Morocco is known for its rich traditions of craft and mehndi designs. Knowledge of craftwork, sometimes little altered within the thousands of years it has been in transmission, is passed down through the family line (usually from mother to daughter and father to son) in mediums as diverse as woodwork, leather, silver and summer dresses. As a part of this incredible culture of artistic achievement, and as in other Arabic-speaking nations, mehndi tattoos are ubiquitous throughout the country. The craft is a female-only affair, and talented hennayas (henna artists) ply their trade in souks (markets) throughout the country. The intricate mehndi designs are applied to the body in a paste made by mixing the powdered leaves of the henna tree (native to NorthAfrica, as a matter of fact) with lemon juice, hot water, sugar and orange blossom water. After the mehndi design is applied, lemon juice and sugar mixed with garlic and pepper are added, acting as a fixative. This helps the mehndi design to stick to the skin for longer. After the paste dries, it is removed, leaving densely packed, intricate mehndi designs in the signature geometric shapes for which Moroccan mehndi body painting is famous.
One very important distinction between the use of henna in Morocco(including the Maghrebin general) and where it is elsewhere used, is it is rarely applied simply for cosmetic purposes. In Morocco, henna is used to attract blessings, called Baraka, to the wearer, and to protect against ill will, mischievous spirits, and danger. (Mehndi was further popularised by the fact that Islam expressly forbids tattooing, as the willful desecration of God’s work.) The mehndi designs used are sacred to the Berber (also called Amazing, the indigenous people of North-Western Africa) people, and include many beautiful symbols, including magic squares (whose numbers add up to the same sum when added horizontally or vertically), numbers , verses from the Qur’an, geometric shapes (triangles, squares, circles, rectangles, eight-pointed stars, etc.), and motifs representing plants, animals, flowers, people, eyes and hands. The mehndi designs have specific symbolic power (for example, the moon represents femininity, change, and fertility, while seeds symbolise male fertility and life: combined, they may encourage the conception of a child). Odd numbers have special significance to the Berber people and as such are often included. These mehndi designs are used right across traditional Berber handicrafts within Morocco, and make up much of the rich, unique tradition of artwork for which the country is so famous.
The positioning of henna designs is often as important as the symbols themselves, and heavily linked to the superstitions inherent in many Arab-speaking cultures: specifically, those concerning that of jinns, or fire-spirits. Sites around body openings are frequently hennaed, as the images are thought to prevent jinn from entering and possessing a person. Feet are tattooed to prevent these spirits entering the body from the earth, while hands are decorated to protect from the evil eye (a curse or spell placed on someone the caster wishes to acquire something from). Beyond this, mehndi designs on the back are thought to prevent infertility, while those near the breasts or pelvis are placed for reasons of sensuality (popular on the wedding night, for obvious reasons!).
The art of henna painting is particularly significant for pregnant women, who upon entering their seventh month of pregnancy visit accomplished hennayas for a mehndi design that will bring Baraka to their new family, resulting in a speedy, healthy birth and strong children. These women paint their ankles with intricate mehndi designs which are encircled by protective amulets. When the child is born, a mix is made of henna, water and flour to make a paste, which is then applied to the baby’s belly button to bring luck and health to the child. When women are married, as in many other countries (including India and Arabia) women celebrate by having hennayas decorate their hands and feet with mehndi designs. During the spring, a popular time for weddings all over the world it seems, enough henna is transported across Morocco to make a parcel courier faint. Henna parties are also very popular in Morocco: these celebrations are often thrown on the return of the traveler to their home. The Moroccan mehndi design are painted as a gift to show the traveler was well cared for, and also for protective purposes.