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Story Publication logo August 23, 2012

Algeria: Tattoos Provide L(ink) to Iraq


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Facial tattoos, once popular among Chaouia women in Algeria, are now less prevalent. This project...


While walking through Chemora streets on summer evenings, it is common to see elderly men, dressed in the traditional white gondora, sitting in circles near the marketplace, playing an old game resembling checkers. The board is drawn into a plot of sand, and the pieces used are rocks and date seeds. In the center of town, younger men in collared t-shirts and pants sell everything from kids' toys to the newest Nikes and elaborate embroidered dresses. Teenage girls and boys check out shops filled with the latest French styles, including brightly colored jeans and soccer-inspired jackets. Away from the center, elderly women wearing the traditional shliga (shawl) and shash (wrap) or khemar (scarf) sit outside their homes, speaking with their friends as younger neighbors pass by with a "Hello auntie" – the appropriate and endearing greeting for an elder woman.

Chemora, like several small towns in Algeria, is caught in an interesting chasm of traditional and modern, and it's hard to tell how visible traditional practices will be in the near future.

This town draws many of its traditions from the Chaouia, an indigenous group that has historically inhabited the Aurés mountain region. Yet, something unique about this region is that Arabs and Chaouia have not only lived together, but also shared their cultural practices.

One such practice is traditional tattooing, found on the faces of elderly women.

While many Chaouia women received tattoos from gypsies coming from Tunisia, some symbols found among the Chaouia tattoos are uncannily similar to those recorded among Arabs in Iraq. And although most women consider their tattoos symbols of beauty and good health, these tattoos may also have another meaning that has been lost over time—they might be telling a story.

However, due to multiple factors, this tradition is now found marking only an older generation. Time to discover more about the practice is all too quickly running out.

Possible origins

Chaouia tattoos are found frequently marking foreheads, cheeks, and chins but are not limited to the face. Traditional tattoos can also adorn hands, arms, and legs.

Most women in the Aurés mountain region who have tattoos are older than 70. Although they belong to the same generation, women with tattoos tell different stories of how their cultural markings came to be.

Some women were too young when given a tattoo to even remember anything about the process. Others, like 73-year-old Roqaya L'ghareeb, recall wanting to obtain tattoos in early adolescence. Meanwhile, Jameela Bendaas (my aunt ) remembers not wanting a tattoo, but feeling pressured by family members to receive one. Other women, like 77-year-old Rabaiya Zgrir, were tattooed multiple times throughout their lives. Rabaiya received her last tattoo on her leg at the age of 40.

Gypsies called adasiya were usually the ones to apply tattoos. The adasiya, who came from Tunisia, were known for their palm readings and beautification techniques, including tattooing. One elderly Chaoui man, whose wife is tattooed, described the adasiya he saw as a woman with her hair tied in braids and wrapped in a knot at each side of her head. She traveled by donkey, knocked on doors, and provided tattoos upon request.

The adasiya's tattooing tools included a blade known as nishtar, which many recalled was burned over a fire and cooled before use. Each tattooed shape was made through small repeated incisions, and most women remembered it as a painful experience. In fact, because of the pain, Roqaya said she never got any other tattoos, though she still admired them. Another woman, Gaima Vieb, said that although the tattoo process was painful, she had no regrets. The tattoos made her feel beautiful.

All women have the same color of tattoo—blue. This color comes from kohl, a natural product used by many Algerians today as eyeliner, and ramram, a blue flower. Homoom, found on the bottom of clay tajines used for cooking flatbreads, was also used for coloring purposes. The adasiya left instructions for reapplying ramram later on, as well as explanations for what the women could expect during the healing process. Several recall that the adasiya spoke Arabic.

However, not all tattooed women remember their adasiya as a gypsy or as Tunisian. Some women claimed to have received their arm tattoos not from a woman, but from a nomadic Chaoui man. Others received tattoos from family members or even did their own. Another woman recalls that her tattoo-giver came from the Sahara—this may explain her unique forehead tattoo.

It is also possible that the tattooing tradition originated in a place much farther than the Sahara or Tunisia: It might have come from Iraq. Although facial tattooing practices have been recorded from North Africa all the way into Iran and Afghanistan, some tattoos found particularly among Arabs in Iraq show a strong correlation to tattoos found among the Chaouia in Algeria.

Anthropologist Winifred Smeaton was part of the 1932-1935 Field Museum anthropological expedition to Iraq. A drawing by Smeaton of Iraqi hand tattoos shows a shape made of a line with two curves at each end that is remarkably similar to the Amazigh (Berber) symbol. Amazigh refers to the indigenous peoples of North Africa, including the Chaouia. The similarities in the tattoo shape must be more than coincidence—the only difference is a horizontal line in the middle of the Iraqi tattoo. A scissor-like symbol recorded by Smeaton, was also found on Gaima's cheek.

