Photographer Trécy Wuattier on Reconnecting With Her Berber Roots in Tunisia
Last year, in 2022, photographer Trécy Wuattier travelled to Tunisia for the first time in 12 years, with her grandma and mother as her travel companions. Both her relatives were born in the North African country and were raised there. With roots in Berber culture, they immigrated to France, and later, Wuattier relocated to the US. For the photographer, this trip to Tunisia was a homecoming; a time to revisit her roots and find what's left of Berber culture in particular. A marginalised diaspora that's scattered across the world, traces of Berber culture still remain in Tunisia today, and on her trip, Wuattier sought to find a connection to this past.
Journeying around the region for two weeks, the trio travelled across the country from Tunis to Chenini Tatouine via the island of Djerba. From symbolic tattoos to harissa and the ojja dish, Wuattier spoke to us about documenting the vibrant experiences and flavours she reconnected with in Tunisia.
How did you feel visiting Tunisia? Did you discover anything about yourself there?
[With] my family being from Tunisia and Libya, I had spent quite some time in the country prior to this trip. This was my first time going back since the Arab spring uprisings of 2011, which had started in Tunis. Some of my family members' recollections of the events were daunting enough that I hadn't felt like the time was right for me to return, until my trip a couple months ago.
My main discovery is that no amount of personal, societal or political conflict can change the overwhelming feeling of being in my element when I am there. The familiarity of the heat, the scent of the air; words can’t quite describe the connection that one feels to home. My family immigrated to France, then I immigrated to the US and I had quite somewhat conveniently forgotten how much this country means to me. The attachment is so profound it felt like a physical experience of peace, to finally touch ground on the motherland.
Can you tell us about your experience meeting a tattoo artist there?
Going to see Manel was one of the first things I did when I landed. I discovered her brilliant work online via a documentary the French-German channel Arte had done on her. They documented the trip she made to remote villages in order to meet the last tattooed Berber women of Tunisia. She did a remarkable job collecting stories from these women, and recording each of the symbols tattooed on their skin as well as their significations.
I couldn't help but reach out to Manel as some women in my family were also tattooed with these symbols, but passed away before I could ever have the opportunity to ask questions. My grandma would always remind me, “We’re Berber, you know!” but every time I would ask what that meant, she failed to find the words to explain. I felt a deep need to know more, to reconnect to the story of my family. Manel and I therefore met in her home of La Marsa, close to Sidi Bou Said in the north of Tunisia where she showed me the large extent of the archive of Berber symbols she created. That same day she tattooed my leg with the symbols of scissors and clous de girofle – symbols of protection. For me, it symbolises a commitment to reunite with my roots, my family, my mother’s country.
During the tattooing session many of our conversations explored the societal situation of the region. We touched upon her situation as a tattoo artist in a predominantly Muslim country, which considers body modifications – specifically tattoos – as sinful. Nonetheless, our exchange mostly gravitated towards the blessings that came with the role she took on, of conservationist and protector of the indigenous culture. Lastly, she helped me prepare the itinerary of the rest of my trip on the traces of Tunisian Berber culture.
Who’s another memorable person you met on your trip?
Mongi Bouras, the founder of the Berber museum of Tamazret, is one of the most generous, kind and passionate person I met on this trip. He created the museum inside a traditional semi-troglodyte home that has been in his family for several generations. In a few hours, he walked us through a lot of the history of the Berber culture, but also touched upon the fact that history books of Tunisia have yet to be corrected on that subject.
A not-so-fun fact is that children of Tunisia are taught that Berber people were bedouins, nomadic, while in reality, Berber populations were very much sedentary. To use a popular image, I would say the Berber population used to live in ways that are very similar to the way dwarves in The Hobbit live; inside a mountain, with many tunnels connecting each home, and many secret passageways. If travelling to visit the very rich museum Mongi created, I recommend letting him know in advance – his information is available on the Google page of the museum – that you would like to try culinary specialties of the area, as the food needs to be made to order so nothing goes to waste.
Another person I met on this trip was Boubou, local to the village of Chenini Tataouine, one of the last Berber villages inhabited in Tunisia. There, we stayed at Dar Kenza, where we slept inside rooms traditionally dug inside the mountain, with their white walls plastered in limewash to maintain a cool indoor temperature during the warmest season. Walking with Boubou through the ksours, past the immaculate mosk hovering on top of the mountain, and through each “holes'' of the village's hills, learning about ancient agricultural techniques people used to sustain themselves, was one of the most soul-nourishing moments of the trip. It felt like I had been in these rooms before. A very long-lasting deja vu lingered in me. These feelings ignited a profound need to bring light on the history of this region. The governments recently in place have given little to no attention to these regions [which are] in desperate need of help to conserve the heritage.
Architecture-wise, the ksours are eroding, landslides have caused multiple accidents, and with these falls disappear the archeological traces of people that stood for beautiful principles, such as non-violence. I feel incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to see the village at dawn and sunset, and that I was able to document in detail the way these mountains stand. I truly hope my images can ignite a desire to go see these rich sites, to support the local population and help preserve the history.
What are some of your highlights from the southern region?
Being on the road with my mother and grandma through the desert. The colours of the sky at sunset, while everything you see for miles is sand and very distant peaks. The Tunisian music on the radio that somehow always worked while having no reception whatsoever for hours. The occasional group of goats and sheep with no sign of human activity in sight, as if they had been sprinkled here and there by accident more than design. The restaurant Chez Abdul on the road from Tamazret back to Djerba, where I had harissa so spicy I felt myself faint (but what bliss!). The arrival back to our anchor spot of Djerbahood, the neighbourhood we stayed in on the island of Djerba. The little takeout restaurant next to our place, Resto Montasser, where I would almost solely ever order ojja – my favourite dish.
Did you connect with the local communities while travelling there?
In two weeks, despite our constant moves, we managed to carve out time to meaningfully sit around tea, coffee or meals with locals of each place we visited. My grandmother helped make any and all communications clearer as her level of Tunisian and Arabic remains way higher than my mother or mine. Each of these moments with locals we met, whether in Tataouine or Djerba, felt like being with family. Everyone welcomed us with the utmost generosity, kindness and openmindedness.
What are some of the learnings you’re taking away with you?
Not everything there is, will always be, has always been. Tunisia is a country that has gone through severe and radical changes over centuries, where for many years, in Berber culture, tolerance and sharing were principles that remained throughout multiple invasions and occupations of the land. Mainly, I was reminded to have faith and gratitude. I left feeling incredibly lucky to have [had] the possibility of going on this trip with my mother and grandmother. Furthermore, of course, I am taking with me stories of people I’ve met.
Are there any practices or rituals you’ve incorporated into your life since you embarked on the trip?
The symbols in Tunisia were quite different than in other Berber countries such as Algeria and Morocco, and this part of the culture isn’t as celebrated. Partly for this reason, I intend to go back to Tunisia, to Manel specifically, and get tattooed with more of the symbols that were customarily applied on women. That way I hope to keep a part of the Berber culture of Tunisia alive by carrying some of it with me across my many travels.