TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, April 14, 2008

Ghalia, My Berber Mother-in-Law and Her People

Ghalia and Mohammed

I have a Berber mother although I still have not met her. My husband's mother, Ghalia, was very sick last year, compelling Mohammed to a much needed visit last year to his native Morocco. I was not able to go, although I am longing to meet her and the rest of my Moroccan family. I thought I would honor lovely Ghalia with a bit on her Berber or Amazigh people.

Ghalia is a tiny woman who has had tough life, but rewarded by loving children. All of them live fairly close to her, except for my husband who is here in the U.S. Her Arab husband passed away about six years ago and she now lives with her oldest son, Abdul.

I still know very little about Berber culture although I am familiar with some of the textiles and a bit of history. One brother-in-law is an antiques dealer in Morocco and Abdul is the principal of Berber school. He and another sister both learned the Berber language. I am sure that when I am finally able to meet them all, I will learn a wealth of information. Meanwhile, I rely on books, videos, and my husband's stories.

I know that the Berbers refer to themselves as Amazigh. Cynthia Becker wrote a fascinating article about Berber textiles and dress, calling them metaphors of motherhood in article for African Arts. She states about the usage of the term Berber:

"The Moroccan postcolonial government emphasized the nation’s common Islamic faith and Arabic language, serving to legitimize and strengthen the rule of the Moroccan monarch, a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. Since independence, Berber political activists have been fighting for governmental recognition of Morocco’s Berber heritage. They have rejected the name "Berber" as a pejorative term deriving from the Latin word barbarus or "barbarian." Instead they use the overarching Tamazight term Imazighen, defined as "the free people." Amazigh is the adjectival form of the word."

Ghalia has a faded tattoo on her forehead and chin:


Hers is similar to a vintage postcard I found on AllPosters.com:



Again, Cynthia Becker serves as an excellent reference in her article:

"Women often tattooed a single line, sometimes bordered with small dots, from the bottom of their lips to the bottom of their chins (Fig. 5). Some women compared the design to the tracks a beetle or lizard makes in the sand. Amazigh motifs typically divide a canvas, whether a woman’s face or ankles or a woven textile, into two equal halves, reflecting the nomadic aesthetic of bilateral symmetry already discussed (Prussin 1995:189). Tattoo and textile motifs resemble each other, and the act of humanizing textiles with motifs similar to those tattooed on their own bodies equates women’s physical reproductive powers as mothers with their artistic reproductive powers as conservers of tradition. Hence, tattoos are gendered symbols of women’s creative powers, and in this way, tattoos create a correlation between women’s bodies and Amazigh identity."

I know that the Amazigh have suffered persecution in Morocco. I found an excellent video on YouTube called Berber Exploitation. If you are interested in learning about their political situation, this is an excellent introduction. It examines some of the conflicts between Amazigh and Arabs in Morocco, with an woman activist as its main spokesperson. They visit a yearly wedding ceremony gathering that takes place in the desert, a traditional event that has now become hostage to tourist interests. National Geographic covered the same event in their story, Among the Berbers, without really addressing the issues raised in the video.


I know that Berber textiles are gorgeous and have a personal story about one of them. When I still had my gallery in Chicago, a man walked in one day with his Moroccan mother-in-law. He was Jordanian, if I remember correctly, dressed smartly in a black leather jacket, polished shoes, expensive hair cut, cell phone- the works. She was beautiful, in her early 50's, dressed simply, wearing a shawl. They had a huge textile with them that she had woven- intricate, with silver discs, fringe, very tight. He wanted to know if we would buy it or take it on consignment. I asked him to translate some questions for me and found that she had made this for their first born son, her grandson, and that it had taken her over a year to make it. He didn't want it as it didn't fit with the contemporary decor of their home. It broke my heart. I looked for something similar online and found this on a TurkoTek discussion from 2003:


Her patterns were similar, but she used white, red, and black. By the way, TurkoTek is an excellent resource for any textile enthusiast.

The young man's rejection of his mother-in-law's weaving was a rejection of her and of womanhood. Cynthia Becker speaks of the deep connection Amazigh women have with their weavings:

"The loom and the act of weaving are also believed to have baraka and, like the wool itself, are related to fertility and ultimately to motherhood. When the warp threads are attached to the vertical loom, the textile is said to be born and have a "soul" or ruh, echoing women’s role in human reproduction. In some areas of Morocco, weavers physically straddle the warp threads and beams of the loom before they are raised, symbolizing the birth of the textile (Messick 1987:213). The textile then moves through youth, maturity, and old age as it is woven. (2) Women have the power of life over a textile, and when a weaver finishes it, she cuts it from the loom and the textile is said to die. This personification of the textile underlines women’s reproductive and creative powers and, by equating textiles with humans passing through the life cycle, reinforces women’s roles in the propagation of Amazigh identity."

I know that my mother-in-law is loved. None of her offspring would despise her or her work in this way.


Here she is with her daughter, Sharifa. I know a few things and am working on learning more. I know I want to honor this small, shy woman who is now family to me. Blessed are you among women, Ghalia!


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