The faded pride of Amazigh tattoos

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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. (From Agostini/Getty Images)

For many natives of North Africa, 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 has been etched into shape and features, whether around the eyes, on the palms or forehead, in the form of diamond shapes. dark on the nose or virtually any part of the body. , for centuries.

Yet these were no ordinary drawings. The tattoos that so powerfully symbolize the past often mirror nature and reflect life and its forces, whether in the form of a flower or a fly, a spider or a snake. Far more than 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 engage in this practice.

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

Abdelkebir Khatibi, a Moroccan philosopher, literary figure and Sorbonne-educated sociologist 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 differentiate between tribes, as well as the marital status and fertility of certain women.

“In addition to being an adornment, the tattoos were unique in that they reflected the wonders of the human body,” wrote Khatibi, whose works have been criticized by 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, the tattoos have become smaller and less noticeable over the years.

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

In this file 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 in Morocco and Tunisia, for example, Arab politicians sought to eliminate cultural elements specific to indigenous customs,” Qaderi said. TR.

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

Despite this, the Islamist ideology that took over North Africa in the 1970s and 1980s led many older women to stop engaging in the practice on the assumption that tampering with divine creation is an abomination, according to Qaderi.

For the love of beauty

The artists who engrave these designs on their subjects are said to be in a league of their own. They are chosen based on their artistry, speed and accuracy. But beyond the mechanical dimension, these women would be chosen for their mystical abilities to break spells and cure disease.

The free tattoos are drawn with a needle containing kohl and coal ash. The wound is then cleaned with salt water and herbs.

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

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

Berber woman wearing traditional costume and ethnic jewelry, Ait Bougmez, Morocco. (From Agostini/Getty Images)

Puberty and marriage were the milestones that earned Amazigh women their tattoos. In fact, the Amazighs of the Rif Mountains in 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 symbolized specific qualities. Where a tree would represent strength, snakes would embody healing and bees would symbolize endurance.

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

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

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

“Women saw tattoos as their defining factor in that it set them apart. Their permanence symbolized a kind of immortality that cannot be achieved with removable makeup. It gave women a type of glitz and glamor that nevertheless did not mask their true beauty and facial features like the cosmetics of the modern era. It made them pretty without reducing them to consumer 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 the ear and the chin.

Face tattoos, on the other hand, were considered a protective omen against evil or disease. The latter was characterized by the “ahjam” or “healing” tattoo, 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 discreet.

According to French anthropologists Tristan Rivière and Jacques Faublée, young men had designs engraved on their hands to improve their dexterity when playing a musical instrument. Famous tattoos were drawn on the sculptures of Libyan kings who ruled Egypt.

Qaderi says a handful of men in rural Morocco still sport tattoos to this day to reinforce tribal affiliation.

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

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

The end of the engraving

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

For Qaderi, the end of this art form is a great loss for the Amazigh culture “because tattoos were a simple, yet 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 affiliation 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 changes to arbitrary standards of beauty, we now have other ways to celebrate the human body,” he said.

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

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

Source: World TRT

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