Middle Eastern and North African Facial Tattoos

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(Libyan woman with forehead and chin tattoos from Cyrenaica, circa 1925)

I met an older Algerian woman who was sharing some anecdotes of life in Algeria as a child. Being the history addict that I am, I had vintage pictures of Algerian women with tattoos on their face saved on my phone. I showed them to her and asked if she knew why facial tattoos seemed to be common in North Africa. I couldn’t find much information online about the tattoos except that they were marks of beauty, marriage status, tribal allegiance or to ward off the evil eye, but she told me Algerians did it out of necessity, not cultural tradition.

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(Older Algerian woman with facial tattoos. (Pulitzer Center))

The reason some Algerian women had tattoos was a sad result of French colonization: the French used to kidnap young Algerian girls. To recognize their kidnapped daughters when looking for them, parents would tattoo the symbols of the specific tribe or family onto their daughter’s face. Another reason was that families hoped by tattooing their daughters’ faces, the French would find them unattractive and it would serve to prevent their abduction. A few boys were also tattooed on one of their hands to identify them in the case that they were kidnapped as well.

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(Amazigh woman from Tiznit, Morocco, date unknown. (Ajdad Al Arab))

With my curiosity growing, I soon learned that women of the Levant had tattooed their faces as well. My friend‘s paternal grandmother, Noor El-Huda, was a Bedouin of the Tayaha tribe of Beer El-Sabe’, Palestine. Though her birth is not recorded, she was likely born around 1930. She was widowed as a teenager after the birth of her first son, but quickly remarried. Today she is a mother to six, grandmother to thirty-six, and great-grandmother to over fifty children. Also, I’ve come to know that falahi (villager) women of Horan, Syria used to have facial tattoos as a common practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s. According to a friend, his Horani grandmother, Hajjah, had simple tattoos of dots around her lips and chin. Hajjah was born around 1910 and fell in love with a man of an adjacent neighborhood, but he was forbidden to enter her village for many years. So, he kidnapped her and took her to the neighboring mosque to have their marriage papers signed.

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(48 Refugee‘s Bedouin grandmother. Gaza, Palestine, 2012.)

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(Tattooed Bedouin woman of Alkarak, Jordan, 1907. (Ajdad Al Arab))

With what little information I came across, I discovered that the tattoos were done by pricking the skin with henna which is usually a temporary dye on the surface of the skin; however, by inserting it into the flesh, it becomes permanent. Placing kohl into the small wound would make the tattoo become green and using indigo dye would cause it to become blue. The tattoos can be found on the hands as well, especially on the top of fingers. Due to some of the pagan beliefs in the Middle East and North Africa, tattooing was thought to bring the satisfaction of the gods (Morocco: History and Civilzation). Only seeing senior women with tattoos, I had believed the tradition had completely gone extinct due to monotheistic Islamic revival in the region and its forbidding of bodily tattoos until I came across the picture below taken in Mali in 2009:

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(Young Tuareg woman with facial tattoos. Gao, Mali, 2009. (Georges Courreges))

UPDATE: 

After receiving some generous input from one of Beyond Compromise’s readers I would like to share it here as well. It was based on my limited research that brought me to the understanding that Algerian tattoos were a response to French colonization of Algeria. However, after our reader spoke to his mother, he learned this was not entirely the case. His grandmother in particular has the Amazigh character for the letter “T” given to her by other girls when she was young as was the norm. The letter “T” was meant to stand for “Tamazgha” meaning “land of the Amazigh people,” the name Amazighs give to North Africa due to the rejection of “Maghreb al-Arabi,” or Arab Western North Africa, because it is not the original name of the region.

An employee of the National Center for Amazigh Culture with knowledge of the history of these kinds of tattoos was able to provide some information as well. He said the tattoos go back much further than the French colonial era. It was a reaction to the onslaught of Amazighs from foreign civilizations, such as the Romans, Vandals, Arabs, and most recently, the French. It’s purpose was primarily to preserve the Amazigh written language, Tifiniagh. Women were given tattoos with a Tifinagh letter that symbolized something which corresponded to her, such as tribe, clan, etc. Through this tradition, the Amazigh women quite literally used the scars of centuries of invasion to preserve the Tifinagh language. This practice was not exclusive to Amazighs of Algeria, and could be found throughout North Africa, as far west as Morocco, east towards Siwa Oasis in Egypt, and south towards Senegal, Mali, and Niger.

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-Serine is a graduate student of Lebanese descent pursuing an International MBA in Healthcare Management. She hopes to one day use her studies to help ease the hardships Middle Eastern refugees face in accessing medical care. She tweets here

 

Comments

  1. Reblogged this on WordsOverTea.

  2. astrid obeid says:

    thanks for the info i am part syrian and am always open to new info on the middle east as well as north african tradition!

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