Berber Face Tattoos
The traditional Berber (Amazigh) face tattoos are a social phenomenon that was an integral part of the Berber customs and traditions. It punctuated the lives of individuals and commemorated the most important episodes in the lives of men and women and their community. The Berber face tattoo anchored beliefs and the pagan rites of the past in their customs.
Face Tattoo Methods Used
How the face tattoo was made differs from place to place. The most common was to cut the skin with a blade (healing tattoos usually used a knife) or a needle then rub with the kohl ash. In the spring, wheat shoots are picked, chewed and then crushed to extract a green juice. This juice is spread onto the tattoo to help it heal and that is how the tattoos become green in colour.
Why Have Face Tattoos Died Out?
Women have always played a leading role in the transmission of customs, ethics, and the learning of certain rites. By changing their status, by leaving home more frequently to access work and civic life, women have contributed to the gradual loss of ancestral customs and the simplification of rites.
In the space of just one generation the tattoo no longer seems worthy of transmission and has even become a source of shame.
Some of the reasons of why this tradition is disappearing:
- The society after “invasion” of Arabo-Islamic culture
- Women that were tattooed at a young age felt like it wasn’t their choice and lacked an understanding of the meanings of the dots and lines over their face, so they didn’t pas it on to their daughters.
- Nowadays they have to remove the tattoo before going to Mecca for pilgrimage as it’s prohibited (Haram) in Islamic religion
Most Berbers have adopted the Islamic religion for over a millennium, so the practice of tattooing was reduced a long time ago because it’s against the ethics and Muslim orthodoxy as Islam forbids tattooing, even though it’s not mentioned in the Quran. The interpretation and the prohibition of tattooing or any other modification of the body is passed on by the hadith, which are stories from the Prophet and are a major source of guidance for Muslims.
Can Face Tattoos still be found?
Despite the prohibitions, the practice of tattooing lasted commonly until the 60s, and still nowadays is practiced in some areas where the culture is still conserved, especially in the desert and Atlas Mountains. In most areas however, henna is used as a non permanent alternative. In regions where city standards are struggling to be adopted, the nomads, and the semi-nomad are living in harsh conditions and roaming the country according to the harvests, water and pasture. Here is where this Berber ancestral tradition of face tattoos continues.
Why did Berber Women have their Faces Tattooed?
The primary reasons were for beauty, health and protection
If a married woman did not have her face tattooed, they used to say it looked like a man’s face. The tattoo was considered to make her more beautiful. When a woman gets a tattoo it means that she has captured a man’s heart, so that provided the credibility and importance of establishing a family and future.
The tattoos were also used to indicate that the woman cannot have children or in case of illness. There is a proverb that says “when the blood is shed, the misfortune is over”
Other symbols were also used each with different meanings relating to protection from bad spirits or as tribal identifiers. These permanent markings were usually around openings of the body to prevent bad spirits entering the body but also used on feet and arms.
The Meaning behind the Symbols
The tattoos represent a belief that supernatural energy is found in all things. The palm tree is a well known facial tattoo. Found between the bottom lip and chin of a woman it correlates with the Goddess Tanit, who is the Goddess of Fertility and the moon to the Amazigh people. The tattoo is a symbol of fertility and protection and is believed to be the most beautiful of all tattoos.
The tattoo artist often held the role of Wise Woman with mystical capabilities at breaking spells and curing disease and would provide advice and share news from other villages at the same time. In this way the cultural practice provided a web of benefits and reached far into the lives of these women.
However when we spoke to Hmad’s (Tiziri Owner) tattooed mother of 7 children in Merzouga, she told us that in fact she and her sister just took the kohl themselves and created their own tattoos trying to mimic those of their elders and regretted it ever since. We understand that this was also quite a common situation.
The Dark Side of Amazigh Face Tattoos
During the time of the Arab invasion of North Africa in the 11th Century, it was customary for the sultan leaders to enjoy the spoils of war. The local Amazigh women were considered such and each Sultan used an identifying mark which was tattooed onto the faces of each woman he owned in his hareem. Later the Pasha Glaoui and his tribesmen adopted the same habit and consequently tattoo faced women became synonymous with prostitution. However, as many mothers tattooed their daughters faces in order to create confusion and make it look as though they were already owned, therefore saving them from abduction – the issue became very blurred.
Qaderi, a Moroccan anthropologist states “In 1960s Morocco and Tunisia, Arab politicians sought to eliminate cultural elements specific to indigenous customs.” Here at Tiziri, we think it’s very sad that the Berber women usually see tattoos as shameful these days because they are a truly beautiful and richly emblematic part of their fascinating history.
What do you think?
Note: We choose to use both words – Berber and Amazigh in our blogs. We are proud to be Amazigh but we are also aware that tourists are more likely to use the word Berber which some see as derogatory but which we are happy to adopt as an alternative name.