair, eyebrows, and fingers with henna once a week in honor of the Sabbath (Slouschz, 1927, pg. 467).

A close-up of the bride's hands from the top photo. Note the hennaed fingers.

Through travellers’ accounts, we see descriptions of Jewish henna use in communities in North Africa, the Middle East, Yemen and India. Travellers record Jewish communities using henna regularly to dye hands, feet, nails, and hair, and there are records of henna ceremonies for holidays and celebrations (e.g. Passover). However, it is the pre-wedding ceremony that dominates—the hennaed hands and feet of Jewish brides were remarked upon by numerous travellers, and were often singled out for mention, along with her kohled eyes. Unfortunately, it is only the after-effects that are most commonly seen, and the henna ceremony itself is rarely described from actual experience. While some travellers seem to indicate that henna was applied in patterns others make no mention of patterns, even in discussing the same geographical area. It would appear that there were different conventions for Jewish henna, depending on circumstance and social standing.

These travellers’ accounts, while valuable records of Jewish henna use, must be critically examined as documents written through European, modernizing, colonial lenses. As mentioned above, many factors hinder accurate representations of Jewish henna in colonial travel accounts, if represented at all. Many travelogues describing the communities mentioned above made no mention of henna practices; either the authors did not see any, or they saw them but did not know what henna was, or they did not think henna was significant enough to warrant inclusion in their narrative. The inconsistent record of henna use—being described in one account of a particular community but not in another—demonstrates that the inclusion of henna use in a travelogue was highly arbitrary. Therefore, if henna use in a particular community is not recorded it cannot be assumed that they did not use henna, especially if we have sources from a later period that indicate traditional henna use.

In these narratives, the travellers’ unfamiliarity with henna is apparent; they are unclear as to the mechanisms of creating henna body art—is it the leaves? the roots? the juice? Is henna a paint? a dye?—and they frequently confuse henna with related body adornments, such as tattoos and kohl. These travellers rarely made any attempt to understand how the ‘natives’ felt about henna or why they were doing it. Nonetheless, these sources remain important historical documents. While the pre-wedding henna ceremony is not formally required for any halakhic [Jewish legal] purpose, the cultural purpose it serves is indispensable, and this begins to be seen through the numerous descriptions of henna as one of the most prominent characteristics of Jewish marriages as seen by European travellers in the 18th – 20th centuries.


Besancenot, Jean. Costumes et types du Maroc. Paris: Horizons de France, 1942.

Cotte, Narcisse. Le Maroc Contemporain. Paris: Charpentier, 1860.

Lemprière, William. A Tour from Gibraltar to Tangier, Sallee, Mogadore, Santa Cruz, Tarudant; and Thence Over Mount Atlas, to Morocco: Including a Particular Account of the Royal Harem, &c. London: J. Walter, Charing-Cross, 1793.

Richardson, James. Travels in Morocco, by the late James Richardson, Author of “A Mission of Central Africa”, “Travels in the Desert of Sahara”, &c. Edited by his Widow. London: J. Skeet, Charing-Cross. 1860.

Scott, Colonel. A journal of a residence in the Esmailla of Abd-el-Kader and of travels in Morocco and Algiers. London: Whittaker and Co., 1842.

Slouschz, Nahum. Travels in North Africa. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1927.

Hennaed Refugees

Posted in algeria, culture, henna, history, mauritania, morocco, people, politics, sahara, traditions, women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2010 by kenzilisa

While Nic was writing his post on indigo, we got to talking about various groups of people who live in and/or traverse the Sahara.  I have also been reading an article about a photographer who uses a motorized glider to take aerial pictures of the Sahara.  Now my mind is lost in the past to another time in my life that almost seems like a dream.  About fifteen years ago I lived and worked in the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco, whose native inhabitants, the Sahrawi, have been fighting for independence since Spain pulled out of the territory in the mid-70s promising a referendum.  Morocco and Mauritania annexed the territory, with the northern 2/3s being controlled by Morocco, the remaining 1/3 controlled by Mauritania.  The group leading the fight for independence—and a referendum—is called the Polisario Front, supported by Algeria.  Their pressure caused Mauritania to give up control over its portion of the Western Sahara thereby allowed Morocco to extend its control over the entire territory.  There was a ceasefire in 1991 at which time some Sahrawis chose to stay in the territory of the Western Sahara, administered by Morocco, and those who supported independence were forced into exile in refugee camps in the Algerian Sahara.  In the interim, efforts have been made to hold a referendum to decide the future of the territory.  More information is available here, on Wikipedia.  Morocco is keenly in favor of making the territory part of Morocco—in fact, Morocco refers to the Western Sahara as the “Southern Provinces—and has has full administrative control over the territory.  The capital of the Western Sahara is Laayoune (also spelled El Aiun) which means “two eyes” or “two wells” (they use the word “eye” to mean “well” as both sight and water are considered vital to human life).  This tiny dot on the edge of the Sahara was my home for a year.  

