Tender Headed

Faith Adiele

(USA/Nigeria)


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One afternoon in late June, month two of my artist’s residency, I discover a new way into our corner of Fès el-Bali, the ancient city. For weeks, I’ve retraced the exact path home I was taught—starting at Batha Fountain and noting the open-air cafés packed with men, the red petit taxis, the turn after the newsstand with the soft-serve ice cream machine. Then it’s the names of riads and the shape of the ceramic street signs high on the walls of the world’s largest car-free city.

In time, I branched out to a second route, from Bab Boujloud, the elaborately tiled Moorish gate, blue side facing the city of Fès, green side facing the médina. Once I’m inside the gate, it’s like a videogame: Dodge the dazed tourists and donkey carts. Turn left then right at the BYO-kebab griller. Keep straight past the fresh juice stands and tourist cafés. If you’re lucky, duck into the cutaway alley hidden among the carpet stalls near the honey souk. I often miss this shortcut and end up taking the long way past the beauty purveyors with their glittering bottles of rosewater and prickly pear oil; tubs of beldi soap, the thick black olive paste for the hammam; towering cones of cobalt nila, poppy-bright l’aker fassi, and henna powers; baskets of dried roses and lavender; candy-coloured plastic tubes of colour-changing lip balms.

This new way, a third option, is a busy, commercial tributary connecting the other two routes. And despite the bustle, I see things I’ve not seen before—a huge shade tree erupting from the cobbled walkway, red tiled steps to a hammam I’ve been hearing about, a narrow alley painted with rainbow stripes and covered with art, a barbershop. 

At the sight of the latter, I stop short. Only momentarily inconvenienced, humanity moves on. Women in headscarves and hooded djellabas unlink arms to flow around me as if I were a stone in a stream, then reunite and relink, glancing back over their shoulders. Vendors manoeuvre giant wooden wheelbarrows piled with live snails or prickly pears around me deftly. Playful cats and kids sidestep and scurry past. 

There, through the window of the narrow barbershop, I see young men in tracksuits, jeans, and thobes milling about; others waiting on a bench. The walls above the chair are plastered with posters of Black men sporting line-ups and fades. It could be anywhere—the African barbers I tracked down in Paris and Kigali, the shop I stumbled across in Turku run by Arabs, the Black American barbers who feuded then set up shops directly across the street from each other back home in Oakland. 

After taking it all in, I notice the barber —a brown-skinned youth with a few scraggly dreads crowning his head. My eyes widen.

Every time I leave the residency to meander the medina, I draw shouts of Rasta! Rasta! If it’s morning, I shake my head with a rueful grin. If it’s evening, I roll my eyes and grit my teeth. Occasionally, I shout back: “No Rasta – braids! Africa! African braids!” 

“Heyyy,” the young men reply, simply thrilled to have gotten a response. “Rasta!”

Upon seeing me, the Black barber sprints out of his shop, razor in hand. He halts a few feet before me. Smiling, we face off in the street, oblivious to the client in his chair, me to my walking companion, who it turns out is several yards ahead, equally oblivious. 

I imagine we make quite the pair—the Moroccan man in brown dreads and the Nigerian-Nordic-American woman in golden, almost hip-length microbraids. We appraise each other’s hair, upturned eyes searching hungrily as if we were long-lost cousins. 

“Français? English? Español?” he poses the standard trilingual greeting, not even bothering to inquire about Arabic or Darija.

“English.” 

He nods quickly and offers, “I like your hair.” 

“I’m happy to see you,” I reply, scrunching up my nose and pointing to the unruly new growth sprouting up between these braids that are becoming heavy in the summer heat. “I might need your services soon.”

He grins and turns to head back to the client he abandoned. “Then I’ll see you,” he tosses over his shoulder. “Anytime.”

The other thing people—only young boys, actually—like to shout as I wander the médina is Madame, wrong way! No matter how many times he’s seen me before or how close I am to the artists’ residency, a boy will detach himself from a game of fútbol or tag to run after me. Then, face twisted in an expression of earnestness, he will offer a dire warning that the lane ahead—whichever one it is—is closed. Madame is about to become horribly lost. 

