Customs of Middle Eastern Makeup and Decoration


The following handout was compiled for a workshop which I am participating in. You are free to copy and use it as you wish ..... Me'ira


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.

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 powdered antimony, a brittle metallic elementary body of bright bluish-white colour and flaky crystalline texture. Artemis imports, a belly dance mail-order supply house, sells both light and darker grades of kohl of fine quality. It can also be found at middle 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.

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.


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
Last Modified: 15 Jun 1997
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