The opening scenes of Karima: A Day In The Life of a Henna Girl feature close-ups of her beautiful henna’d hands. We see the face of the girl in question only after we’ve seen her pull a red-and-white striped djellaba over her head, after she’s pulled on her black and white polka-dotted socks, and after she slips on a pair of babouches. And then, finally, the camera pans up to her face. Even then, we can see only her eyes as she adjusts her black niqab and a hot pink headscarf. A few minutes later, she’s hopped onto a bike and the camera follows Karima and her friends as they navigate the narrow alleyways of Marrakesh, Morocco. Their final destination is the massive marketplace, Jema’a El Fena, where Karima will set up shop with her colleague Anouar and henna the hands of tourists and patrons walking through the famous square.
Karima, directed by the famed Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj, premiered last week to a packed theatre at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Hajjaj attended the debut of the documentary flanked by Karima herself. He’s been working in the art and music industries for over two decades, but when his photo series profiling the female bikers of Morocco (‘Kesh Angels) debuted in 2014, his work became internationally recognizable, celebrated by the New York Times and The Guardian and also by fervent online audiences. I first came across his portraits of Moroccan Muslim women dressed in brightly colored djellabas and niqabs, sitting astride motorcycles and set against vibrantly patterned backgrounds while scrolling through Tumblr. In one photo, the women wear djellabas and niqabs emblazoned with the Nike logo. In another, their dresses were army camo, and their Moroccan babouche slippers were rendered in the iconic brown Louis Vuitton lettering. In all the photos, the women seem to stare with defiance at the camera, projecting an unspoken challenge to the lens. These portraits demanded to be reblogged. They were, as The New York Times called them, “dazzling.”
Two photos from the ‘Kesh Angels series, as seen at the Taymour Grahne Gallery.
What was the subject of Hajjaj’s ‘Kesh Angels? Was it the women or was it the veils? His portraits were less about people than they were about the collection of symbols, and what they meant when they were overlayed with each other. In fact, Hajjaj designed all the clothes featured in the photographs, including the babouches. These images weren’t so much about authentic representation as they were about countering other representations. He began the project, he says, after working on a photoshoot in Marrakesh that featured non-Moroccan models and Western clothes. “I want to show that that Arab women are not passive, and that they can ride bikes,” Hajjaj told White Wall Mag last year. “I want to address the misunderstanding of Arab women by journalists who misconstrue them because of religion.”
It’s this intent that explains, partly, why Hajjaj’s work has become so popular in the past few years. His photos and, now, film centering on veiled women constitute a response to the representations of Muslim women that currently saturate news reports and Hollywood films and TV shows. The kinds of representations, for example, which inspire comparisons of Muslim women to actual garbage bags. The kinds of representations that compel governments to implement hijab bans. The kinds of representations that provoke violent attacks upon the bodies of covered Muslim women.
These Muslim women are not like those Muslim women, Hajjaj’s images say. These Muslim women are depoliticized and decontextualized, the veiled Muslim woman made palatable to a Western audience. She wears Nike symbols just like you. She rides a motorbike. And she doesn’t look like she’s going to be strapping a bomb onto her chest any time soon. When introduced to the Western imagination, her hijab becomes a signifier for the traditional and the provincial. The logos she bears on her clothing become the signifiers of modernity and globalization. The rigid binary between these two concepts means that when they are combined together, they constitute a contradiction. And it’s the assumed tension between them that fascinates the Western art world. A gallery spokesperson said as much to the IBI Times, when explaining Hajjaj’s work: “His confident, upbeat portraits of young women wearing veils and djellabah while posing on motorcycles subvert preconceived notions of Arab women. His subjects are traditionally clad but defiantly modern, bearing bright smiles and the markers of youth, independence, celebration, and fun.”
Karima is the cinematic manifestation of this idea. While the film is marketed as a documentary, Hajjaj’s stylistic hand is evident in the staging of the shots and the arrangement of the props. In a Q&A session, he even admits to providing Karima with his signature babouches, a pair decorated with multilingual scripts. Hajjaj also invited his friend Meriem to participate in the scenes as a customer.
Karima covers a customer’s hands with an intricate henna design.
The film spends long days with Karima as she sits in the middle of the square with a syringe of henna, enticing passersby with a laminated book of designs. She doesn’t speak much, except when conversing with customers. Meriem is the first patron, a young Moroccan woman who arrives at Karima’s seat wearing “Western” clothes—a leather jacket, a sweater, a neckscarf and pants. Meriem asks her why she veils her face. Karima tells her it’s to protect her skin from the sun.
This exchange, as innocuous as it appears, is important to the demystification process that Hajjaj is facilitating through his circulation of these images. Karima professes no religious justification for the veil; her reasoning is merely practical, utilitarian. And in fact, when Karima herself appeared alongside Hajjaj at the LACMA screening, her head was uncovered. The act instigates a more fluid, nuanced understanding of how Muslim women relate to their headcoverings than we often seen in media. She is controlling, very precisely, the image she projects to the world.
Just like the veil is a weighty symbol, so are the motorcycles of Kesh Angels. In the photo series, the motorcycles are meant to invoke a sense of exciting recklessness, independence, and rebellion that’s not usually associated with Arab women. But in reality, the motorcycles don’t represent rebellion in Marrakesh—they’re merely practical in a city whose narrow streets and alleyways are difficult to traverse with a car. You can see others riding motorcycles on the streets and in the squares, just as you can see other Moroccan women, in the periphery of the camera’s frame, dressed in the same colorful djellabas as Karima and her posse of henna girls. This is what normal looks like in Morocco. But when the camera lands on a carefree Muslim girl, all normality is rendered exceptional.
Watch the trailer for Karima: A Day In The Life of a Henna Girl:
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Tasbeeh Herwees is a freelance writer, journalist, and carefree Muslim girl based in Los Angeles, CA.