“Tattoos,” an excerpt from Karima Ahdad’s Amazigh-Moroccan novel “Cactus Girls”

15 September, 2021
Ara­bic orig­i­nal cov­er of Banat al-Sab­bar (Cac­tus Girls) by Kari­ma Ahdad.


TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The fol­low­ing text is an excerpt from Kari­ma Ahdad’s Cac­tus Girls, the sto­ry of a Moroc­can wid­ow and her four daugh­ters who find them­selves home­less due to the vagaries of Islam­ic inher­i­tance law. The nov­el is set dur­ing the Hirak Rif move­ment, an Arab Spring–like upris­ing that took place in 2016–2017 to protest the long-stand­ing neglect and mar­gin­al­iza­tion of the Rif region in north­ern Moroc­co. Ahdad uses the Hirak protests to high­light the unem­ploy­ment and injus­tice faced by Moroc­cans in this region and dra­ma­tizes the fail­ure of state insti­tu­tions such as the edu­ca­tion sys­tem, the courts and health care to help ordi­nary people.

While Ahdad takes aim at reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism, mer­ri­ly sat­i­riz­ing Islam­ic tel­e­van­ge­lists and expos­ing the hypocrisy of con­ven­tion­al moral­i­ty, her pri­ma­ry goal is to expose the effects that gen­der inequal­i­ty in Islam­ic inher­i­tance law has on the lives of women. She approach­es her char­ac­ters, whether male or female, with com­pas­sion, illus­trat­ing how reli­gion and patri­archy con­verge to blight not only women’s lives but also those of men. Cac­tus Girls is a pow­er­ful tes­ta­ment to women’s abil­i­ty to sur­vive and thrive in the face of pover­ty, injus­tice, and inequality. 

Although Ahdad has not faced legal sanc­tions for her bold writ­ing, she has received death threats on social media. She writes:

“Banat al-Sab­bar touch­es on a lot of taboos in Moroc­co. I didn’t actu­al­ly encounter any dif­fi­cul­ty because of the nov­el, because in Moroc­co, peo­ple who might threat­en me don’t buy nov­els and don’t read them. But I have already been threat­ened because of the arti­cles I wrote about taboos. When I talked about athe­ist women in Moroc­co, I received a lot of mes­sages and death threats. I am not afraid though, and I don’t have a prob­lem with taboos, because these peo­ple are cow­ards and they would not speak if they were not hid­den behind the screens of their lap­tops.” [email to translator]

In this excerpt, Sonya, the eldest daugh­ter of the fam­i­ly, rem­i­nisces about her Amazigh grand­moth­er  and recalls the extreme hard­ships endured by Moroc­can women of ear­li­er generations.

—Kather­ine Van de Vate



Kari­ma Ahdad
trans­lat­ed by Kather­ine Van de Vate

When an elder­ly per­son dies, we lose part of our his­to­ry. But in the Rif of Moroc­co, such a death is cat­a­stroph­ic, because it means the loss of our Amazigh iden­ti­ty, lan­guage and culture.

My father’s moth­er passed away one sad win­ter in 2011 after an exhaust­ing life of toil and ill­ness. With her death I felt I’d lost an entire his­to­ry – a chron­i­cle of enthralling sto­ries and anec­dotes both true and imag­ined, a trea­sure-trove of Tarafit words and expres­sions that today’s gen­er­a­tion no longer remembers.

Only my mem­o­ries of my grand­moth­er helped me bear her loss. I remem­ber her radi­ant face mapped with fine wrin­kles, the del­i­cate trib­al tat­toos on her fore­head and chin, her hen­naed braids, her white palms etched with fine lines, her sweet smell, the sto­ries she chose so care­ful­ly for cold win­ter nights when the wind roared and swel­ter­ing sum­mer evenings when the crick­ets sang. Yes, the death of a woman like her was a loss indeed.

My grand­moth­er lived not a life but a hor­ror film. When she was only three, she was tak­en by force from her moth­er. In the Moroc­can coun­try­side of the 1940s, it was cus­tom­ary upon a man’s death for his rel­a­tives to expel his wid­ow from the home she had shared with his extend­ed fam­i­ly but keep her chil­dren. When my great-grand­fa­ther died, his wid­ow was for­bid­den to see her daugh­ter – the light of her eyes, the very blood in her veins – ever again. At the age of five, my grand­moth­er was forced into back­break­ing house­hold labour and sub­ject­ed to beat­ings, kick­ing and abuse. She was robbed of her child­hood, deprived even of the bread and olive oil whose aro­ma used to wake her ear­ly in the morn­ing. She no longer rose as oth­er chil­dren did to find her mother’s appe­tiz­ing break­fast await­ing her before she went out to play with the chicks in their coop near the family’s house of clay and stone.

