Customs of Middle Eastern Women: Makeup and Decoration
Staining the nails, skin and hair with henna is the favorite way of
enhancing beauty amongst women in the Middle East. It is used as
both a hair treatment as well as a dye to make decorative designs on
the skin. Henna cosmetics are made from the Egyptian evergreen
plant, Lawsonia inermis, whose shoots and leaves yield an extract
which is mixed with catechu, an astringent substance obtained from
various trees and shrubs. Arabians crush dried berries from this
plant to obtain a red powder.
Black henna (saumer) is reserved for the soles of the feet and
hands while red henna is used for the tips of the fingers and toes. It
involves the additional use of another paste made from powdered
lime (nura) and powdered crystal amoniac (shanadah). The orange
markings then turn black and then remain on the skin for about
twenty or thirty days. Both red and black henna can commonly be
purchased from international grocery stores. There are some health
concerns with black henna on the skin; I only recommend using the red.
The application of henna is a ritual which may take up to 6
hours. After all ingredients are mixed and designs applied the
person shouldn't disturb painted areas for 6 hours or more,
depending upon the richess of color and how long you want the
design to stay on. This recipe was given by a Moroccan woman for
henna application:(1) Purchase fresh red powder henna (Afshan or
Sadaq brands boxed and wrapped. 2) one cup brewed black tea,
allowed to sit overnight, 3) 1 tsp of fresh lemon juice from a lemon
which sat in the sun 12 hours or more, 4) blass bowl, not ceramic,
5) mixing spoon, 6) Rose and Orange water to wash hands and feet
before application. For application, the traditional N. African tool
is a Mishwak pick, but you can also use cake decorators, stencils
from craft shops (taped to body first). There may also be available
for purchase henna pens from Pakistan.
Kohl (khur, kuhl, kahal, or kohol) is a black substance used by
the women of the Arabian Peninsula as eyeliner and eyeshadow.
Apart from making the eyes look brighter and larger, kohl was once
believed to have value as a protection against eye disease. It's
blackness also controls the sun's glare in the desert, and thus it is
used by both men and women of the desert.
Kohl is a powder. Some sources define it as antimony, a brittle metallic
elementary body of bright bluish-white colour and flaky crystalline texture.
However, as far as I can tell (and I'm not a chemist) the version used
for make up does not appear to have the same issues as that used for industrial
processing. I have never heard of anyone having allergies or problems
with kohl powder. Some belly dance mail-order supply houses sell both
light and darker grades of kohl of fine quality. It can also be found
eastern grocery stores, but beware of any powder which does not
appear to be very finely and consistently ground. The "kohl"
pencils used in modern makeup are a completely different item and
should not be applied in the manner the powder is applied, next to
the eye. Women in India also have some safe liquid alternatives, but these
look very heavy and obvious compared to kohl powder.
To apply kohl you need: 1) a small stick or large toothpick
which has both ends rounded off. Place this in olive oil overnight
so that it soaks into the wood. You may also use the olive oil to
clean your stick after use. 2) a packet of kohl powder.
IMPORTANT: If you wear contact lenses you must apply kohl
BEFORE inserting lenses. (Mandatory legal disclaimer: In my
experience this has not damaged my gas-permeable contact lenses,
however I accept no liability if somehow you feel that it has
damaged yours.) To proceed with application: pick up stick in
right hand to apply to right eye. Dip tip of stick into kohl powder.
Hold stick parallel to eye, and starting at the inner point of the eye,
run it between the eyelids ACTUALLY TOUCHING THE EYE.
(It doesn't hurt, really.) Re-powder stick, pick up in left hand and
repeat on the other side. You may also enhance your eyebrows, or
draw points off the end of your eyes.
You will feel when it is in the correct location, and you will have
your eyelids nicely black around the roots of the eyelashes with no
white skin showing. Kohl is water-proof but not "spit-proof",
which is a great atribute in hot climates. A tiny amount of power
will last you a couple of years, and it's much healthier for your eye
than commercial cosmetics which you wouldn't dare put into your
eye. Excess powder will gather at the corner of the eyes and you
can remove it. It is much less artificial looking than painting a line
outside the lids with commercial eyeliners; people will notice your
eyes, but they won't be quite sure why.
Rouge (zerkoun), a fine red powder prepared from safflower
(Carthamus tinctorius) was used to paint ladies' cheeks in
traditional Arabia. It was also applied to the lips. The Bedouin of
Arabia are known to have used the red roots of the Arnebia
decumbens (a plant of the Boragnaceae family) to make rouge.
EAR-PIERCING and NOSE-PIERCING
In Arabia a girl usually has her ears pierced at birth, and a
Bedouin child may have them pierced in two or three places. The
holes are kept open with silk cords until she is old enough to wear
ear-rings. There are even some pieces of jewelry which attach to
the nose, and then attach to other head ornaments.
Tattoo, the practice of making permanent marks or designs on
the skin by puncturing and inserting a pigment or pigments, is
practised by many groups of women. It began in Mesopotamia
thousands of years ago, and is especially popular amongst the
Marsh Arabs. The various patterns of facial tatoos are invariably
geometric, and sometimes indicate tribal status.
Authentic old Arabian garments will be steeped in incense. The
ancient Egyptians were immensely fond of frankincense and myrrh
attar produced in southern Arabia. Popular attars today include:
musk, henna, amber, jasmine, lavender, and lemon grass. One
practical aspect of attars is that the one derived from the henna
flower is said to be an excellent anti-perspirant.
ART OF ARABIAN COSTUME by Heather Colyer Ross
Information on kohl application - personal experience
Information on henna courtesy of Kimberly Cyr