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22 February 2024

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Connected World Life of a Scientist

Tattoo memory

One of my earliest memories of Morocco concerns my great-aunt Fatima. I must have been aged four or five, but I can still see her fragile, wrinkly face as she stood in front of my sister and me in the courtyard of her small riad, looking at us inquisitively, and speaking in a language my sister and I failed to understand. She wore a tattoo on her chin, which frightened me. I did not dare to sit on her lap.

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My father soothingly explained to me that Aunt Fatima wore that tattoo on her chin because she was a Berber woman and had lived a traditional life as a young girl in the Rif mountains before marrying and moving to Ksar el-Kebir. I never questioned my father’s uncomplicated and romanticised take on Berber (or Amazigh) identity in Morocco, until I decided to research it.

When I started exploring a topic for my dissertation on Moroccan migration and diaspora memory, my interlocutors started asking about my roots: was I Arab, or Berber? The answer was short: I simply did not know. To my father, the question was trifling. While growing up, it had never really mattered to my own family. Then why did it now seem of vital importance to so many Moroccans? The issue gripped me.

I sought an answer in oral history and biography, in the dozens of life story interviews with Moroccan Amazigh migrants that I collected, as I increasingly wondered about my own biography. I eventually learned more about my family’s past and the significance of the distinction between Arab and Amazigh ethnicity in the Moroccan diaspora from the stories of strangers than from the historical evidence I found in archives. I listened to their stories, which were often traumatic, as they explored the consequences of their community’s past oppression as Berbers (or Imazighen) and ensuing migration to western Europe. When they are contested, I learned throughout my first years practising oral history, identities may require a recovery of history. The experience profoundly shaped me as a historian.

Since then, I have continued to study and teach oral history. When students first come across the method, it often feels counterintuitive and unsettling to them. Acknowledging the kind of subjectivity oral history brings, requires a sense of connectedness. It helps us to untangle a historical experience that may be radically different from our own, and ultimately deepens our understanding of what it means to be human.

When I talk to my students about the reasons why oral history matters, I always refer to the many anonymous Moroccan migrants from the Rif whose oral histories shed light on a history of anticolonial resistance, human rights violations, and a migration history that, until as recent as a decade ago, had remained largely silenced in traditional historiography. But my interviewees, either willingly or unwillingly, also helped me to appreciate part of my own history and identity as a member of the Moroccan diaspora, when my own family members no longer could.

In class I also recount that early childhood memory of Aunt Fatima’s house in Ksar el-Kebir. While I have no recollection of her voice, I occasionally wonder what her oral history would have sounded like, and if her story would have been similar to or different from the others. And although I regret not having returned to her sooner to listen to her life story, I like to think now that she connected with me through her tattoo.

She wore a tattoo on her chin, which frightened me. I did not dare to sit on her lap

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