How wearing eyeliner is the ritual that connects me to my heritage

Written by Travel Adventures

My mother had dragged me to a family engagement party, at which men and women were segregated, per Islamic tradition, in my hometown, Sidon, South Lebanon. I often watched her when she applied her makeup, which she did ritualistically, with great care and consideration, as if it weren’t merely a beautification process but a moment of transcendence.

With six children, a full-time job, and the world’s weight on her shoulders – in a country continually teetering on the edge of collapse – she was surrounded by constant chaos. But her hand never wavered when she applied her eyeliner; it was as if the world had come to a standstill. She framed her hazel eyes with forest-green eyeliner on the planes of her eyelids and jet-black kohl along her waterlines, a look reserved for special occasions such as weddings and visits to our home from family friends and potential suitors who wished to ask for my hand in marriage. Steadily, and with great precision, she would close one eye and swipe the kohl applicator along her waterlines, allowing both rims to catch the pigment. When she opened her made-up eyes, I marvelled at her beauty.

Eyeliner speaks a universal language of transformation. But its roots lie firmly in the East, beginning with ancient Egypt, where the earliest evidence of its use dates to at least 3100 BCE, and where it was used for medicinal, spiritual, and cosmetic purposes. In Africa’s ancient Land of Punt (2500-980 BCE) the mineral galena was likely used as a source for kohl, and people across the continent, from Berbers in Morocco to Oromos in Ethiopia, also use kohl to repel the sun and to beautify or medicate their eyes. In the Global South, it goes by a variety of names: kajal or surma in South Asia, kohl in Arabic cultures, and in the Persian language, it’s called sormeh. Its influence is undeniable and can convey messages about power, rebellion, and a commitment to moral codes in a single stroke.

To wear eyeliner and learn about its origins is to bring not only ourselves but also some of the world’s most fascinating cultures into focus. Kohl is also a cause for celebration and pride, a tool laden with centuries of layered histories – of empires, queens and kings, poets, writers, and nomads – we carry all that history with us in that little tube, pencil or pot.

A guide to Kohl Culture around the world

Spiritual Kohl in ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian men and women across all social strata wore kohl, created from a sooty powder, in thick black lines around their eyes. Culturally, beautification was treated as an art and spiritual or healing ritual; wearing it both honoured and sought protection from the gods. The well-preserved specimens from their burial rituals show that the wealthy were often buried with their prized possessions so they could look attractive in the afterlife. In their tombs were bags of kohl made of linen or leather, and cartonnage carvings or “death masks” found on ancient Egyptian tombs boasted younger versions of the departed, all with heavily lined eyes.

Kohl for wodaabe men in Chad

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