My Tattoos Reconnected Me with My Algerian Heritage

A personal history on the tradition of facial tattoos practiced by the Indigenuos Imazighen people.

My first tattoo was actually two. At nineteen, I immortalized two small symbols on the inside of my left wrist, a reminder to prioritize my peace. I was tattooed three more times after that, each one commemorating a moment in time. My most recent tattoo is on the inside of my right arm, right below my elbow. In Arabic, it reads: Wallahi — or,  I swear to God

Whenever my mother would notice my growing tattoo collection, she would simply cluck her tongue and shake her head disapprovingly. To her, these tattoos represented a departure from faith. Our religion, Islam, teaches that tattoos are haram, or forbidden, but in our Indigenous culture, they were both sacred and commonplace. 

Our ancestors, the Imazighen (singular Amazigh, meaning “the free people”), are the Indigenous pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. They have called our homeland of Algeria, along with Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, and Tunisia, home since the beginning of recorded history. Though Amazigh tribes possess nuances that are at once diverse and expansive, colonizers viewed our Indigenous identity as a monolith, and treated us as such. Over the course of a few hundred years, the threads of our centuries’ old traditions were unraveled by deliberate hands, including the practice of facial and body tattoos among Amazigh women. 

For Amazigh women, the act of being tattooed was a rite of passage. Tattoo artists were often middle-aged women with inked skin that held our ancestors’ stories. These women would travel through nearby villages, acting as both artist and oracle, their wisdom clearly present in both roles.

For Amazigh women, the act of being tattooed was a rite of passage. Tattoo artists were often middle-aged women with inked skin that held our ancestors’ stories. These women would travel through nearby villages, acting as both artist and oracle, their wisdom clearly present in both roles. They made ink by squeezing the leaves of fava beans. They combined this with coal, incense, and herbs. The first tattoo, called the siyala, was placed on the chin to encourage fertility. A straight line was drawn from the bottom of the lip to the bottom of the chin. Small dots on either side of the line were then drawn to represent seeds. Sometimes, these dots would connect to the center line, resembling a palm tree. In our culture, this symbol represented the pinnacle of divine beauty. While the designs were open to abstractions and variations, the ones most commonly used were recurring symbols often inspired by natural elements, such as animals, bugs, and plants.

Historically, Amazigh nomads used facial tattoos as a way to identify members of different tribes. In this way, tattoos were a form of communication and could indicate commonality. It was a secret, silent language, a story that was shared only among our own. 

Though facial tattoos were the most commonly practiced (and visible), they encompassed the body as well. Tattoos were placed on the areas believed to be most susceptible to supernatural energies and spirits, like the hands and feet. During the French occupation in countries such as Algeria and Morocco, bad spirits became synonymous with bad men. As the French abducted and assaulted Indigenous women with increasing frequency, tattoos became a talisman: a symbolic form of protection and self-preservation. 

Though French occupation in North Africa eventually ended, the violence continued. In Algeria, for example, the conclusion of the Algerian Revolution in 1962 was shadowed by the start of the Algerian Civil War in 1991. I was born three years into this war, just two hours east of the capital. Fought between the Algerian Government and Islamist rebel groups, it cemented Islamic teachings into the common culture with permanence. Slowly but surely, the roots of our ancient traditions were upturned. 

Fleeing the civil war, my parents arrived in the States when I was three years old. Two years later, after living with my grandparents, I was able to join them. As immigrants, we are taught many false truths about the American Dream — equality, liberty, justice — but the reality is that our asylum is contingent upon our ability to assimilate. Soon after arriving, I was enrolled in elementary school, and consequently, in English as a Second Language. Only English wasn’t my second language: It was my fourth. In class, I was bullied for what I didn’t already know, mostly by students, but occasionally by teachers, too. I abandoned my native tongues — Taqbalit, French, and Arabic — in the process.

I first gravitated towards tattoos because they were a way to feel in control of my own body again, to reclaim my own skin. 

Ashamed of my complicated history, I internalized the hatred that was directed at me. I began to shrink myself. I became as small as people expected me to be. By the time I entered middle school, I struggled with a severe eating disorder that raged into my early twenties. I first gravitated towards tattoos because they were a way to feel in control of my own body again, to reclaim my own skin. 

As I grew older, my mother developed a sense of apathy towards my tattoos, which represented choices made outside of her own control. I felt relief from her judgement, but when I returned to Algeria for the first time at twenty-two, I learned not everyone in my family would feel the same. 

Like any child of diaspora, I was accustomed to straddling two realities. I had hoped that returning to my native homeland would finally make my identity click into place, like a puzzle that’s been missing its final piece. Instead, I felt like a foreigner in my own country. I might have been Algerian, but they saw me as American first. Taking my mother’s advice, I found myself consciously concealing my tattoos for the first time to avoid judgement and scrutiny — both from strangers on the street and my own family as well. 

One evening, a gesture revealed the tattoos on my wrist to my grandmother. My mother sighed, betraying our secret and my shame. In our family’s spare bedroom, I showed each of my tattoos to my grandmother. She shook her head no, no, no with each of my reveals. In that moment, in my desperate attempt to avoid eye contact, I noticed a photograph hanging above the bed. It was my great great grandmother, whom I had never seen before. My gaze rested on a peculiar detail: a line tattooed from the bottom of her lips to the bottom of her chin. I pointed at the image, and my grandmother froze. Just as I’d been caught, she, too, was now being exposed. She threw her hands up in equal-parts exasperation and surrender. Finally, she said in a marriage of Taqbalit and French: “Fine. This is all fine. Just no facial tattoos then.” The three of us laughed at the absurdity of it all. Later I pried my mother for details, but she didn’t offer much of an explanation about my great great grandmother’s tattoos. “It’s an old tradition,” she said. “Or was… but it’s just not something we do anymore.” 

As one of the last generations to be tattooed, I know that she must have experienced a sense of stigma in her rapidly changing world. I imagine that her worthiness was questioned, too, because what made a woman worthy then were passive and submissive sensibilities, and she was none of those things.

Her tattoos proved it.

After our trip, I began to conduct my own research. As I studied my expansive ancestry, which at times has felt so foreign to me, I began to feel understood. My great great grandmother was a woman who committed herself to fighting against French colonialism, so much so that she passed away in a French prison, years before she could see its end. She didn’t know that many years later, her great great granddaughter would be born during the Algerian Civil War, fleeing before she, too, could see its end. I didn’t have a photograph of my own to remember her by, but it didn’t matter. I had memorized her face. Her eyes, cheekbones, and nose — those familiar traits shared among the women on my mother’s side — and the tattoo stretching vertically across her chin. As one of the last generations to be tattooed, I know that she must have experienced a sense of stigma in her rapidly changing world. I imagine that her worthiness was questioned, too, because what made a woman worthy then were passive and submissive sensibilities, and she was none of those things. Her tattoos proved it.

Despite the fact that our ancient practice has all but disappeared, its memory has been preserved permanently. Through archives, interviews, and oral histories, we’re not only able to remember who these women were but understand what this tradition meant to them as well, in their own words. It restores to them what they were denied: the right to be seen. 

In the end, there is no beauty without pain. My great great grandmother and I both understood this. After all, despite every difficulty we had experienced — genocide, revolution, war — we were still willing to submit to a needle, to adorn ourselves with beauty and meaning. My great great grandmother may have symbolized the old world, but I am the first of a new generation, tattoos and all.

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