Embellished Women

"Serag Al-Warfaly"

I was born to a line of great women–old women embellished with henna and ululations, their white chests exuding incense and the scent of ground wheat, their foreheads, chins and forearms inked with the cruelest, most brutal tattoos, their sharp black kohl inevitably drawing their prey right towards them. They taught me poetry and love songs, as death stood there like a joke. 

One of them gave her son money before she died, and said: “Use this to pay for my shroud and my burial expenses, and here are all my documents, so the municipal employee doesn’t waste your time.” And another one told her son: “Wash my body and bury me as soon as I die. Don’t leave me lying there like a mummified mass on my bed.” 

Their pride means that they choose to die alone. Their pain is only revealed after they’re long gone. Never will you see them break down. They teach their husbands, children and neighbors to recite the Shahadah (the Muslim profession of faith) when they’re gone. When someone is sick, they take their head into their soft laps and rub their body with warm oil and incantations. They open the baby’s mouth wide with their wrinkled fingers, and they pierce the little girl’s ears, undeterred by her tears, and then place the most beautiful earrings into the new holes. They cultivate the land, build houses, slaughter the hen, and prepare the tea with roasted cocoa from their seated positions on the leather rugs.

In the coldest of winter nights, they recount the true history of the world, from generation to generation, without embellishing the endings. They sow the minds of children with riddles that prepare them for the mysteries of life, then teach them how to come up with riddles of their own, so they themselves may become mysteries to the world. During Eid, they partake in their ancestors’ primal rituals. They mark the sacrificial animal’s head with henna, and hurl its gallbladder against the nearest wall. They stain their hands with its blood and leave their handprints on its pelage. And they hang the animal’s head from one of the corners of their roofs.  

They are shy, generous Berbers, who know all kinds of dirty jokes about men. They adore trade and know the secret life of the moon. Sailors by instinct, they can predict the weather and the direction of the winds. They’re peaceful, and yet can effortlessly lead a whole pack of hungry wolves. They protect their grandchildren from the tyranny of their fathers, and gift their daughters-in-law the keys to their own subconscious. And like all female species, they are enamored by all that’s hidden. They worship their granddaughters, for being their only true genetic heirs. And even though the myths have perished and the prophets are all out of jobs, these women still hold their positions as high priestesses of the deepest crevices in our soul. 


This photo shows a circumcision ceremony. The family gathers much like they would for a small wedding or a baptism. After two years of screaming without a clear identity, you are finally declared a boy when your maternal grandmother carries you over to the doctor to remove the foreskin off of your small penis; the same foreskin you’ll spend your teenage years thinking could’ve made a difference if it had been left intact. 

The melting pot of Libya’s history keels over in this ceremony; the mix of Judaism, Islam, and paganism, and the mix of African, Arab, Amazigh and Mediterranean traits. That primitive familial ceremony exudes a kind of happiness threaded with frankincense, black magic, and warm water; this is an atavistic magic, and a stunning portrait passed down from cave to cave. Meanwhile, you lay there in your mental and physical agony, surrounded by these Amazigh, Libyan women, clapping and singing to soothe your soul. 

All I have on me in this photo are amulets and incantations to protect me from envy and the evil eye. In the first photo, I am wearing a cap with two embroidered fish on the front, a palm showing five fingers between them (a symbol of protection against evil). There’s a small, millennia-old ivory pendant around my neck. I’m walled in by my paternal grandmother on one side and my maternal great grandmother on the other. 


In the second photo, my mother’s uncle’s wife is holding me in her hands. I was wearing a necklace made of cloves, and on my white garb are the words “Allahu Akbar,” written in saffron-infused water. Captured in the mid ‘80s, these photos have become one of the few keepsakes that remind me of Libya, the place I came from. 

Born in Tunisia, he is a poet and novelist with four poetry collections and a novel. He has received several awards in the field of poetry, and some of his works have been published and translated in Libyan and Arab websites and magazines.

Serag Al-Warfaly
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