Sometimes I roll my eyes. Sometimes I smirk and say, “Ana min hina,” watching the boy back away grinning: I’m from here. Sometimes I realise that he isn’t offering unsolicited directions at all but is gesturing frantically behind me. And there, curled on the path, is a detached braid, resembling the snake I frequently mistake these runners for on my way to the bathroom at night. 

In the light of day, I can laugh, rather than leap into the air with a shriek. I thank my Good Samaritan and make a show of retrieving the platinum-chestnut-copper coil. I have a collection of them back in the residency preserved in a Ziploc bag. I’m not sure how or if hair extensions can be repurposed, but I know that good Africans don’t throw perfectly good supplies away. Plus these are the most impressive braids I’ve ever had, a literal tie back home to Nigeria. 

*****

Three months ago, you spent spring break in Nigeria visiting your fully Nigerian in-laws and half-siblings. It had been over a decade since you were last there, and it was time that your nieces and nephews knew their American auntie. At the end of your stay, sufficiently outfitted with Ankara pant suits and boubous and up-and-downs your sister and sisters-in-law had sewn for you, you decided to get braids. 

As with tailoring, braiding is a labour-intensive practice prohibitively expensive in the USA. You rarely get braids and having been raised by a white mother, you don’t know the terminology when you do. Once a friend recommended someone, you perused Instagram for styles to forward to the stylist’s WhatsApp.

The braider arrived at your sister-in-law’s house with three bags of synthetic hair, a pink child’s backpack stuffed with food and diapers, a female companion of indeterminate purpose, and a toddler in wispy cornrows and small gold hoop earrings. 

Upon seeing you, the child froze mid-crouch in the courtyard, rosebud mouth ajar. Her eyes—satiny pools of brown—turned saucer-sized at the sight of your relatively pale skin and obvious Americanness. This was going to take some time. You’d already given away all the American toys and games you’d brought. All you had left was peekaboo and an expressive face. 

You settled onto the kitchen chair the house girl dragged out the courtyard, put up your feet, and pulled out a book. You’ve never been “tender headed” as they call it in Black America; in fact, your itchy scalp relishes the tug and twist as notoriously rough African braiders comb and rubber-band your hair into tight sections. Often your hair makes them rougher, muttering about how its “whiteness” renders it soft and slippery to work. 

What you’d negotiated was a huge job—requiring her first to separate strands of platinum, copper, and bronze hair from the three different packets and then to gather them together in equal bunches to braid with yours. You also wanted a distinctive scalp design, and she wielded the tail of the comb like a draughtsman, planning out angles before combing the hair into perfect triangles and stars. 

The apprentice/friend/babysitter/bodyguard alternated between amusing the bright-eyed toddler and leaning over your shoulder to watch the mother dab quick dollops of conditioner to hold the design then weave your downy curls into scratchy synthetic. 

For the entire day, sunup to sundown, the trio of strangers became part of your household, their fingers in your hair or angling your chin. You felt their warm breath on your neck and shoulders, chafed at the tight, stiff braids scratching through your T-shirt. 

The braider’s child, with her smooth nut-brown face, became everyone’s child. When the girl was hungry, your sister-in-law scooped her onto her lap and told the house girl to boil water for ogi, the fermented corn custard your people call akamu. When she was restless, she and your brother-in-law strolled hand in hand around the courtyard. As the sun heated up, she began to shed clothes, first her pink-and-brown shorts, eventually her flowered top.

As the sun set, the heat giving way to mosquitoes who set to work on your ankles and inner arms, muezzin and evangelical pastors hit the loudspeakers to call for souls. The cul-de-sac vibrated with men’s amplified voices. The gall and urgency of such liberty-taking was both annoying and touching. You gave up on the book, closing your eyes and leaning back as the braider massaged mousse into your scalp. You imagined yourself floating up to the spires until the heaviness on your neck and shoulders brought you back to earth. How were you going to manage so much hair, both the thickness and the length?  

