Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Death of Tattooing the Body in the Berber Culture

Few centuries ago, tattooing the body was among the criteria to judge the charm of Berber women. Even though tattooing was not equally common in both sexes, and only was commonly practiced by females, its presence as a form of embellishment survived in remote areas in the mountains in North Africa. Many traditional significant forms of tattoos such as siyâla (tattoo on the chin and nose) and ghamaza (tattoo between the eyebrows) and slightly tattooed hands are still marking the bodies of the old generation of women of the Berber culture which remained intact from the Arab’s influence.

The name Berber is a variation of the Latin original word -Barbarian, earlier in history applied by the Romans specifically to their northern hostile neighbours from Germania. The Barbary coast of northwest Africa was named after the Berbers because they and Arabs pirated ships in the Mediterranean Sea. The Berbers call themselves “Amazigh” or "Amazighen", meaning the free people. Berbers are non-Arabic tribes that are often referred to as Arab-Islamic.[i]

With the waves of conquering Arabs from the Arab peninsula to North Africa, and the spread of the faith of the new religion, many attitudes and interpretations with regard to various Berber rituals changed. The practice of the adornment of the face and hands through tattooing started to gradually fade away. The belief that to alter or deform the creation of Allah is haram (forbidden) in Islam eclipsed the cultural glorification of the tattoo. It narrowed its wider cultural significance and meaning in the Berber cultural, social status and identity as a heritage and patrimony.

In addition to the political manoeuvre of the body, religion and religious institutions have been always a source of body control through God’s promise of many forms of rewards and punishments: Hell as “everlasting fire,”[ii] “unquenchable fire,”[iii]Blazing Fire,”[iv] “Flaming Fire,”[v] “Crushing Fire,”[vi] and “Burning Flame.”[vii]

 As it is firmly stated, tattooing is prohibited in the Old Testament. Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.[viii] Islam, as an Abrahamic religion, also prohibits any form of body modification since it is understood as an act of playing against the will of God for his creations. Because of the belief that God is the only force of creation, life and death in Islam, to alter what Allah (God) created is something frowned upon.[ix] Consequently, many Hadiths (teachings, deeds and sayings of the prophet Mohammed) state how much abhorred tattooing in Islam is. “A woman who used to practice tattooing was brought to 'Omar.’Omar got up and said, "I beseech you by Allah, which of you heard the Prophet saying something about tattooing?" l got up and said, "O chief of the Believers! I heard something." He said, "What did you hear?" I said, "I heard the Prophet (addressing the ladies), saying: 'Do not practice tattooing and do not get yourselves tattooing.”[x]

 The complete decline of the practice of tattooing the body in the Berber culture did not seem to be thoroughgoing, even in the twentieth century. When the Berbers converted to Islam, they kept myriads of rituals and practices that are still prevalent in contemporary Berber culture. Among the beliefs and rituals that sustained is the spiritual “therapeutic” visit of shrines, saints and the belief in bad spirits. Therefore Berber tattoos were placed near women’s body parts or surfaces that are regarded as assailable by evil spirits, such as the eyes, nose, mouth and the vagina.

Tattooing was not regarded as something common among Berber men than it was among women, but some old Berber men are seen with little green tattoos on the tip of the nose or on the right hand. The tattoo is so often in the shape of little star or a cross, meaning that the tattooing had been done in his infancy in the very early days of his births to protect his life and not to have the same destiny of the elder sisters or, brothers especially, who had died shortly after their birth. So, tattooing was one of the rituals rooted in tribal Berber community practiced with all its symbolic meanings. Preventing child mortality or increasing the chance for pregnancy and or for conceiving a boy was among the motifs of tattooing women in addition to its adornment and ritual purposes.

The Berber tattoo was not sophisticated in its design more than it was symbolically and mystically telling.  A range of shapes inspired from the local environment and the geographical location of the tribes were the favourites. “Diamonds represent femininity, womanhood and fertility. They are associated with the snake and represent the union of opposites. Wheat is associated with life (because of its sheath) and death (because of the seeds being in the ground). The Tree is related to an easy life, happiness and fertility. It symbolizes the centre of the world surrounded by Beings, objects and spirits. It also means life (because of the roots) and knowledge (because of the leaves).”[xi]

The sailing Berber vessel of the proud cultural practice of tattooing had been pirated and slightly shipwrecked by the political and religious inculcation of the Arabo-Islamic institutionalization of the tribal community. Institutions such as mosques, the introduction of Arabic as an official language of culture and education and media contributed in the slight detachment of people from the tribal cultural rituals including tattooing the body. Shaping the self-perception through the facial tattoos of the Berber women especially has become less apparent among less isolated regions of the Atlas as it is now fully understood as a pre-Islamic and pagan practice.

The commodified temporary tattoo designs on the skin using henna replaced the inner cultural, spiritual and ritual symbolism of tattooing. Tattooing the hands and feet with henna is common in the Berber culture and arts. Under the Arabo-Islamic cultural and religious influence, henna tattoo is observed as one of the spiritual traditions on religious occasions and traditional festivities.

Amazigh people or the proud and free people, as the name translates, could not only resist colonialism and the central authority, but also the cultural, ideological and religious influence of the Arabs which uprooted the practice of tattooing the body from the rich field of the Berber cultural patrimony and art.

[i] The Culture and Arts of Morocco and the Berbers.[Online]. Available at: (Accessed 01 January 2015).
[ii] The Holy Bible: (Matthew: 25: 41), James King Version [Online]. Available at: Accessed 03 January 2015).
[iii] The Holy Bible: (Matthew 3:12), James King Version. [Online]. Available at:
 (Accessed 03 January 2015).
[iv] The Holy Koran: 35:6, Surat Fāţir (Originator). [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 03 January 2015).
[v] The Holy Koran: 33:64, Surat Al-'Aĥzāb (The Combined Forces). [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 03 January 2015).
[vi] The Holy Koran.104:4, Surat Al-Humazah (The Traducer). [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 03 January 2015).
[vii] The Holy Koran : 83:16, Surat Al-Muţaffifīn (The Defrauding). [Online]. Available at:
. (Accessed 03 January 2015).
[viii] Old Testament: Leviticus, Chapter 19. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 03 January 2015).
[ix] The Holy Koran: 7:46, Surat Al-'A`rāf, (The Heights). [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 03 January 2015).
[x] Sunnah. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 03 January 2015).
[xi] A., Tafsout, Berber symbols. (2010). [Online]. Available at: Accessed 20 December 2014).

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