Ahmed of the Henna Souk

by

Ahmed sells henna, rassoul , dried rosebuds, kohl, natural tooth whiteners, and other beauty products in the henna souk of the Fes Medina. The henna souk is in a courtyard and the stalls are around the edges. In the center is an ancient tree. The stall next to Ahmed on one side belongs to Mohamed Couscous and the stall on the other side is habous, public property held in trust. The story is that when a vender was wealthy and didn’t need to sell henna any more, he deeded his stall to the habous, to be held in trust so that anyone could use the large scale there. They aren’t sure but they think it has been that way for at least two hundred years.

In 1286 there was a psychiatric hospital there and Leo Africanus worked there for a time. The hospital was also habous and existed until 1944. Is there a connection between beauty and madness? Perhaps between a rest cure for insanity and a spa?

Ahmed has a large burlap bag of dried henna leaves for sale. Of course you know henna has a religious aspect, he tells me. The palm tree and the henna plant grow in paradise. He is forty-nine and has been running the business for the past twelve years. Before that he studied English literature at a university here in Fes. But he did not pass the exams to become a teacher. He is married and has two little girls.

Ten years ago, business was good. But now, with television advertisements, some women buy synthetic beauty products. The merchants don’t sell as much henna. And the women who live in Ville Nouvelle, the new city, don’t come to the souk to buy their henna as often as they used to. Now they buy it in plastic packages from someone on their own corner. As for the women who have given up the natural for the synthetic, Ahmed says it’s no wonder they lose their hair. They wouldn’t have a problem if they would stick to the old natural formulas.

Have you noticed that some of the stalls sell pottery instead of henna? Ahmed asks me. It’s what the tourists are buying, although there aren’t as many of them since the economy everywhere is bad. Before I leave, Ahmed gives me some natural lipstick to try and I go on my way with bright red lips.

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