By the time the massive crown was installed, and the braider had razored the ends of the braids and dipped them in hot water to seal and was circling you with her phone, filming for her TikTok channel, her child was yours too, playing peekaboo through the grate. Your students on Zoom heard you shriek as the formerly shy child clawed her way, naked and dripping a yellow custard-beard, into your lap. 

The compliments began immediately, starting in-country from other Nigerian women (experts!) and never stopped. When you left for Morocco in mid-May, you weren’t ready to take them out. But then in July, summer arrived to Fès and with it, temperatures of 113 Fahrenheit (45 Celsius). The braids clung like an animal pelt to the back of your head and neck. If you piled them atop your head, your neck cramped from the weight. In the evening, the itching drove you mad.

*****

Two days into a July heatwave, I’ve had enough. I stagger out of the residency, accompanied by shouts of Rasta!, and make the short, miserable trudge up Talaa Sghira, one of two main thoroughfares. Upon reaching the Black barbershop, I march inside, too hot to be shy. Before I can lose my nerve, I throw myself onto the bench and snap open an Ankara fabric fan. 

The few male clientele greet me politely, trying to act casual to have a woman, and a foreign one at that, in their midst. The barber gives me the universal Black chin nod. But when my turn comes, his English doesn’t seem as good as I remember. 

Several clients pitch in, explaining my request to have the bottom and sides of my head shaved. 

“But it will cut off the dreads,” he protests. Perhaps it’s not a question of language after all. 

I explain that I don’t care. It’s too much hair and I’m hot. I point to the glossy posters of men wearing fades. “I usually wear my back and sides like this.” 

Moroccan women, on the other hand, wear their hair long—wavy or curly down their backs—or tucked carefully into headscarves for private viewing. The médina is filled with artisans grinding aromatic Argan nuts into coveted hair oil and stalls offering bricks and cones of rhassoul hair clay. For all I know, the barber has never seen a shaved woman. 

I take out my phone and swipe through photos of me in barbershops around the world—shaved sides with braids, shaved sides with blonde Mohawk, shaved sides with maroon Afro-puffs. One of the clients delicately lifts the phone from my hand and passes it around to the other men, murmuring. 

“But the dreads,” the barber protests again. 

“These are braids. From Nigeria.” I point to his spiky crown. “Those are dreads.” 

“Really?” He cocks his head and lifts one of my braids to inspect it. “We call these dreads.”

I assure him that these are extensions, not my own hair. He won’t be undoing years of hair growth and spiritual devotion. 

He nods and fastens the paper collar and plastic poncho around me. He wriggles his fingers up my scalp and under the woven mesh of braids. After two months without touch, my hungry scalp tingles. A constellation of electricity travels down my neck, across my shoulders, along my spine. 

“From America?” he murmurs. The question is usually followed by a joyful, “America, lovely people! You are most welcome to Morocco.”

Head buzzing, I explain that my late father was from Nigeria and my mother is American, by way of Finland and Sweden. I hold my breath, hoping he’ll share the origins of his Blackness. 

He explains that he is “Amazigh, from the south.” Amazigh (“free people”) is the term we’ve been encouraged to use for the Maghreb’s nomadic ethnic groups rather than the now-derogatory Bedouin (“desert dweller”) or Berber (“non-Arab”). But invariably, someone from another nomadic group protests, “No, not Amazigh!” 

“Me, as well,” pipes up his friend, who looks white. “I’m Amazigh too.”

Within minutes the friend has several young men clustered around me, each holding up a thick drape of braids as if they were courtiers stationed around the queen’s train. “Do you work here?” I ask, and the friend laughs. No; he just stopped by to chat. And of course, to help.

Backed by the sounds of Moroccan hip-hop and the buzz of the razor, beneath the watchful gaze of passers-by drawn to the unlikely sight of a woman in a barber shop, hair not only on display but held lovingly by strange men, the barber manoeuvres the razor in a jagged line around the sides and back of my head. 

