Friday, December 14, 2012

Goddess Eyes: 5,000 Years in the Making

 With eyes painted black, you will lure your husband and warn all jinn. I watched my host mother laugh deeply while the women around her agreed in ululation and lolled their tongues while she smeared kohl under her niece’s eyes. I had never seen such a beautiful bride.

(National Geographic)

The Pyramids. The Nile. Egyptian eyes. In any dusty tourist-y shop around Egypt, you can find postcards and hokey antiquities memorabilia etched with images of Aankhs, Cleopatra, and hieroglyphs. The most seductive and exotic image of them all are dark painted eyes. When I was in a gift shop idly looking at gallabeyas I bumped into a British tourist, a true pyramidiot (she insisted she was Nefertiti incarnated), who was fascinated by my eyes and insisted I was Egyptian. “I want to paint my eyes like yours so I will look like a queen”. She bought a stick of eyeliner labeled Cleopatra Kohl for 100 Egyptian pounds (roughly 17 dollars. 12 dollars too much). I don’t blame her romantisization. Popular depictions of Ancient Egypt in the West portray sultry queens with intensely lined eyes captivating and seducing Pharaohs and audiences. Elizabeth Taylor’s look in Cleopatra inspired an entire era of fashion and lines of cosmetics around the world. Egyptian cosmetic aesthetics, however, aren’t simply ornamental. The darkening of eyes in Egypt has a fascinating history of purpose deeper than face value: spirituality, curing ailments, and warning spirits.

(Science NOW)

Pharaonic Eyes: Medicine and Beauty
The first uses of eye enhancement cosmetics can be traced to the earliest tombs. There were three main types of kohl and eye paints- malachite (green copper ore), galena (grey lead ore), and a soot made from burning vegetation and organic matter (Lucas 42). The method of application was not as efficient and simple as the eyeliner we have taken for granted in little L’Oreal tubes and Este Lauder twist-off pencils. The malachite and galena eye paints were made into cakes and were placed on elaborately carved palettes. Ancient Egyptians had to apply the paints by grinding pigments and dipping in water or oil to apply. Kohl made from soot was and continues to be used as a loose powder applied with the tip of the finger (Lucas 43).

I know what you are thinking. Why would the ancient Egyptians paint their eyes with lead? Eyeliner was used to cure of eye ailments. In an article published in Science Now, the combination of lead salts in the liner described in religious scrolls and found in tombs (Cottingham). Modern day kohl made of soot also has feeling properties. According to Dr. Sandra Diane Lane, a scholar who specializes in medical anthropology in Egypt, writes about communities in Upper Egypt that still apply kohl to combat eye disease and inflammation (Lane 162). Ingredients such as lemon juice, salt, nutmeg, and aloe vera are added to the cosmetics for medical purposes for both men and women (Lane 178).

Beautiful Beware: Eyeliner as Magic
Kohl had and continues to have spiritual values to protect against the evil eye (Hawass). When I was in Nubia during Eid break, I lived in a Nubian village called Garb El Sahel (across from Aswan) with a host family. My host mother’s niece and nephew were getting married and I was invited to experience the wedding from the men’s side and the women’s side. It was interesting to be engaged with both spaces  and parties because I could get a holistic understanding and experience of the wedding. Because of my unique position of knowing the groom’s (arris) party and the bride’s (arrusa) party, I was able to sit with the women inside the home and outside with men smoking shisha by the barbershop where the arris was preparing for the wedding. As Dr. Anne Jennings describes in her book The Nubians of West Aswan, being a woman studying a high- context society, in which gender roles are complementary and segregated in inner and outer spaces, enables her the ability to fluctuate between gender- specific spaces and gain access where a male scholar might not be able to (Jennings 3). During the wedding, I too felt that I had the opportunity to go between spaces because I was considered an outsider woman by the arris’s party so strict gender codes were loosened for me. The arrusa’s party, however, saw me as one of their own because I was a young woman travelling by myself and thus reached out to me as mothers or sisters.

