Masouda Ibrahimi is 78 years old and has had these tattoos since the age of five, but she does not know their meaning or their names. Like those carried by many other women in Algeria’s Aurès Mountains, Masouda’s ancient tattoos sparked the curiosity of young anthropologist Yasmin Bendaas, who traveled to Algeria’s El-Madher to delve into the secrets of this vanishing tradition.
“Because Masouda spoke only the indigenous Chaouia language, I was accompanied to the interview by two translators,” she says. “Yet, information wasn’t lost in translation. It simply faded, just as the tradition,” which is only carried on now by the eldest generation of women in this mountainous region.
But what do these indelible symbols mean? Bendaas wondered. Her search led her to the legend-like figure of the adasiya, a female character in whose hands the meaning of those symbols was. As she talks to Masouda and her husband, their narration weaves the legend of a traveling female gypsy who spent her days roaming from door to door on the back of a donkey, and wore her hair tied up in two knots on the sides of her head. She would knock on doors and often accepted flour, eggs, and shoes in place of money for her services.
“Many speculated these gypsies came from within Algeria — from the Sahara, from Sidi Aysa, or from Oran. Others were positive the tattooist hailed from Tunisia,” she says. Their disappearance is one of the main reasons of the disappearance of the tattooing tradition as a whole, along with the prohibition of tattoos in Islam, she adds.
Perhaps the most fascinating finding was the facial tattoos’ function as markers of beauty and femininity. “Several women interviewed remarked with pride that ‘a woman without tattoos is not a woman,’” she says.