This is supposed to start with a "and there I was, and—" sort of thing. There I was standing in this bookstore, of all places...
But the fact is, I've always gotten off on bookstores. And libraries. (But only really really good ones.) And I do so love the smell of musty books... and ink.
So I guess what happened may have been inevitable, and doesn't start with "and there I was—" at all. Because I was always there. Always.
So. If I say "when I was a kid my dad took me to Holmes Bookstore in San Francisco, and gave me a dollar—" —well, many stories would begin this way. And so, I have a history with bookstores. And, as I said, with libraries too. And, I'm afraid to say, I've had more than one peak and downright orgasmic moment in one or the other.
So. To start with "there I was—" becomes kind of silly, since I was, so much of the time, there. It was, I suppose bound to happen.
My official favorite bookstore in the world is Le Tiers Mythes, which is kind of behind the Sorbonne on the tiny Rue Cujas off the Boul Mich in Paris. I've been going to this bookstore every trip to Paris for decades.
And each trip, the bookshop keeper would take a look at me, reach up somewhere on the tottering shelves, and hand me something and say—"this is for you."
And my life would shift into a new pattern from that point until the next.
So. I was standing there. As always, in exactly the same spot I tend to go to. And in front of me was a reprint of a Revue Africaine from around 1885 and I was just holding it in my hands, not even open, when one of those moments emerged—
"What if—" I thought.
That's how the good moments start, isn't it?
I remember exactly what that moment felt like. One of those moments when everything just clicks into place, even if no one else on the planet gives a shit.
"What if North African tattoo patterns were really a lost ancient writing system of the Amazigh people?"
Yah, it's one of those kind of bookshops. Highly specialized for those interested in the legacy of French colonialism throughout the world, but particularly in the Middle East and especially North Africa. And feminisms of the so-called Third World. Revolutionary figures from same. Thus the name: 'Le Tiers Mythes' — but this was an esoteric moment even for there.
The bookseller went down the ladder into the dark bowels of storage, and came out with a stack of century old journals and reprints of same. And clunked them down in front of me.
I started collecting as many Revue Africaine reprints from that period as I could. There were a series of articles by a Capitaine Rinn on the origins of Tifinagh, the writing system of the Berber (Amazigh) language, Tamazight. Rinn took an approach completely different from any study of a writing system I'd ever seen before.
And I did what any impressionable anthropologist of a certain age would do: I wrote a little grant proposal to study the possibility of studying the problem.
The idea was (as far fetched as it might sound) to drive down into the Sahara to the oldest Library in North Africa to look for documents that might link the images in tattoo patterns to the ancient tifinagh script.
First stop was Casa, to meet with a local professor who I'd heard was interested in the tifinagh problem. This was Day One of our expedition to the the Sahara. Luckily, I'd brought my Michelin map of Morocco with me to the professor's house.
"I thought so too," he said. "So I went down there. And your vehicle, by the way, you would never have made it that deep into the desert. Jamais."
My grant didn't cover an expedition-worthy vehicle. I did, however, have a clunker. I hadn't really thought 'methodology' through, I was so caught up in this ridiculous proposition.
"There's nothing there," he said.
Everything in the ancient Library had been stolen or 'redistributed' long ago. It had long ago been emptied of its treasures.
"But anyway, for what you are after, that's not the right place," he said, as if this were an Indiana Jones movie and I was digging in the wrong place.
He took my map and drew a big circle on it surrounding an entirely different territory.
"That's where you will find what you are looking for," he said. We finished our tea, I thanked him, and left.
It feels like fraud.
You know—when you write a proposal for one kind of research only to discover that your premise (and therefore your entire methodology) is entirely just plain wrong. Day One of this project, and I had to rethink the entire enterprise.
Drove back to where we were staying. The house of a friend of a friend of a friend. Where, too, were other friends of friends crashed out on cushions on the floor.
When I came back looking so despondent, my host gave me that look and asked what could possibly have gone wrong before I'd even started my expedition.
I pointed to the map. One finger trying to account for the entire region of the Middle Atlas Mountains to where I was now being redirected.
"My grandmother lives right there," one of the friends of friends of host said. "And she's got tattoos like you're looking for. And we're going there tomorrow to celebrate Eïd. And you are welcome to come and join us."
His grandmother lived right there—exactly where my random pointed finger had indicated the vastness of the entire mountain range. And so, right then and there the new direction of my inquiry took (re)direction.
Years later, and many grandmother's tattoos later—I found myself in the valley before a fortress village way south and deep in the High Atlas Mountains. The valley and steep mountain sides on either side of the river looked uncannily familiar.
And I glanced at my tattooed hands.
The tattoo on my left hand suddenly appeared to be a map. Not a treasure map, but a map of this very valley. And with the help of Capitaine Rinn's articles from the 1880s and beyond, I was able to decipher it.
On my hand was a stylized river surrounded by two mountains just like what was right in front of me. With Amazigh tents on each side—little triangles inside the larger triangles. And on my hand was (using Rinn to decipher it) at the peak of each triangle was the symbol for a matriarch gathering her sons about her.
A call to arms.
And that's what we found. The height of a movement for Amazigh language revival. You could tell by the spray painted graffiti on the mountain walls. A call to arms (without the arms) before it's too late. A call, it turned out, to preserve tifinagh and the Amazigh language, Tamazight before it disappeared entirely in the next generation.
And was there a connection between Amazigh tattoo patterns and tifinagh, the ancient writing systems? Undoubtedly. But the women of the High Atlas did not know of it.
"It's forbidden," they said.
No more tattoos. No more tifinagh.
All that was left were the patterns.
And the women diligently put the patterns into their rugs. And into their pottery. And the men put the patterns into their architecture.
"It's just decoration," the women insisted.
"Folklore," the men said with a smile.
"We speak Arabic now," they said in not-quite Arabic.
"You can take pictures," they said. "We love tourists."
"But you cannot ask questions."
"Or write anything down."
"Writing will get us arrested."
And they put their fingers to their mouths, to shush me.
And I took pictures.