During the henna party, I sat with the woman and tried to parse through the Arabic gossip. My host sister Fatima explained everything around me. There was a strong earthy smoky smell in the air and I asked Fatima about it. She told me that her mother was making kohl from dates. I was immediately interested. How could eyeliner be made from dates. I first wanted to know why the Nubian women used eyeliner in the first place other than for aesthetics purposes. Fatima told it was for women to stare down the evil eye and free her from bad omens that might shake her on her wedding night.

(ABC. Photo of half submerged date trees in Old Nubia during the building of High Dam)

 Dates were extremely important to the cultural economy on Old Nubia. Before Nasser’s High Dam was built and the Nubian community dispersed to Aswan and other shanty villages in the desert, Old Nubia laid out on the banks of the Nile and it was said that there were more than one million date palm trees that provided shade and raw material to the Nubian way of life. Every part of the tree was used- the bark for rope, the fronds for beds and mats, the body to construct fences and barriers to keep in livestock, seeds of dates were used to make kohl, and the dates as food and currency. When Old Nubia was submerged by dam construction, Nubians lost their currency and had to resort to paper money and coins. Even though the trees were lost, dates and palm trees are still a pride for the Nubian community and visible in every fabric of the village community: dates were served to guests at the wedding. Men and women lounged on couches made from sturdy date fronds. Date palm wine was secretly drunk by older men outside the wedding party. Date seed eyeliner lined the eyes of the blushing bride.

I watched her attend to the charring date pits and was impressed by the DIY (do it yourself) hack of natural surroundings. I was also amazed that this tradition of preparing kohl is more than 5,000 years old and was enfolding before my very eyes.

Preparing kohl the Nubian (and Pharonic) way is simple but takes some time. If you are interested in wearing the same style of eyeliner the Ancient Egyptian wore years ago, here are the steps in order to make it with the comfort in your kitchen and with materials you have in your cabinets. You do not need an open fire like the Nubian women did when I was attending the wedding. With a simple stove, spatula, mortar and pestle, pot, oil, and patience, you can make Pharonic kohl. You don’t have to be 17 dollar eye pencil at a touristy shop in Upper Egypt to have eyes painted like Cleopatra’s.
11. First, seed the dates by removing the soft outer layer. The dates make a tasty treat when roasting the seeds.

22. Place the seeds in the center of the pot or pan and set your stove on full blast.

3. The seeds will start to blacken after 15 minutes. Turn the seeds over so they blacken uniformly. You can turn them over with a spatula. 

4.  After 30- 45 minutes, the seeds will look a bit darker. Keep eating dates as you sit patiently.

5.     After an hour or so, the seeds will be completely black.

6.     At this time, the seeds will be a bit softer so with a spatula, you can break chips off the seeds.

7.     Turn down the stove and try to break the pieces down carefully so small pieces do not fly out of the pan. When the charred pits are cool, mash with a mortar and pestle until extremely fine.

8.     Your eyeliner should be ready! It should be extremely fine and powdered. In the picture I made, I roasted a handful of seeds and my kohl should last me a month. I estimate that half of a pit should be enough for one use. Mix 1 drop of olive oil to the fine soot. And you have Pharonic eyeliner!

I look and feel like a goddess. Priya-tari, your royal highness.

Works Cited

Cottingham, Katie. "Egyptian Eyeliner May Have Warded Off Disease –

ScienceNOW." Science/AAAS | News - Up to the minute news and

features from Science.. N.p., 8 Jan. 2010. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.

Hawass, Zaki. Personal interview. 1 Dec. 2012.

Jennings, Anne M. The Nubians of West Aswan: village women in the midst

of change. Boulder: L. Rienner Publishers, 1995. Print.

Lucas, A. "Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt." The Journal of Egyptian

Archaeology 16.1/2 (1930): 41-53. Print.

Lane , Sandra Dianne. "A Biocultural Study of Trachoma in an Egyptian

Hamlet." UMI 1 (1988): 1-225. Print.

