On the Sacred Loci of the Henna Souq, Fes.

A Homecoming

The Henna Souq has a determinable atmosphere, defined by the wind in the leaves of its two plane trees and the towering building of the 13th Century Maristan at its heart. Lining the small square are little shops, some of them no bigger than three metre square, of which around half are cosmetic herbalists. There is also the old weighing scales, which are still used today when large quantities of herbs are brought here by merchants. It is the home to Simohammed, a friend to many in the city, who operates one of the shops alongside his brother. Always inviting visitors to sit and drink tea with him, it easily becomes a rest-stop on a day of earnest wanderings up and down the hills of the medina. The chance you get to sit in the presence of the square is often enough to reveal just a hint of its magic. 

The Maristan of Sidi Fraj

The significance of the place comes down to a series of forces, which all form part of a whole. The first is the presence of the greater herbal markets, the second of the holy precincts of the Qarwaeen and Moulay Idriss II. The third is the micro-culture that continues to occupy these very particular streets, and the way that they have become storied over time. There is significance to the synergy of these three elements – they are in fact one. Quite simply, it is the sacred heart of an already sacred city, and what happens within it is holy (if we see holiness with an eye for nuance).

I remember when I first came to Fes I was so delighted and intrigued by the herbalists’ shops spread across the city, particularly those in the area of Ashabine and Atarine, both traditional herbal markets within the holy precincts of the Qarwaeen and the shrine of the city’s founder, Moulay Idriss II. I wrote a paper on the history of those markets, continued with my studies which included developing my own practice, and effectively left behind that bustling corner of the Medina. 

After three months or more of Lockdown, we are finally back out in the city and seeing it afresh. Strangely enough, my first journey out was to the Henna Souq and its neighbour, Atarine. I took a long route there, admiring every detail – the loudspeakers poking out the windows of the mosques, a lemon tree hanging over the wall, every fountain, every donkey. Landing in the Henna Souq, I was suddenly struck with its beauty, that I had largely overlooked for the last four years.

The Plane Trees

Returning to this area, I am aware that I carry with me four more years of investigation and enquiry that greater informs my awareness of what is really happening in this magical part of the city. I laugh a little at my wide-eyed young(er) self who walked aimlessly around these streets asking all the wrong questions many moons ago. Jokes on myself aside, these last four years have had me orbit round many different constellations of healing knowledge, and go down many more rabbit holes than I care to admit, all of which leads me back to these old streets with much greater understanding than I had in those early days. Not only that, but I came back more ready to process the information it had to tell me. 

The Henna Souq lies at the bottom of the Atarine and Ashabine markets, and is very much associated with both. It is also the square of the 13th century hospital, or Maristan, which was a regional leader in the treatment of mental illness, through varying techniques which included music therapy, a practice that still exists in the city (although not in this location). Herbal shops like those found in the square are by no means unique in the city, and particularly the Fes Medina, but are also to be found across the country and the SWANA region. They form part of a resilient traditional healthcare practice which has learnt to grow alongside more contemporary healing practices.

The Sacred in Space

The loci of the market is very much key to its significance, and the reason why I find it of greater interest than many of the other herbal shops in the city. All the more interestingly, since they almost all sell the same things. The Henna Souq appeared some time after the 16th century, and it is believed to have first been a market for earthenware pots. It feels appropriate though, to have the square filled with herbalists, due to its proximity to the old Maristan, and its connection to the greater herbal markets of Atarine and Ashabine.  The fact that it specialises in the sale of henna, and other herbs and cosmetics which are most often associated with the Hammam, could be a quirk of history, or something more significant – but it forms part of the healing continuum which finds its geographical home in this corner of the holy precincts. 

Barks chewed for cleaning teeth and gums hang on the door of the little Hanut

I mentioned that there might be significance to the presence of these little stalls in the perimeters of the Maristan. I believe there must be – and this would be my guess. The Maristan treated many kinds of illnesses in its time of operation (it closed during the Colonial period), but it is most famous for its treatment of mental illness. The stalls in the Henna Souq specialise in beauty, cosmetics and bathing equipment. I believe the link may be something to do with ancient self-care practices, that the conscious or unconscious decision to marry these two locations was for the emphasis placed on the restorative powers of traditional bathing and beautification – a beautification that was itself healing (think clay, kohl, rose water and other natural cosmetics that heal). 

The healing ‘craft’ is a tree of many branches, and the importance of its varying aspects have at times been lost to some, including myself as a young researcher. It is easy to imagine that herbs sold as medicinal remedies form part of it, but no lesser and of no less importance are the herbs and materials used cosmetically and spiritually. They are in fact not so easily divided, and so I see the “cosmetic” uses of such materials as henna and ghassoul of the same significance of medicinal herbs, in as much as they do the job of maintaining the physical health of the body – if not necessarily bringing us out of a state of un-wellness.