Not long after, at the end of July, I head south to Essaouira, a coastal fishing village turned tourist beach destination that I discovered on Instagram. I’ve since learned that it’s famous for argan oil and Gnawa, the popular spiritual music named for the sub-Saharan Africans who influenced and performed it. A colleague from the USA is spending the month in a nearby village, so I take the train to Marrakech, then catch a bus, which dumps me outside the historic médina walls. 

Upon my first glance, I find the medina disappointing—small, rundown, and heavily touristed. Entertainers in animal costumes roam a plaza crammed with tourist cafés; touts wave restaurant menus; everyone appears to be on the make. And yet tourists and Moroccans alike rave about Essaouira’s spiritual vibe. It’s in the air! they declare. 

What it does have going for it is location, location, location. Picturesque 18th-century ramparts edge the sea, while windsurfers, kite surfers, and traditional surfers bob offshore. Music fills the streets. Trade winds keep things cool. 

I start to notice an Africanness I haven’t observed anywhere else in Morocco. Shops, restaurants, and hotels display Ghanaian adinkra symbols, Congolese masks, Fulani wedding blankets, colourful Senegalese patchwork clothing inspired by Baye Fall

On my way to watch the legendary sunset on the Instagrammable rooftop patio that drew me in the first place, I pass an African café covered with bright, geometric Ndebele wall paintings. 

On my way to the market, I pass a row of African women spaced out in plastic chairs beneath majestic palm trees. At their feet sit laminated menus with pictures of braid styles and spools of neon-coloured yarn for weaving into Caucasian hair. 

Grinning, I speed back to my room perched over the rugged Atlantic to unearth my Ziploc baggie of braids. I text my friend to ask the lay of the land, and she tells me not to bother. According to a Black American expat group on Facebook, there’s an actual braiding salon in town! 

I decide to devote an entire day to self-care. I’ve been sitting at my desk writing for months, after all, and I’ve got dirham from my teaching to spend. Plus, I’ve been dragging heavy luggage around the last two weeks (though to be honest, whenever I’m visibly struggling, some Moroccan man will grab one or both suitcases and walk them out to the curb / load them into a taxi / carry them upstairs, before declaring, “Americans, lovely people! You are most welcome to my Morocco!”). 

My friend gives me the number to a spa-style hammam, the fancy kind where you make an appointment and arrive on time. The kind where they provide slippers, a Turkish cotton bathrobe, and filtered water. The kind where they provide an attendant to bathe and scrub you on a marble dais and send you home with a kessa mitt and a mini-tub of eucalyptus-scented black soap paste. 

Unlike the public hammam in Fès el-Bali, where for mere change, you can sweat it out next to your neighbour and when the time comes, use your own mitt and soap to scrub each other’s backs. Where a friend once saw a frail, elderly woman, whom in the USA I would have clocked as unhoused, teeter in and be washed, scrubbed, and rinsed by two attendants who helped her dress, then sent her on her way, money never exchanging hands. 

I don’t love the pricey hammam; the attendant doesn’t feel very attentive and leaves me to chill in a dim, marble room. I complain, bringing up the warm intimacy of the public hammam at one-tenth the price. I am standing naked, gesticulating, in a room full of women in a country where I’ve been covering my shoulders and wearing flowing, ankle-length skirts for two months.

This female space reminds me of our farewell party in Fès. After a group dinner at a restaurant in Ville Nouvelle, the new part of town constructed by the French in the early 20th century for foreigners and affluent Moroccans, the women repaired to someone’s apartment for mehndi and dessert. The hostess sent her husband and children to her in-laws and filled her salon with platters of cookies and sweets. The artist arrived, henna power already mixed and loaded into a syringe, and proceeded to tattoo everyone’s palms and hands. 