Finding meaning

In her article titled "Tattoos among the Arabs of Iraq" published in a 1937 issue of American Anthropologist, Smeaton writes, "In Iraq it is found that tattooing is divided into two kinds, broadly speaking: ornamental or decorative tattooing, and tattooing applied for magic or therapeutic reasons."

Similarly, in the Aurés, tattoos were used for health and healing purposes. Some were applied to the place of pain or injury; others were made to promote fertility and children's health. Both men and women in the Aurés mountain region also believed that tattoos were markers of beauty. One elderly man claimed that in his time men did not care to look at women without tattoos. Others said that a woman without tattoos was like a man.

Smeaton recognized a similar cultural characteristic in Iraq, writing, "The husband of one Albu Muhammad woman stated that his tribeswomen tattoo extensively because the men like it, and refuse to marry a girl who is not tattooed."

Any influence from Iraq may have been brought to Algeria by the Ottomans in the early 1500s. This would have allowed time for variation to develop or for the Iraqi tattoos to influence a tattooing culture that may have already been in place.

In Iraq tattoos are also blue in color, with kohl as a popular coloring agent, and the symbol of the sun is also placed on the cheek.

However, important differences still exist. For example, Smeaton notes tattoos on the thigh and abdomen of Iraqi women. These are mostly unseen in the Aurés. Furthermore, most shapes used in 1930s Iraq are far different from shapes used in 1930s Algeria.

Even among the Chaouia in Algeria, symbols used to mark the body vary and may reflect the environment. One 90-year-old woman, Rabaiya Milawi, had a tattoo on her forehead that was strikingly different from those on other women in Chemora and surrounding villages—a palm tree. She was from an area near a city called Arris, where palm trees are common.

Regardless of the shape, there is strong agreement that if the purpose of the tattoo was not for health, it was for beautification. Many women even compared the use of tattoos to makeup, even though the idea of beauty does not seem inherent in several of the symbols—sun, stirrup, chain.

Chaoui journalist Rachid Hamatou considers the facial tattoos of Chaouia women as "forgotten writing." In an article for Liberté he writes, "There is no shadow of a doubt that man learned to draw before writing."

The tattooing, or permanent drawing of symbols, could very well have still been used for the same purpose as writing—to tell a story.

During one interview, the son of an elderly woman mentioned that he believed that the symbols behind tattoos do indeed tell a story. Unfortunately the elderly women could not provide information about that hypothesis because their knowledge about the meaning of the symbols has been lost. Shapes were often not of their choosing, but rather in the hands of the person giving the tattoos.

Still, it does seem likely that the tattoos are telling a story, and even more interesting—a story about a man.

The symbols frequently represent a soldier or strong man. For example, tattoos on the foreheads of women often show a symbol of strength—a burnus, an old coat made of animal skin worn by soldiers. The symbol of rikab, or stirrups, is easily connected to horsemen. Symbols signifying animals, such as camels, gazelles, and partridges, often relate to travel or hunting. The oft-repeated symbol of cinsla, or chain, looks less like a bracelet or necklace and much more like a chain of ammunition.

But if it is true that the stories do tell a story of a soldier or a strong man—with fighting accessories included, then who is he? And why is his story told through tattoos on the bodies of women?

A Disappearing Tradition

The time to answer such questions is running out. The current generation of elderly men and women in the Aurés who do remember enough about the traditional tattooing practice of the early 1900s will not live forever. As the practice has not been passed on to younger generations, the markings will soon disappear.

There are several reasons why the tattoos have not continued as a traditional practice in Algeria today. For example, the tattoo-giving adasiyas are no longer to be found. Tattooing to promote healing and beauty has been replaced by modern medicine and make-up. With no hint of resentment, tattooed women have often said that times have changed. Young women are no longer interested in traditional tattoos for themselves. They find beauty by other means.

Most women whom I interviewed felt no great sadness at the loss of the tradition. They were more concerned about being considered good Muslims.

What is perhaps most important in terms of the waning of the practice is the influence of Islam. Although many women said they simply did not know of the restriction when they were young, many have given sadaqa (voluntary charity) as a way to ask forgiveness for the tattoos which are considered haram, or religiously prohibited, since tattooing can be taken as permanently altering God's creation.

When asked about her feelings regarding the disappearance of tattoos, 90-year-old Rabaiya Milawi responded, "We are fading. Our health. . . our dreams. Everything is fading, young girl."

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