In the vil­lage where my grand­moth­er was born, the hous­es were built with clay but people’s hearts were made of stone. Her aunt used to bathe her under the rain gut­ter, scrub­bing the lit­tle girl’s frag­ile body with a piece of coarse burlap that left raw red marks on her soft child’s skin. Although our biol­o­gy lessons had nev­er taught us that there are hearts of coal, stone or iron, that cru­el aunt’s heart was with­out a doubt made of black­est coal.

It was from my grand­moth­er that I learned about hearts of iron. She told me the sto­ry of a long-ago night of hor­ror when her moth­er returned alone from a dis­tant vil­lage to res­cue her from the grip of her uncles. The moth­er ran through the dark­ness like a mad­woman with her long dress float­ing behind her and slipped into the out­er court­yard of the house, where she found her daugh­ter wait­ing. As she picked her up, a hand gripped the belt of her cloak and pulled her back­wards. It was her husband’s broth­er, “the man with a face of thun­der and the head of a snake,” as my grand­moth­er always described him. Fear­ing he would kill her, she tried to pry off his hand but he held tighter and her head­scarf slipped off. As he grabbed her braids, she clutched her daugh­ter for dear life. In a voice of pure hatred, the uncle shout­ed: “Put down the child – she’s stay­ing with us. Did you real­ly think you could trick us? Thank God I caught you!”

The dis­traught moth­er plead­ed: “Please let me take my child and bring her up myself, I beg you….”

His face dark­en­ing and his scowl deep­en­ing, the uncle snarled: “Let go of the child, you thief!”

The moth­er screamed bit­ter­ly: “You’re the thieves! You’ve stolen my daugh­ter to exploit her!”

Amazigh women of the Rif were both oppressed and fight­ers against the tyran­ny of the state in the Rif wars (source: Zamane).

The uncle seized her plaits and flung her to the ground. Wrench­ing the child from her arms, he dis­ap­peared into the house, leav­ing the moth­er pros­trate with grief.

Sev­en­ty years had passed since that har­row­ing night, but my grand­moth­er recount­ed its events as fear­ful­ly as if they were hap­pen­ing in the present, not omit­ting a sin­gle detail. Her past still rever­ber­at­ed with such pain that she would con­tin­ue talk­ing about it until death sank his talons into her soul. My grand­moth­er tore silence limb from limb, evis­cer­at­ing her life down to its last moment. She had for­got­ten noth­ing; she could enu­mer­ate the birth­days of every sin­gle rel­a­tive and the dates of the deaths, wed­dings, cir­cum­ci­sions, divorces, and mis­car­riages of all her neigh­bours and loved ones. As she sat on her spe­cial couch with the red and white embroi­dered cov­er that no one sat on but her, she would list on her short pale fin­gers when so-and-so had got­ten mar­ried, when so-and-so had got­ten divorced, when this one had mis­car­ried, and when that one had been raped.

Though she had nev­er opened a book or read a word, my grand­moth­er knew her life had been impor­tant and she had an over­whelm­ing desire to rem­i­nisce about it. Her school had been the sheep­fold, the chick­en coop, and the broad green fields, where she learned from the gen­tle­ness of lambs, the fragili­ty of chicks and the vast arc of the sky. Her teach­ers were the scratch of burlap sacks and the chill of breezes on her skin when she pas­tured the sheep at first light, her ragged dress­es, scraps of burnt bread and dried fig, and the stench of manure as she mucked out the live­stock pens.

Though my grand­moth­er was une­d­u­cat­ed, I nev­er doubt­ed that she was the great­est fem­i­nist in the world. She fought for a woman’s right to study and work, her right to dance when men were present, and her right to col­or her hands with hen­na and her eyes with kohl. My grand­moth­er spent her life bat­tling for her grand­chil­dren to enjoy the plea­sures of child­hood, remind­ing her sons and daugh­ters on every feast day to buy their chil­dren can­dy, toys and new clothes, because when peo­ple grow up, it’s only their child­hoods they remember.

I remem­ber the last time I saw my grand­moth­er. After I went to vis­it her, she sent me home with sack­fuls of fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles. What greater sign of love could there be? She had tak­en all the suf­fer­ing of her life and trans­formed it into fierce ten­der­ness and warmth.

It’s from my grand­moth­er, I think, that I inher­it­ed com­pas­sion, togeth­er with my spir­it of rebel­lion, my love of rec­ol­lect­ing the past and my pas­sion for liv­ing. Like her I adore tat­toos, ankle bracelets and rings, kohl and hen­na, danc­ing and wide green spaces. I am cap­ti­vat­ed by the sunset’s rosy face, by the sea, ros­es and tales of poor girls cast out from their homes and trans­formed into princess­es by a prince’s love. My grand­moth­er was my beau­ti­ful princess, though no prince had car­ried her off. She spent her free time perched cross-legged on her throne – the couch with its embroi­dered cov­er – telling sto­ries, eat­ing bread and pota­toes, crunch­ing sun­flower seeds and lis­ten­ing to the Andalu­sian music she loved until the lamp of her life went out.

