HAK Profile: Yasmin Bendaas - Journalist

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I’m a North Carolina born and raised, dual US and Algerian citizen. If it sounds complicated, it gets more complicated, because my mother’s Iranian. I suppose after growing up navigating the interwoven cultures that made up my life, it made perfect sense that I’d end up majoring in Anthropology in college. It was also in college that I undertook a project to travel back to Algeria to learn more about the indigenous tattoo tradition that my grandmother (portrait below) carried on her forehead.

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As a student fellow for the Pulitzer Center, I spent two months in the Aurès Mountain region of Algeria, conducting interviews and photographing 20 Algerian women with facial tattoos. The project also served as my fieldwork for my thesis in anthropology, which looked at the contribution to identity, symbolic meaning, and reason for disappearance of these traditional tattoos, primarily belonging to an indigenous group called the Chaouia.

The women I had the privilege of interviewing were aged 70-90 years old, and since
the time of my fieldwork in 2012, half have passed away. I used to joke that I went to Algeria with one grandmother and left with 20, so news of any woman’s passing was particularly difficult to absorb. I worked to revisit the women on subsequent trips, but each time, there were fewer and fewer to see. Consequently, their photographs and voices on my recorder began to take on a whole new meaning for me.

I can still hear their voices at the press of a button. I hear their struggles through Algeria’s brutal battle for independence. I hear their tattoos as a marker of time, from when they were first tattooed, to when they were married, to when they gave birth to their children. I hear some speak fondly of how beautiful the marks on their faces made them feel, and I hear others speak of them with regret. I listen to them answer questions they probably thought no one would ever care to ask them about their disappearing tradition.

Rabaiya Milawi’s cracking voice still resounds in my ears, “We are fading. Our health…our dreams. Everything is fading, young girl.” It was through her that I realized it is not the tattoos that are disappearing, it is the bearer of the tattoos who are disappearing. But here in this voice recorder, I still find a piece of her through her story. It is a sobering reminder as a journalist that our stories may live longer than our sources.

This work takes an immense amount of respect not only for the craft, but for the original storytellers. Interviewing these women has had a profound effect on every step of my work, from how I consider questions, to how I conduct interviews, and how I center the original storytellers so that their voices are shared authentically.

In today’s fast-paced, clickbaity world of news, a commitment to in-depth stories has kept me sane—because these are the kinds of stories worth the time. And if you look close enough, there are so many people, often overlooked, with stories so worth the time. It is the duty of our craft as journalists to be responsible to those stories and to share them well.

May we learn to listen.

Yasmin can be contacted atyasmin.bendaas@gmail.com