Friday, October 26, 2012

besos besos, don't think of me yet

Dear blog

My deepest burden- you terrify me. Your stupid tabula rasa bullshit is so Western Philosophy 101, I am not having it. So as your waves of nothingness crash on me, I'll stand tall. I mean it. My excuse for not writing so much is fear. I know- a cliche. But it will suffice for now because I have important things to say before I leave. 

I have T- minus 57 minutes until I need to hop on a metro to Ramses station and travel 13 hours down the sinewy curve of the Nile's back. I need this trip because I have many things on my mind that I hope to collide with in the comfort of palm fronds and Nubian bread. More will soon follow I PROMISE nena you and your separation anxiety! Its ok, habibti, I am nervous too. This is not Mexico where the eññas flow off my tongue. I'll have to manage with the awkward ﻉ's that clogs my throat and read signs that look like words galloping away from me. If I can survive Ramses, I can inhale sweet smoke by the Nile and watch sunsets while standing knee deep in blue Nile water. I need to leave the city because I am on the brink of swallowing my own heart. Nena, I promised you and will think of you as I watch sugarcane swing in the Northern wind and marvel at the gradual darkness of men's faces at train stops.  Te quiero mas de mi piel. 


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Learning AAAHHHrabic

The past weeks has been full of curses and blessings.
I came to Egypt not knowing a word of Arabic. I was originally studying Latin America and I prided myself on my Spanish speaking skills and ability to code switch in and out of Chiapanecan (a state in Mexico I had conducted research in) and US cultures. I naively thought Egypt would be relatively as easy as researching in Mexico. I never realized how foreign Arabic sounds to me. I try to strain my ears when speaking to my baowab (doorman), searching through the string of “ga’s” and “kha’s” for a single recognizable word. Midway through the week, I realized that my inability to communicate made me sulk on the balcony. A part of me felt like I made a terrible mistake coming to Cairo. For starters I don’t speak the language. My parents encouraged me- it would be just fine. That was why I was going to Cairo. I sometimes feel that I should have fought with them for Arabic classes over the summer! I would be able to smile and say Salaam on the street without flinching or scold the fruit seller who I know whispers dirty things to me in my ear as I pass by, but I can’t even understand him! I sit here deaf and dumb in my new world.  
I am really concerned about the language barrier. Perhaps it is my own ego but I gloat on my anthropological lens that had been finely tuned by a rich blend of theory classes peppered with colorful, insightful, and complex ethnographies. I guess academia didnt’t prepare me for misplaced syllables in my speech. My goal here in Cairo is to plug into the academic and artistic micro-cultures here in the city. I know that in intellectual circles, language will not be a barrier. But I want to refer to an Umm Khalthoum song and share this within the new circles I am in the process of connecting with. I also want to be able to greet my neighbors in proper Arabic. The language barrier may be frustrating but moments although sour at times, can be so wonderful.
My first day in Cairo I found the Dokki metro and made my way to Islamic Cairo only with the help of a map. I even haggled for hibiscus tea. I prided myself in finding my stride amongst the tides of traffic.          
When the tongue fails, my fingers do the talking. I was embarrassed by the very notion of people possibly getting frustrated with the clumsiness of my Arabic, but that is exactly why I am here. I should be humbled. Soon enough, insha’ Allah, the squiggly lines on street signs will read as ‘Tahrir Street’ or ‘NaHda Street’. Sometimes I envy my classmates as they are able to at least speak to their baowab as they pass by him. But I know that it is difficult for them too. My blessing is the suppression of my ego. I think this will make learning Arabic easier for me. Learning a language means being a child again. My schema is constantly stimulated by Arabic. Maybe because I am in survival mode, but I am starting to remember certain letter patterns while looking at street signs. I am trying to make connections between what I know and what I do not. Songs will help. Or that is what I am told. I know it is silly but making pneumonic devices will help. Singing will help. Giant ruled pages of notebook paper will help. I will learn as though I am in elementary school again. Although it makes me squirm, I will have to listen and sing-a-long with alphabet songs. Only now the songs are in Arabic with birds shaped like “miims” and alligators that like “ghayns”. Cue the music- it is time for Arabic class.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Pharoahs Alive

Last week, the AMIDEAST Egypt study abroad group and I took a Nile cruise travelling against the currents to Upper Nile. For those unaware of Egyptian geography, the Nile flows from the south to the north of Egypt, emptying into the ocean north of Cairo and forming the Nile River Delta. 

