I felt a tug on my scalp as I put down my glass of mint tea and rose to return to the din of the Moroccan medina. I turned to see what my hair caught on. My long brown braids hung to the middle of my back, and tangled or tethered just about anywhere. But instead of a snag, I saw a woman’s hand grasping three inches of my hair.
Her small, wrinkled hand released all of the braids except one. She held the braid and quietly rolled it between her fingers like a cigarette.
Safiya, an Amazigh woman and grandmother, lived outside the medina in Marrakech. Although she’d seen faces from sub-Saharan Africa, she’d never been close enough to examine their locks.
She stared at my hair then looked up, her brow furrowed and eyes narrowed. I recognized the curiosity and questions in her face. It’s the same face my classmates wore the first time I rocked afro puffs to school. In an odd way, being a minority at home prepares you for the otherness of being a traveler.
The mul l-Hanut, who kept the jewelry shop we stood in, translated her question. “She asked, ‘Is this your hair?’ She wants to know how you do this to your hair.”
His cheerful tone momentarily betrayed the complexity of the question. I sat back down and exhaled, noticing the silver rings and bracelets twinkling in the fading sunlight. The story of my hair, of black women’s hair, is long and nuanced. I wondered how to convey that in a brief conversation. Would the answer get lost in translation?
I couldn’t immediately share the decades-long struggle it took for me to love and cherish my hair. Nor could I explain that my hair symbolizes my own black girl magic.
Instead, I simply said, “Yes, it’s my hair. I braid it myself. Here, I can show you how.”
I unfurled half the length of a braid, showing how I grip the strands of hair. Safiya leaned in to watch my hands at work. I folded strand over strand showing the pattern of the plait. I thought, I’m sharing something new and novel with an old woman.
But while in Morocco, I realized my braids weren’t new at all, but old. Very old. Safiya’s ancestors the Imazighen, also known as Berbers, are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. Like many African tribes, the Imazighen have traditions of hair braiding and adornment. Later when I researched online I found image after image of regal Imazighen women draped in elaborate jewelry and crowns of braids.
Suddenly, I felt at home. My beauty. My magic. My hair. This is where it originated. In Morocco, and in Africa, my hair was no foreign object.