Laayoune, Western Sahara


Those Sahrawis who went to live in the camps in Algeria have not be able to visit family back in the Western Sahara.  In their harsh conditions in the camps, Sahrawis were cut off not only from their families, but also from the rest of the world.  Water and food have to be shipped in to the camps, and all the medical, educational and social needs are take care of by the refugees themselves or with help from the UN and aid agencies around the world.   

My reason for being in the Western Sahara was to be part of the team that registered voters for the ever-elusive referendum.  I worked for the UN in New York City and had the opportunity to go overseas to work for the UN Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (aka MINURSO).  My base was in Laayoune, the capital, but I also spent a lot of time in the MINURSO offices in Algeria.  My work consisted of maintaining a database of voter registration files and providing information for the election officers who were responsible for interviewing voters.  The process was incredibly complicated by factors unique to the area.  Prospective voters were spread across all of the territory of the Western Sahara, as well as in the refugee camps and throughout Morocco.  Some of them had emigrated and had to be tracked down and contacted overseas.  Many of the voters were illiterate and a lot of the older voters didn’t know what year they were born.  Older generations in this area often remember important dates by events that occurred then like “I was born the year that the wind blew from the east for 2 weeks”.   

I feel that I could write so much more on this topic, specifically about my life there and about our work with voters.  These topics might require several posts, so I will constrain myself here to talk about henna in the Western Sahara.  What prompted this post about the Western Sahara was this Flickr set I came across about the UNHCR’s (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) story about Sahrawi families reuniting.    

Sahrawi women


As a henna artist and also a researcher, my eyesight has been trained to seek out and find henna in any photo and sure enough, my eyes were rewarded.  A lot of the women in these photos have henna which is not surprising since henna is often done before a trip to protect the traveler from evil and also to celebrate a happy occasion, in this case a reunion of families.  

My very first experience of henna was when I was living in the Western Sahara.  We were flown to our headquarters in Tindouf, Algeria, smack dab in the middle of nowhere in the Sahara.  This was the town closest to the refugee camps where we had to register voters.  The Algerian army had given the UN one of its bases to serve as the headquarters for MINURSO, and that is where we lived, ate and worked whenever we weren’t in the refugee camps.  One of my colleagues returned from the refugee camps with a brown stain on her hand; the stain was a boldly drawn Polisario flag.  My colleague explained the concept of henna to me but my brain couldn’t quite grasp the idea.  As she explained I remembered all the times I had seen orange fingernails and dark brown fingertips while living in the Western Sahara and things started to click.  Since that day I have continued to look for henna whenever I travel in Morocco, stopping women to ask them about it.   

Enjoy the photos at the UNHCR link!

Alluring Indigo

Posted in algeria, amazigh, art, culture, henna, mauritania, morocco, people, sahara, textiles, traditions, tuareg, women with tags , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2010 by nictharpa

What is the first color that comes to your mind when you think of Morocco? For me, it is blue. There are so many, many shades of blue at home in Morocco and their stark contrast to the oranges and reds of the earth and architecture of the region is truly striking. To me though, the most fantastic blues are the indigo hues associated with the Southern part of the country, worn by the Tuareg and related people. 

The Tuareg have been called the ‘blue men’ of the Sahara because of their traditional choice in garments, voluminous draped and wound fabrics dyed a deep and lustrous indigo blue without using water. The pigment is pounded into cotton fabrics which are not rinsed, and as a result, the blue flakes and rubs off onto the skin. 

wearing indigo cloth

Tuareg woman wearing indigo cloth


The woman to the left is wearing a tunic and headcloth made of the classic deep, purplish indigo. The purple tinge is a result of the indigo’s interaction with the air, and is referred to by dyers as the bloom of the indigo. 

Indigo cloth is dyed outside Morocco, in Niger, Mali, and Guinea, and traded northward to the Tuareg and related groups along the routes of the camel caravans. It is prized all over North and West Africa. 

But do the Tuareg use henna, you ask? Yes, they do. Today’s Tuareg use simple bold designs, sometimes created through resist processes. The famous Guedra dance is an important occasion for Tuareg women to wear henna— photos of this can be seen in the book Africa Adorned, by Angela Fisher.