Yumna Al-Arashi has been documenting North Africa’s ancient but fast-disappearing tradition of female tattooing
When Zeyna finally travelled to Germany to visit her daughter, the older woman, who lives in the arid mountains of Zeraoua in Tunisia, expected a very different reception from the one she received.
A farmer of Amazigh (Berber) descent, she had given little consideration to the impact her appearance might have on her westernised daughter because Zeyna’s brightly coloured traditional robes, silver jewellery and tattoos are such an inextricable part of her sense of self.
Sadly, after many years studying and working in Europe, Zeyna’s daughter thought otherwise and was clearly taken aback.
“When Zeyna got off the plane her daughter was embarrassed. She told her mother that she looked like a crazy witch and she made her change,” explains the photographer Yumna Al-Arashi, who met Zeyna at the start of the year.
“She also insisted her mother remove her tattoos. Zeyna insisted on keeping the sun tattoo on her hand, because she was a farmer and the tattoo was part of her connection to the land, but she had the tattoos removed from her face.
“But when I met her, she was very adamant about the way she loves her traditions and how she dresses, and now she insists she will never go back to Germany or change.”
Zeyna’s portrait and story is just one of many collected by Al-Arashi, who spent several months travelling through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, recording the ancient but fast-disappearing tradition of female tattooing, a practise that was once common throughout North Africa, Arabia and the Levant, with roots that have been shown to extend all the way back to ancient Egypt.
Female facial tattoos most often served as beauty marks, as well as ways of commemorating important life events such as puberty, marriage and childbirth.
In some areas, such as the Aurès Mountains of Algeria, girls as young as 5 are known to have received tattoos, often from nomadic female gypsies, known as adasiya, who might accept food, such as eggs, as payment.
In his The World of Tattoo: An Illustrated History, Dutch anthropologist and tattoo expert Maarten Hesselt van Dinter has written about the use of tattoos as a form of pain relief and also as charms to ward against the effects of the “evil eye”, the most effective of which, it was believed, were administered by criminals.
“The Ouled Abderrahman, a Shawiya tribe of the Aurès Plains,” Van Dinter writes, “preferred to have tattoos applied with a murderer’s knife, and if possible, by the murderer himself.”
According to Yasmin Bendaas, who undertook extensive research into North African tattooing traditions for the Pulitzer Centre in Washington in 2012, some of the most-common motifs among the Amazigh include the Sun and Moon, chains, flies and the ain hijla, or eye of a partridge, inspired by the diamond-shaped marking found on a partridge’s face.
Uncommon among younger generations, tattooing is now considered by many Muslims as something forbidden, or haram, although it is not expressly prohibited in the Quran.
For Bendaas, this attitude stems from the Quranic Surah Al-Nisa, which states that Satan “will command them so they will change the creation of Allah”.
Not only has this been interpreted as including tattooing, but as Bendaas points out, the interpretation is also supported by the following saying of the Prophet, recorded in the Sahih Al-Bukhari, one of the six major Sunni collections of the Hadith: “The Prophet (peace be upon him) cursed the one who does tattoos and the one who has tattoos done…”
As Al-Arashi explains, this negative attitude towards tattooing, which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years thanks to improvements in literacy, actually helped when it came to her own research, but does nothing to help tattooed women who often find themselves in an invidious situation.
“The women were actually pretty surprised that somebody of my age who was an Arab was interested in them,” she says. “Nobody really talks about the tattoos anymore because the younger generation think that they represent an old, backwards tradition.
“In general, the women I met were very strong-minded, sassy and opinionated. When they were younger, they were so happy to have them, they even waited to be able to get them.
“But now that they are older, many have children and grandchildren who have gone to school and read the Quran, and who tell them that they will go to hell, which makes some of them feel stupid and ashamed.”
For Al-Arashi, an Arab-American who was born and raised in Washington, the research trip was more than a photographic assignment; it was a way for her to engage with her own heritage.
“My family is from Yemen and Egypt, and my great grandmother, Aisha, who was born in Aden, had these tattoos on the sides of her lips, and from what I’ve heard from my family members, her tattoos were symbols dedicated to Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter,” she says.
“A lot of the time people would say: ‘Most of these women are already dead, you’re not going to find too many’, but in the end they weren’t too difficult to find,” she says. “There’s still a strong tradition of having an open door and welcoming strangers and enjoying people’s company.”
Although Al-Arashi refuses to choose any favourites encounters or images, one of her most-memorable meetings was with a Tunisian woman, Brika.
“I asked what her tattoos meant and she told me that she has the Sun and the Moon tattooed on her cheeks because they were the most beautiful things that her eyes had seen and they had guided her life,” she remembers. “And because of her ability to read the stars and the Sun and the Moon, it gave her the power of her land. She kept saying: ‘I don’t know how to read and write, but I know my land better than anybody.’”
Al-Arashi would like to continue with her research by writing a book, but admits that the other parts of the Middle East where female tattooing was prevalent – Syria, Kurdistan, Yemen and Iraq – are too dangerous.
“I wish I had been able to explore the rest of the generation,” she admits. “But I’m afraid that by the time I get to those places, the women there may no longer be alive.”
The beauty of Al-Arashi’s meetings with women such as Zeyna and Brika are reflected in her photographs, which are also tinged with the sadness the photographer feels toward the loss of this matriarchal tradition.
“Some of the women tell their children that they wouldn’t have brought them into the world if it hadn’t been for the tattoos, because no man would have looked at them without them,” she says. “There is a very strong sense that they made these women feel grown up and connected to the earth and to their own womanhood. And you can’t change a woman’s love for the way she expresses herself.”
This article originally appeared in The National