Searching The Souk For The Hand Of Fatima

Bien sûr, j'ai une main de Fatima pour vous. Venez,” said the young man as he motioned us to follow him. We’d been searching for a Hand of Fatima door ornament in the Fez medina for a few days and we remained hopeful as we followed him through several narrow, shady alleys. It takes no more than ten seconds to get completely and utterly lost in the medina, so I carefully noted landmarks along the way: wood scaffolding holding up an archway, powerful stench of urine down a dead-end alley, woman breastfeeding in front of her home. We arrived at the shop and a man showed us a 3-fingered hand of Fatima, unfortunately not the 5-fingered one that we’d admired on several Fes doors in the medina. Our search would have to continue.

The Hand of Fatima is a flat, decorative iron or brass door ornament and it’s thought that the stylized open hand is a good luck charm and wards off the evil eye. It is also known as Khamsa, which is Arabic for five, referring to the number of fingers of the hand. Archaeological evidence suggests that a downward pointing Khamsa has been used as a protective amulet in the North African region prior to its use by Muslims and Jews. It is also thought to have been associated with Tanit, the supreme deity of the Phoenician client state of Carthage (present day Tunisia), whose hand was used to ward off the evil eye.

Fatima herself was the youngest daughter of the Prophet Mohammed and Muslims regard her as a loving daughter, mother and wife as well as a role model for all Muslim women. Because of her moral purity she is to Islam what the Virgin Mary is to Christianity and she is commonly referred to as “az-Zahra” which means “The Shining One.”

On one of our many rambles through the medina, we passed a Hand of Fatima adorning a large thick cedar door and I made the casual comment “We should get one of those.” For the next few days this idle statement became a quest and we did not leave a shop without asking about a Hand of Fatima. My wife and daughter love nothing better than to spend hours shopping in souks, comparing features, benefits and prices. They enjoy the hunt as much as the prize. My daughter's occasional nickname is "Soukie", a reflection of her enthusiasm for Middle Eastern and North African markets and bazaars. My son and I have a much shorter attention span and we will tire out after about an hour, so the driving force behind this particular quest was the female side of the family. The last couple days in Fes, they asked in dozens of places, but had no luck. I was skeptical.

When my son and I gave up the hunt and retreated to our cool massreiya apartment, the girls continued their mission. On our last full day in Fes, they returned to a shop where they had already purchased glass perfume sprinklers (to be used as oil and vinegar cruets). Realizing that they had not yet asked this particular shopkeeper, they inquired and he ran off saying “Une minute.” He came back shortly with a five fingered Hand of Fatima that was half the cost (after a little bargaining) of the three-fingered one referred to above. When they walked into our massreiya, they couldn't conceal their smiles as they showed off the fruit of their labors. It was a win-win situation; we got to relax in our nice apartment and they had the thrill of the chase...and we all got our Hand of Fatima.

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