It was a lovely evening, my European co-resident artist, the American sponsors, the Moroccan host and artist, the young Moroccan interns, all laughing and tugging at each other’s hands to marvel at the flowers and swirls and arabesques turning deep red. I noticed that, though we were all female, our hostess kept her blazer on, and her headscarf tucked tightly around her face, possibly because I’m prone to capturing life with my camera phone, Instagram just one click away. 

The fancy spa masseuse promises to make up for the disappointing hammam and makes good on her word. She pours ribbons of warm water through what remains of my braids, loosening my tight scalp. As I melt beneath her oiled fingers, it feels like the opposite of my everyday life. In the USA, I’m constantly throwing up my arms like Wonder Woman deploying the Bracelets of Submission to block some white woman from grabbing or petting my hair without permission. “Nope, nope!” I have to say, as if training a child. 

The fancy spa masseuse wraps me in a towel and dries me off like a baby before starting the massage. “Up!” she directs. “No, other-up!” She slaps the marble slab to illustrate. “My English very bad.”

“My Darija very very bad,” I reply.

She giggles, and we communicate just fine. 

After my massage, I Google-map my way to the hair salon, a small storefront on the corner right next to a popular tourist breakfast spot. The walls are hung with packets of synthetic hair and papered with pages torn from magazines of Black women’s hairstyles. The small room is packed, Africans working the chairs on the left, Moroccan clients sprawled on a couch on the right. Only a few are getting braids; the rest seem to be here for manicures.

Madame, a young woman with platinum blonde curls, looks up from a nail station in the back and gives the chin tilt to the only man in the room. 

He jumps up, hands on the shiny fanny pack at his waist: the money man. “Ça va?” he greets me politely.

I hesitate in the doorway, as I do in every Black salon and barbershop, my mixed-girl-raised-by-white folks imposter syndrome thing kicking in, then nod. “Ça va, merci.”

He indicates that I should sit at the last salon station. “Français? Anglais?”

“Anglais, s’il vous plaît.” I sit down, and pull out the Ziploc bag, which ignites a fury. He and Madame each pull out a plait and inspect it, muttering disapproval. The young braiders stop their work and crane their necks to see. 

“You want me to use these?” The madame demands. “It will take too long to unplait them, then reattach.” She gives a fluid sweep of her arm, indicating the wall above her. “Better to choose a new hair.”

The bags of hair look cheap and terribly synthetic, like packaged cotton candy at a travelling carnival. 

Seeing me waver, she flips up the nail counter, comes out from behind, and stalks over to my chair. “No, no, no.” She roots through my hair, disparaging whomever did my braids: The hair is starting to dread and pull, I will soon be bald, I’ve kept them for too long (imagine, four months now!), they’re too heavy, she herself would never do such shoddy work, her braids are soft and light, good for the real hair, God only knows where this work was done. 

“Hey!” I protest weakly, “Nigeria is expert at…” 

“Nigeria!” she shrieks indignantly. 

Not wanting to hear what my countrymen have done this time, I tune out. Once she calms down, we begin the process of negotiating the price to remove the remaining extensions and add a new set. Upon seeing my interest in a pack of black, grey, and white ombre hair, she produces a pair of scissors from thin air and starts chopping my braids. 

I let out a shriek of outraged surprise, and the room bursts into raucous laughter. 

“They’re dead,” she explains calmly. “We must save your hair.” 

She, fanny-pack man, and a young, ripe-smelling woman start to unravel the strands left behind after the chop. After half of my real hair is revealed—brittle and blonde with dark roots—she quickly plaits a new braid. 

I can’t even feel the extension, it’s featherlight. I nod approval, and now that I’m stuck—half my hair chopped away, half unravelled, several new braids—the three of them return to their previous jobs: braiding, doing nails, counting money. They can now ignore me for hours. Where am I going to go? 

