In ancient Amazigh culture, tattoos are one of the many ways people celebrate their rich North African tribal history.
When crossing traditionally Amazigh areas in North Africa, you may encounter road signs written in the Amazigh language. Amazigh symbols are easily identifiable, however, to the untrained eye they may just look like simple line drawings with randomly placed dots and dashes. The best way to tell if you’ve reached an Amazigh utopia is to find a group of older women adorned with geometric face tattoos.
Why just old people, you ask? Like many indigenous cultures around the world, the Amazigh culture is fading into the background of the rapidly developing countries of North Africa – and its supposedly permanent tattoos are fading with it.
“Tattoos in Amazigh cultures have been incredibly important. For women, they had spiritual and healing abilities, often related to fertility. It is also said that many women adorned themselves with facial tattoos when the French colonized North Africa, making them ‘unattractive’ to the lustful eyes of French soldiers”
Tattoos in Amazigh cultures have been incredibly important. For women, they had spiritual and healing abilities, often related to fertility. Many women are also said to have adorned themselves with facial tattoos when the French colonized North Africa, making them “unattractive” to the lustful eyes of French soldiers.
Ironically, some women appreciated tattoos simply because of their beauty. Tattoos on men were generally more functional and “served for healing purposes”, although men’s skin was usually left undecorated.
This isn’t just disappointing news for tattoo lovers. It symbolizes the closing of doors to a rich but poorly documented world, a world where low literacy rates were complemented by art that told stories passed down from generation to generation.
Several factors contribute to the decrease in the number of Amazigh facial tattoos. The most important is undoubtedly the popularization of Islam in the Amazigh communities. Indigenous Amazigh languages began to spread in North Africa around 2000 BCE. It was more than 2,500 years later that Islam was introduced and spread to all regions.
But the modern Islamization of countries like Morocco only happened much later. In 1979, after the Iranian revolution, Middle Easterners influenced by the conservative Muslim Salafist branch began to roam Morocco, teaching and converting communities to the orthodox and traditionalist Islamic sect.
Tattoos were considered haram and prohibited, and women were strongly encouraged to wear the hijab. These new religious regulations transformed what Islam looked like to Amazighs in Morocco. Before, the two cultures could live and prosper simultaneously. Now the Amazighs had to choose a side.
Like Morocco, Algeria lives with its latest generation of tattooed Amazigh women. The rise of Islamic rhetoric is also held responsible for the disappearance of facial tattoos in Amazigh-Algeria. As more and more Algerians began to read and understand Arabic, tattoos became generally considered haram.
Social pressures have also pushed tattoos back. Moroccan culture despises body modification. While older women with Amazigh face tattoos are respected and seen as gentle reminders of the old world, younger women are strongly discouraged from getting tattoos of any kind, especially on the face.
Nationalism and the importance of belonging to a country – and not to a small 4,000-year-old community – have disintegrated Amazigh culture and traditions. Today, the Imazighens of today are not only Amazighs, they are also Moroccans, Algerians, etc. The natural desire to belong has slowly driven younger Amazigh generations to immerse themselves in their country’s dominant nationalist traditions and sentiments, leaving their roots in a dark corner to fend for themselves.
In reality, the values and ideologies of Amazigh life could not be more relevant today. Along with language and kinship, “the centrality of the land” is one of the most important values that have gone through the Islamization and nationalization of regions of Amazigh origin.
The Amazigh land and nature do more than provide food, water and shelter. The tall palm trees and jagged mountains serve to physically and metaphorically protect what little Amazigh culture they have left.
In a world full of congested streets and polluted atmospheres, the heartfelt respect the Amazigh have for their land is truly heartwarming. They were able to maintain the fertility of the soil and the flow of the rivers for generations. Hopefully recent environmental developments don’t punish those who have worked so hard to preserve their precious cultural oases.
Looking at the soft, wrinkled face of an old Amazigh woman, it’s hard not to get a little sentimental. His eyes are kind. The tattoos running down her forehead and chin have become faded and undefined, but they are still undeniably striking.
In the West, face tattoos are considered scary and intense, but hers are uplifting. They tell the story of a young woman drawn into a world that no longer justifies the symbols that made her fertile, protected and beautiful in a time of colonization, Islamization and urbanization.
How must she feel knowing that her children and grandchildren cannot, will not be, marked with the same lines, dots and dashes that have given her so much strength during this difficult time?
Yasmina Achlim is a Moroccan-American freelance writer who loves good vegan food, living mindfully, and dressing sustainably.