For this post, I thought I would talk about something I’ve been exploring a lot lately- the culture of tattoos in Morocco. The reason I first got interested in the concept was when I noticed that the native Amazigh/Berber populations (who were not originally Muslims) have customs of women getting traditional tattoos, most noticeably on their faces, but within the Islamic culture, tattoos are forbidden according to the Quran. This miniature culture clash that exists in Morocco was intriguing to me, so I did some research as well as talked to some Moroccans about what they thought.
Before Arabs came to Morocco, the original inhabitants were the Amazighs/Berbers. They have a long standing tradition of tattooing women. They get tattoos for all kinds of reasons, but perhaps the most known by the people I talked to are tattoos on the face to indicate marital status. A tattoo going from the bottom lip down the length of the chin indicates that the woman is married, one between the eyebrows says that she is fiancéed, and one on the nose means she is divorced. Interestingly enough, when someone wants to silently indicate that a woman has entered the room, he/she will draw a line down their chin with one finger, mimicking the placement of the Amazigh chin tattoo.
A student at the local university in Rabat told me that her 80 year old grandmother has face, leg, and hand tattoos, as she is of Amazigh origin and grew up in a small village in the southeast of Morocco. She got them when she was young from a man a weekly market, using an ink of lampblack and fava beans. The tattoos on the body can symbolize many things- longevity, fertility, protection against the evil eye, cures for illnesses, and even markings to identify tribal association. At my host family’s house, there is a photo of my host dad’s parents, and his mother has face tattoos. It is not uncommon to see an old woman riding on the tram or walking in the old medina with faded dark blue tattoos on her face.
As far as modern or “western” tattoos go, they are very rare. I think I have only seen one or two people in my entire time here with a visible tattoo of that sort, probably both because people cover up more when they dress, and because they are seen as sinful. Many people, even young people who aren’t particularly religious, told me that they think these tattoos are ugly and shameful. The Quran says that it is a sin to alter the body that God gave you, and that permanent tattoos do just this. This is not to say that Moroccans do not decorate their bodies- people get henna on their hands and feet all the time- but this is temporary. A few young people I talked to were fervently against tattoos and would not even associate with someone if they had a tattoo; most said that they know at least one person with one, and if someone else wants a tattoo that’s fine, but they wouldn’t personally get one because they’re ugly; and some liberal and secular people I talked to were open to tattoos, and one was even planning on going to Casablanca this summer to get inked herself. So the spectrum of opinions is wide, depending on your religious/political views and what you are used to seeing.
From what I have gathered, I get the impression that with more integration of Arab and Amazigh culture with westernization, attitudes about tattoos are changing. First, with more prevalence of Islam in the lives of Amazigh people, even some of those with tattoos already are trying to get rid of them with herbal remedies. This may be because they now think tattoos make them unattractive and looked down upon by the rest of the Muslim population. I have only seen very old women with the traditional tattoos, and I have been told that young people don’t get them anymore. On the other side, as western culture comes to Morocco via the media and tourism, and as the youth are less religious than their parents, modern tattoos are very slowly becoming more accepted. The vast majority of people, even young people, don’t like them, but they are definitely present. The world of tattoos in Morocco is increasingly dynamic, and it will be interesting to see peoples’ attitudes about tattoos years from now as all these factors come into play in the Moroccan mindset.