*****

At some point you will snap out your stupor at the sound of crying. A Moroccan preteen in the chair next to you is full-on sobbing, tears rolling down a face scrunched in pain. Mouth grim, the braider soldiers on. Her mother and sisters watch from the couch. The older sister catches your eye and smirks; her hair is already braided. The younger sister tries not to look panicked. The mother smiles gently. The other women in the salon chuckle quietly to themselves. This one must be tender headed. 

At another point you will hear shouting. A party girl from Marrakech who’d been getting long, fine, golden braids like the ones you’ve just given up is complaining about the price. After gazing at herself in the mirror and accepting compliments, she loudly declares her dissatisfaction and her refusal to pay. 

“Mal comporté!” Two well-dressed, forty-something women on the sofa express disapproval. One looks Moroccan, with a dark bun framing a long face, the other looks French, with olive skin and blonde hair. 

Later that night, you will see the girlwithout braidsat a nightclub. She leaves her friends to scurry across the dancefloor and kiss you on both cheeks. “What happened to your braids?” you’ll ask, and she’ll explain that she didn’t like them so took them out. 

After four hours of work! you think to yourself.

At one point you will glance up into the mirror to see the French woman standing behind you. She’s playing assistant to the ripe-smelling girl braiding your hair, handing her pinches of synthetic salt-and-pepper hair. 

“Wait, aren’t you a client?” you ask. 

She will shrug, very on-brand French. “Alors,” she’ll say, “but I’m not doing anything, and the sooner they finish with you, the sooner they get to me.”

At another point her friend, the gregarious Moroccan woman, will step in. After engaging you in conversation, she announces to the couch audience that you are a travel writer. 

Ahhh, the couch audience will respond in a single breath.

You will pull out your phone and hold up your latest column—a story about Morocco’s only boutique hotel owned by an African woman in nearby Marrakech. 

“Oh, I know her!” She takes your phone and peers at the photographs. “She begged me to come work for her.”

You laugh. In your world, everyone is connected to everyone. 

Her French friend turns from the nail station and gestures with her lips and chin. “Regardez,” she will whisper. “She’s crying.”

Madame will duck behind the station, wiping her eyes. Moments later she sits up and gives a laugh. She lets loose a barrage of French, and the woman holding your phone reports, “She says you should tell her story, how she came here.”

“Her immigration story?” you clarify, your heart skipping a beat. 

Madame will overhear and nod. “From Chad,” she says. “I went through too many things.”

As your hair finishes completion, Madame will take over to make the finishing touches. You’ll appreciate her fast, expert fingers and lack of body odour. “I want to stay in touch,” she will declare. “Can we Facebook or WhatsApp?”

“Of course.” You’re dying to hear her story.

She explains that everyone who works in the salon is from a different Francophone country. Together they’ve created a mini-Africa in a corner salon of a sleepy tourist town that once was a major commercial port between Africa and Europe. 

“Faith, we’re waiting for you,” the Moroccan woman will call out while her French friend, who turns out to be half Algerian, admires her newly polished fingers. “We’re doing sunset on the rooftop of where I work, then dinner.” 

She will name the hotel with the Instagram feed that drew you to Essaouira in the first place, and you will laugh and nod. “Yes, my friends. I’m coming.”

Faith Adiele

is a

Senior Editor for Panorama.

Faith Adiele founded the USA’s first writing workshop for travelers of color through VONA and is the first columnist for DETOUR: Best Stories in Black Travel and a senior editor at PANORAMA: THE JOURNAL OF TRAVEL, PLACE, AND NATURE. Her award-winning memoir MEETING FAITH routinely makes travel listicles, and her travel media credits include A WORLD OF CALM (HBO-Max), Sleep Stories (CALM app), and MY JOURNEY HOME (PBS). A member of the Black Travel Alliance and Airheart Explorer Series, she teaches travel writing around the world, including TRAVELCON. A media expert in mindful, decolonial and BIPOC travel, she publishes in UNDOMESTICATED, HERE MAGAZINE, OFF ASSIGNMENT, BEST WOMEN’S TRAVEL WRITING, MIAMI HERALD, OPRAH MAGAZINE, ESSENCE, and others.

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