One of the highlights of a visit to Morocco is getting a henna art design, something as authentically Moroccan as tagines and desert camping. More than just a decorative activity, henna has deep cultural roots in Morocco, particularly for women. It has prominent place in weddings, engagements, Ramadan milestones and numerous other joyous activities and events. Indeed, henna is associated with joy and celebration, including uplifting designs and positive symbolism.
When you travel to Morocco, you will encounter all kinds of offers to get a design, often presented as fast, easy and cheap. Unsurprisingly, these medina scams bring all kinds of risk, from as basic as simply being ripped off to getting a design that only lasts a few hours, is poorly drawn or, worst of all, is done with "henna" that is in fact laced with chemical preservatives, coloring and who knows what else.
Fortunately, there are options for getting a real, authentic, all-natural and genuine henna design. You just need to know where to go.
Siham Essahiri is an expert henna artist, offering design experiences to travellers from around the world out of her home studio in Marrakech. Many listeners and guests on the Destination Morocco
podcast have had this experience themselves. A session with Siham is a popular addition to a tour itinerary, and can easily be completed in just an hour or two.
Siham offers her guests all kinds of experiences that go beyond just getting a design. She will explain the history behind henna, where it's grown and maintained, and how to make the paste from all-natural ingredients. If you like and have the time, you can even make some yourself with her. Regardless, all of her paste is made fresh within 24 hours so that it has the maximum effect, without using any preservatives.
And since an even better option would be knowing how to make it yourself back home, Siham will show you the ingredients for her paste, where to buy or order them, and the tools she uses for the actual design. It may come as a surprise but in Morocco, a glass syringe is the most accurate, effective tool, with the added bonus of putting less stress on the artist's hand and fingers after a long day of designing. These are not your typical pharmacy syringes though, instead they are custom-made for henna design specifically.
As for which design to choose, when you enter into Siham's comfortable living room/studio, with a tray of fresh mint tea and some cookies waiting for you, you'll find her photo albums full of options and ideas. There is a book for women, men and children's designs.
But, none of this stops you from bringing in your own design for her to draw. Visitors often discover interesting, memorable designs and artwork in the square, around town or at one of the stops along their tour. You can get a version of this replicated on your skin! Siham will tell you the best placement for it, as certain areas of skin will maintain a rich, dark imprint longer than others.
Some of her guests have even gone on to get a real, permanent tattoo afterwards when they got back home, with an artist tracing over Siham's initial design. Certainly a great tribute to her skills.
So, many people have had the pleasure of Siham's company and handiwork while they've visited Marrakech. But few of us have known her remarkable true life story, until now. Born in a mountain village in the High Atlas mountains, Siham was put into an arranged marriage in the mid-2000's, and became pregnant at the age of 19. Despite being worldly and well-educated, she was facing a bleak future in a society of pre-determined roles and customs.
In the most recent episode of Destination Morocco podcast, Siham shares how she took control of her and her daughter's lives, making bold choices and becoming self-sufficient and independent. Key to this achievement was her ability as an artist, which opened doors and opportunities in tourism and beyond. She has forged a career as an entrepreneur and businesswoman, all while being a single mother in a society that has struggled to adapt to that reality.
When you meet her in person, your faith in the strength and power of Moroccan women will be reinforced. Azdean and Siham talk about the potential of women in Morocco, the many barriers that still exist, yet the inspiring examples of Siham and others like her.
The episode also gives you a glimpse into the history of henna, and the many occasions where it is used. Siham explains how henna parties are a part of a bride's wedding preparation: more than just an art session, it's a major event!
And they go over some of those infamous scams, with Siham sharing some horror stories of "tattoos" gone wrong and exorbitant fees charged.
If and when you're in Marrakech, go for the real deal: an all-natural, custom-designed henna experience from an authentic artist. Siham is a wonderful artist, a host, cook, guide and more, and will welcome you into her home with open arms.
Highlights mentioned in this episode:
What exactly is henna, the plant.
How henna differs around the world, and the Moroccan interpretation of it.
How henna paste is made, and when it should be made.
Why authentic, hand-mixed henna paste is not just better quality but will last much longer than what you find in the square, where it is chemical and cheap.
Can you buy the hand-mixed paste and do it yourself?
- What tool Siham uses to create her designs.