I remember a hot day four summers ago, spending untold hours sitting on the steps of the Maristan, watching it open and close for prayer in its new function as a neighbourhood mosque. Endless cups of tea and pastries helped the process of slow inculcation of what was going on around me – which I could tell was sacred but couldn’t tell how. 

Little details fascinated me. The presence of the majadib – the “holy fools” that occupy the area, often making rounds of the holy precincts during the day. These were faces I was somewhat familiar with, but had not until that time had the confidence to interact with. From the comfort of my warm step, I watched these figures interact with the shopkeepers with ease, as if nothing was in fact “wrong” with them. Five minutes later, you might see them making nonsensical incantations on a neighbouring alleyway, trousers half way down or with a funny hat on. Simohammed always quietly gave them a dirham as they passed. 

a good place to run around in circles – it was the end of the day, and some of the shops had already closed.

Time goes slowly here, and forms a kind of stretched out continuum that is hard to define. Answers come even slower, and every time I ask Simohammed a question I tend not to get exactly what I’m looking for. It takes a while, and so it should. That stretched out time-less feeling is so familiar to sacred space, I feel it in the best mosques, shrines and temples of nature. It is a kind of God-full-ness – where time moves slow because the divine presence abounds. 

My answers that day began to cement for me after some 4+ years of enquiry, and led me to the conclusion that when we say this is the heart of the Medina, we are speaking literally. I remember the first time I came to this square, I went straight home and tapped out a short story that had the plane trees beating blood through their roots into the city’s heart, and I think I wasn’t far off at all with that assertion. Simple as it is, this square and its neighbouring streets give the answer to the question “Why Fes?”. Why is it so renowned? So holy? So loved? So misunderstood? It is all here, written in the breeze. 

A Constellation of Healing Materials

Simohammed’s Hanut

What I love most about the little herbal stalls of the Henna Souq is their choice of presentation. Simple remedies, laid out in a kind of medicinal theatre. The whole image is one of beauty, simplicity and unity. You may look at each one and wonder at its use – they have strange labels like “hot” and “sweet” which might be vocabulary you don’t associate with cosmetics. I asked Simohamed to tell me more, as I rummaged through the various clays and herbs he has on offer.

The traditional herbs to mix in Ghassoul [a traditional clay body/hair mask], he told me. Ghassoul is made in the height of the summer, traditionally on the sun-drenched roof of Medina houses. First, you grind the stones of clay down to a powder, removing any debris or stones you find. This powder is dried out in the sun for a day or so. Next, you heat the herbs on the stove. Myrtle, cypress, rose, lavender and chamomile. You boil them until they start to blacken, and then mix them with the powdered clay to make a paste. Lay the clay paste thinly on a tray in the sun once more until it completely dries. Roughly crack the dry clay-herb mix and store for use, activating it once more with water before use.

Myrtle, Cypress, Lavender and Rose for Ghassoul

There is also green and white clays, kohl rocks for grinding into black eyeliner, poppy powder for reddening cheeks (I wonder if it’s really made of poppies, but I’m told it is). I think of the great sacks of Henna, grown probably well south of here (it can’t withstand the cold nights in Northern Morocco). I think of the journeys they have made, both backwards in time and forwards – I think of their use by prophets and sages, the bright red beards of the wandering saints of Morocco, a few of which still can be found in these sacred alleyways today.

Henna leaves for grinding into dye for hair, nails and body art.

Amongst the other products sold in the Henna Souq are a range of newer products styled in the manner of modern cosmetics. Some contain only natural ingredients (or so they claim) whilst others certainly don’t. You have to see with an eye for nuance here, what with the images of white ladies on soap bars, and the multifarious plastic packagings. Yes, it may not look very ‘ancient’, but it all goes back to a very ancient source.

Plastic syringes for henna application, soap bars, clays and herbal hair masks.

I often say that I have built a relationship with this place – but I believe it is the space itself that has taken me in (and I know it does the same thing to so many others). I have often left, only to come back and be surprised once more at the messages it gives me. The feeling of quiet, the presence of saints and their followers. The shaded walkway that takes you in one direction to the holiest shrine of the city, and in the other direction, its greatest mosque.

There is the feeling of time-less-ness, not just of it going slowly, but it almost not existing at all. Even with plastic packaging, and a sign on the wall reminding us to “keep a social distance” – the contemporary easily fades into the echoes of the past that reverberate off the walls. But that’s the thing – and the reason why it’s pure magic – because it isn’t the past at all. It is unquestionably alive. It is alive in Simohammed, and some of the more curious shop owners. In the “holy fools” and beggars that circulate, in the scholars and healers that pass through. In the walls, and in the cool air. I believe this place still speaks of the same truths as it did to the famed saints of the 17th century and before. I believe that if you sit long enough, you will hear.

Take your time – Simohammed with bring the tea.

My sincere thanks to Simohammed Azemi and Michela Fanara for their help with writing this article. You can support the Henna Souq here: https://www.facebook.com/Friends-of-Henna-SoukFes-Morocco-139435046134164

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