A vertical line with two dots on either side is tattooed on Roqaya L’ghareeb’s forehead. From a distance the blue pattern looks like a cross. The symbol, called cinsla (chain) and thabanat (flies) in the local Arabic dialect, is part of a disappearing tattoo tradition in the rugged Aures Mountains of northeastern Algeria.
“If the first didn’t hurt so much, I would have tattooed my whole body,” Roqaya said. She received the tattoo on her forehead at the age of 12 in the pursuit of beauty. Ornamental tattoos, sometimes found on all parts of the face, were the make-up of the past. The shapes – a sun, a diamond, a palm tree – were all made through small, repeated incisions.
“She who wants to be beautiful, has to be patient,” she said.
Now in her early seventies, a colourful scarf-turned-headband holds back Roqaya’s hennaed hair. Wearing a blue gondora (a traditional dress) and a wool belt tied around her waist, she sits with perfect posture. Roqaya’s elegance is striking in her rural farmhouse surrounded by wheat fields. She has lived here in L’green, a village outside the town of Chemora, all her life.
One common myth about the tattoos says they protected women from French soldiers by making them unattractive in Western eyes.
A life of tending to the farm was hard, she said. “But it was better before. The days were sweeter when we cooked over the fire.”
But as a member of the eldest generation of this Amazigh, or Berber tribe, Roqaya is well aware her traditions are rapidly fading.
The tattooing practice in particular has ceased for more than half a century already, with Roqaya’s generation the last to be tattooed, in the 1930s and 40s. Tattoos have been documented throughout the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years: painted on Egypt’s Tomb of Seti, noted in the writing of pre-Islamic poet Tarafa Ibn Alabd, and in the 1935 anthropological expedition of Winifred Smeaton in Iraq.
In the Aures Mountains, the tattoos were considered enhancers of beauty when applied to the face and had therapeutic and healing purposes – particularly related to fertility – when found elsewhere on the body, such as above the ankle or on the back of the hand. For men, traditional tattoos were far less ornamental and served healing purposes.
Today, tattooed women say Islam’s prohibition of tattooing is the primary reason for the loss of the tradition, along with changing perceptions of beauty and the disappearance of the adasiya, a wandering gypsy tattooist.
But as the tradition fades, the practice and its history are understood, often incorrectly, as part of Algeria’s hostility and resistance to French colonisation. One common myth about the tattoos says they protected women from French soldiers by making them unattractive in Western eyes, and that once the French withdrew, women and their relatives saw no need for the tattoos.
The French myth
French colonisation of Algeria began in 1830, and in 1954 the Algerian war for independence from France began in the Aures Mountains. This event is related with pride among the region’s largely Chaouia population but the war, which ended with Algeria’s independence in 1962, cast a dark shadow. The wounds of colonisation remain today, and the region’s eldest women remember the days of war as all-consuming.
“The only occupation was the war against France,” 80-year-old Duloola Aila recalls.
Known for being protective of their culture, those in the Aures began using their traditions to support the Algerian cause. As active participants in resistance, both Chaouia and Arab women donated their traditional silver jewelry and sewed clothing for soldiers.
Many experienced the tragedies of losing their first husbands in the war and the death of their children due to poverty or lack of access to doctors.
With a rise in Arabic literacy, it became more widely known that tattoos are considered haram, or religiously prohibited, in Islam.
Fear of the French existed but women like Duloola, whose forearm and forehead are tattooed, say the tradition was not intended to make women unattractive. Instead, Duloola was one of many women who covered her face and arms with homoom, soot found on the bottom of the clay tajine used to cook flatbreads.
Smeared with dark ashes to prevent the French from approaching them, she remembered French soldiers asked the women who did this: “You haven’t any soap?”
Still, the myth of the tattoos’ protection of women is not entirely unfounded. When examining the tattoos themselves, a prominent symbol found on the forehead, known as burnous, represents an Algerian soldier’s coat made of animal skin. Another popular symbol, rikab, represents horse stirrups. Both are clearly masculine symbols, referring to Algerian soldiers or powerful men – protectors.
However, it is more likely that these symbols embody a more general preservation, not only of women, but also of the land. With tattoos containing literal depictions of nature such as partridges, gazelles and camels, ties to the environment are abundant, and the Aures has a particular history of defying foreign influences including that of the Romans, the Muslim Arab invasion of Sidi Okba, and finally the French.
A disappearing tradition
The disappearance of traditional tattoos in the Aures is not altogether unrelated to the withdrawal of the French. Only after independence did literacy rates increase among Algerians. With a rise in Arabic literacy specifically, it became more widely known that tattoos are considered haram, or religiously prohibited, in Islam.
But as the tattoos fade from the bodies of women, the tradition has not completely disappeared. It remains in several aspects of the Aures region’s culture, and throughout the indigenous cultures of North Africa. Symbols used in tattooing are also found on dishes and woven into rugs.
Some have taken cultural preservation of the tradition into their own hands. Artists, like Algerian Lazhar Hakkar, incorporate the tattoos in their work. In pieces like “Magie”, “Regard de Nuit XXIV”, and “Khemissa”, tattoos are a clear inspiration, and Hakkar’s paintings have appeared in exhibitions across the world – including in Algeria, the US, Tunisia, Bulgaria, France, Russia, and Spain.
The tradition persists in music, too, as Chaoui singer Aissa Djarmouni’s “Ain El Karma”, originally written in the early 1900s, continues to be popular throughout the Aures. Its enduring lyrics discuss tattooing and their connection to the land in the lines:
The man who makes tattoos will come
To tattoo the back of your hand with flies.
Dot by dot like a baby gazelle
Who grazes in the plain of the Olive River.
Oh Hada my girl, don’t say “I’m scared.”
Although the tradition is culturally maintained, in the near future women in the Aures will no longer bear the tattoos. The tattoos have only persisted because the women carrying them have, and at age 90, Rabaiya Milawi acknowledged that her generation is disappearing.
“We are fading. Our health… our dreams. Everything is fading, young girl,” she said.
Funding for this article was received from the Pulitzer Center.