From my grand­moth­er I heard not only about poor girls who’d become princess­es, but also the ones who didn’t. When they got preg­nant out of wed­lock, these girls tore their babies from their wombs with their bare hands, sev­er­ing the head from the body, before end­ing up behind bars. These girls had nev­er worn a swim­suit or bra, and by their for­ties their breasts reached their knees. They had nev­er shaved their legs. Their only make-up was the wood­en stick with which they red­dened their lips, they’d nev­er seen a san­i­tary tow­el, and they cut their hair only once a year, on the feast of Ashu­ra. They sham­pooed and col­ored their hair with hen­na and used it to dec­o­rate their hands and feet. Their jew­ellery was made of cheap agate which they set into bracelets, ear­rings and necklaces.

These were the girls who had noth­ing to boast of but their waist-length hair, lush eye­brows, and unsight­ly bloomers worn under even less attrac­tive bag­gy dress­es. One girl’s rel­a­tives brought her a swim­suit from Hol­land. She put it on, the first time she’d ever worn one. But when she went to the toi­let, she for­got to pull it down and soiled it instead.

These were my grandmother’s hero­ines. They hauled hay, wood, stone and buck­ets of water on their backs from dis­tant springs. They awoke before sun­rise to make their hus­bands break­fast and brought fire­wood from the near­by for­est to cook lunch. Only after the men had eat­en could their wives sit down to the left­overs, and before fin­ish­ing those they had to leap back up to pre­pare tea, clear the table, wash the dish­es, mind the chil­dren and start the sup­per. Ear­ly in the morn­ings they went out to the fields to till, sow or har­vest, while their men­folk, clad in thick warm jellabas, sat around in the local cof­fee house relax­ing with their friends over cups of mint tea, smok­ing hashish and blow­ing smoke rings, their hands rest­ing on their long canes. If a man’s son dared to approach him, his father would strike him with his cane to pre­vent him from dis­turb­ing the tran­quil atmosphere.

When they reached the age of fifty or six­ty, these women began to learn the Fati­ha and the rites of prayer. But no soon­er had they begun their prayers than they would be dis­tract­ed or drawn into con­ver­sa­tion, turn­ing around at the sound of a near­by voice or chat­ting with their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. Obliv­i­ous to the hushed sanc­ti­ty of the prayer rites, they spent their time gos­sip­ing about every­thing in their small worlds. If their sons, who had grown long beards to repent their youth­ful mis­deeds, asked them to con­cen­trate and stop inter­rupt­ing the prayers, the old women would glare bale­ful­ly at them and retort lofti­ly in their Tarafit dialect:

“Mind your own busi­ness! Mimouna th’ssen r’b­bi, r’b­bi iss’n Mimouna – Mimouna knows God and God knows Mimouna!”*

Hav­ing lost all hope of becom­ing princess­es, they grew old. In their sev­en­ties or eight­ies, they would die of the chron­ic liv­er, kid­ney or heart dis­ease or dia­betes that their hus­bands had refused to have treat­ed. After clos­ing their eyes for the last time, they were laid out in their embroi­dered dress­es, their waists cinched with white cords. Fad­ed ker­chiefs cov­ered their long orange-hen­naed hair, still damp with sweat. Their white palms, seamed with wrin­kles and tat­toos, were placed gen­tly on their stom­achs, and they lay in serene repose, as if they’d been ready to depart this life. But more often than not, their wan faces and down­cast fea­tures betrayed their grief at leav­ing before they’d seen all their sons married.


*A say­ing used in the Moroc­can Rif to express that no one has the right to inter­fere between a per­son and God.

Kather­ine Van de Vate is a for­mer diplo­mat and librar­i­an who trans­lates Ara­bic fic­tion into Eng­lish. Her trans­la­tions have appeared in Arablit Quar­ter­ly, Words with­out Bor­ders, and Asymptote.


Karima Ahdad is a journalist and writer from El Hoceima, Morocco. Ahdad is the author of two published works – a collection of short stories entitled The Last Hemorrhage of the Dream (2014) and the novel Cactus Girls (2018), from which the story “Tattoos” is excerpted. Cactus Girls was awarded the 2019 Prix Mohamed Zefzaf for the Casablanca region by the Professional Union of Moroccan Editors. Ahdad worked as a digital content editor for TRT Arabic in Istanbul before moving to Paris in summer 2021. Her new novel Hulm turki (Turkish Dream) will be published by al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi in the autumn of 2021.