The faded pride of Amazigh tattoos

For the indigenous Amazighs of Africa, body art was more than just pictures. They have been a decisive, almost poetic social marker for centuries.

Berber woman wearing ethnic jewelry, Kairouan, Kairouan (Al Qayrawan) governorate, Tunisia. (DeAgostini / Getty Images)

For many native North Africans, the nuances of nostalgia take on a specific form. Indeed, the weight of 3,000 years of history and tradition among the Amazigh people of the region was engraved in its shape and features, whether around the eyes, on the palms or on the forehead, in the form of diamonds. dark on the nose or almost any part of the body. , for centuries.

However, these were not ordinary drawings. Tattoos that so powerfully symbolize the past often reflect nature and reflect life and its strengths, whether in the form of a flower or a fly, a spider or a snake. Far beyond being a means of embellishment, they symbolized the collective memory and the history of a people.

And yet, a practice that embodied all facets of this pre-Arab culture has slowly eroded with the passage of each generation of women who have cultivated this art over the centuries.

According to some sociologists, the tradition faded in the 1970s. Today, only a pocket of suburban villages still practice this practice.

“Amazigh” means “free people” in Tuareg, a variant closely related to other Berber dialects spoken between the tribes. Tamazight is the root language. The Amazigh people live in communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.

Abdelkebir Khatibi, a Moroccan philosopher, literary figure and sociologist who graduated from the Sorbonne who wrote several books on the subject in the 1970s, said tattoos were prevalent among Amazigh women because they served as a strong social marker. The designs helped to differentiate the tribes, as well as the marital status and fertility of some women.

“Besides being an adornment, the tattoos were unique in that they reflected the wonders of the human body,” wrote Khatibi, whose work has been criticized against figures such as Palestinian scholar Edward. Said or the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar. “They are works of art of different intensity.”

The meaning and scale of the designs varied from tribe to tribe. While women sported obvious tattoos on their bodies and faces at first, tattoos have become smaller and smaller and less noticeable over the years.

In this archive photo, a Berber woman from the Ait Haddidu tribe wears her wealth in silver jewelry, French Morocco.

In this archive photo, a Berber woman from the Ait Haddidu tribe wears her wealth in silver jewelry, French Morocco. (Franc & Jean Shor / National Geographic / Getty Images)

Mustafa Qaderi, a Moroccan anthropologist, attributes the virtual extinction of the practice, which is much more widespread in villages than in cities, to urbanization and its discontent.

“In the 1960s, Morocco and Tunisia, for example, Arab politicians sought to eliminate cultural elements specific to indigenous customs,” Qaderi said. TRT.

Ironically, tattoos were strictly prohibited among mainland Christians and Jews, but not among Amazigh Muslims.

Despite this, the Islamist ideology that gripped North Africa in the 1970s and 1980s led many older women to stop engaging in the practice on the premise that the falsification of divine creation is an abomination, according to Qaderi.

For the love of beauty

It is said that the artists who engrave these drawings on their subjects are in a league of their own. They are chosen based on artistry, speed and precision. But beyond the mechanical dimension, these women would be chosen for their mystical abilities to break spells and cure illnesses.

The tattoos, which are free, are drawn with a needle that contains kohl and charcoal ash. The wound is then cleaned with salt water and herbs.

Tattoos are usually drawn around openings, such as the eyes, nose, mouth, belly button, or hands and feet.

Berber woman wearing traditional costumes and ethnic jewelry, Ait Bougmez, Morocco.

Berber woman wearing traditional costumes and ethnic jewelry, Ait Bougmez, Morocco. (DeAgostini / Getty Images)

Puberty and marriage were the milestones that earned Amazigh women their tattoos. In fact, Amazighs in the Rif Mountains of Morocco usually had their daughters tattooed before puberty to let it be known that they were ready for marriage.

According to Sarah Corbett, a writer specializing in ancient culture, the images chosen were symbolic of specific qualities. Where a tree would represent strength, snakes embody healing and bees symbolize endurance.

Likewise, the two lines drawn on the chin represent the duality of good and evil.

Moroccan sociologist Abderrahim El Atri considered tattoos as “motifs to reconstruct the human body”.

“They represent a belief that supernatural energy resides in all things,” El Atri said. TRT.

“Women viewed tattoos as their defining factor in that they made them stand out. Their permanence symbolized a kind of immortality impossible to achieve with removable makeup. It gave women a type of glitter and glamor that nevertheless did not obscure their true beauty and facial features like cosmetics of the modern age. It made them pretty without reducing them to consumerist topics vying for attention or validation.

In Algeria, tattoos were a vital form of self-expression or social status. For example, widowed women got tattoos between their ear and chin.

Facial tattoos, on the other hand, were seen as a protective omen against evil or disease. The latter was characterized by the tattoo “ahjam” or “healing”, which was inscribed with a knife.

Tattoos were by no means limited to women. In fact, men also got tattoos, although the shapes were smaller and more inconspicuous.

According to French anthropologists Tristan Rivière and Jacques Faublee, young men have drawings inscribed on their hands to improve their dexterity when playing musical instruments. Famous tattoos were drawn on the sculptures of the Libyan kings who reigned in Egypt.

Qaderi says that a handful of men in rural Morocco still wear tattoos to this day to strengthen tribal belonging.

Woman with bracelets and necklaces, Berber festival of Matmata, Tunisia.

Woman with bracelets and necklaces, Berber festival of Matmata, Tunisia. (DeAgostini / Getty Images)

The end of the engraving

The tradition inevitably came to an end with the deaths of the elders of the community, whose disappearance symbolized a loss of identity as the art on their bodies mostly told stories from the past.

For Qaderi, the end of this art form is a great loss for Amazigh culture “because tattoos were a simple, but substantial means of enhancing beauty”.

“We’ve officially lost a lot of our aesthetic imagination,” he said.

For his part, El Atri says that while body art across the continent is a form of self-expression, a means of solidifying tribal belonging and identity and a measure of spiritual well-being and status. social, “we now have other ways to tell the world our stories.

El Atri also believes that the death of the practice is an integral part of social evolution.

“With the changes to arbitrary standards of beauty, we now have other ways of celebrating the human body,” he said.

For Amazighs, tattooing is a language that reflects the human mind’s tendency towards perfection and its quest for immortality.

Unlike the modern globalization of cosmetic products which present women only as customers, tattooing for Amazighs was a tradition that draws its tools from nature to beautify human bodies and showcase their true beauty.

Source: TRT World

About Wesley V. Finley

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