We began our journey with an over-night train to Luxor. I did not know what to expect. While laying down in our sleeper-train bunk beds, my roommate Kathleen and I, while rocking with the train, excitedly whispered about what we might see, hear, and who we might meet. I am aware of my hopeless romanticism of antiquities and all things ancient that has been kindled from years of watching National Geographic and Discovery Chanel specials with my father.

 These shows, rich with dramatic Oriental music, flowery superlatives, and charismatic experts like Dr. Zaki Hawass, the former Minister of Antiquities, inspired me to study cultures- dead and alive.  

When we arrived in Luxor it was 5 in the morning. The sun was peeping out between temple walls, and that is when I fell in love. The sheer size of Karnak temple dumbfounded me. To imagine that these temples have been standing for a few thousand years leaves me numb. Coming from the United States, I cannot even fathom something that is so old. The history of what we call the United States is young and we have little connection of civilizations before the settlers of Pilgrim Rock. Egypt is a whole different story.

I pressed my hands to the stone walls (our secret because we technically aren’t supposed to) It was cool and sturdy. It was real. Walking through the ancient halls made me feel so small. I was towered by columns the width of six of me and a height of eight of me.

Above, I could still see rich blues, yellows, and terra-cottas which have stood the test of time and never faded. In those moments, I was sad. When I was a kid, my father and I promised we would go here together one day. A history buff, Baba always told me fabulous stories of strong kings and glorious kingdoms. He used to travel the world in the comfort of his La-Z Boy recliner by flipping through travel books, planning trips he would never be able to live out. Here I was across the Nile experiencing what he had always wanted to do.

But it was Baba who sent me here with warm wishes. He was the one who encouraged me to study abroad wherever I wanted to go. He gave me his marked up Lonely Planet with places he would want to see. He was the one who told me that once I drink from the Nile, I would always go back.  When I return to Egypt, Baba and I will walk the halls of Karnak together.

Romance prevails, reality intrudes. While I was walking parallel to the outside walls of the temple, I noticed a perfectly shaped crescent indent in the stone façade. It was as if someone had carefully and consistently taken a rock to the stone temple for what reason I did not know. 

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” my anthropology professor Dr. Nicole Hansen approached me from behind. I was supposed to go on her tour but I went off by myself first. I blushed profusely because I was expected to have gone with her and I was afraid she would call me out on it. An Egyptologist by trade, Dr. Hansen studies the connections between ancient and modern Egyptian societies. Dr. Hansen told me that these bizarre incisions have been made by women who in villages around Luxor. These women crumble the stone into finely grinded powder to mix with water and drink to increase their fertility. We kept walking.

We kept talking until out of the corner of my eye, I saw something that looked oddly familiar. On the wall ahead of me was a hieroglyph that I recognized from my anthropology class with Dr. Hansen. It was a glyph with three lines that were tied together at the top. I got on my knees just to make sure, and I could not believe it. The night before when I was riding the train to Luxor, I was reading an academic article for class about birth rituals in Upper Egypt found in villages today. When a woman is soon to conceive, her family ties three foxtails to the front door to shoo away evil spirits and to symbolize the birth of a new child. The same symbol can be found in etched in rock thousands of years ago on the face of a temple. Five days after Karnak, while visiting a Nubian village, I saw three fox tails hanging above a door.

My moment of academic bliss was interrupted as the tourists began to pour in. We had been an hour early at the temple so I had had the luxury of having Karnak all to myself. But now, hundreds of tourists dressed rather immodestly (for Egyptian standards) gawked and photographed away.  I watched a woman in a tank top and a short skirt take the hand of her toddler whose little bikini top kept sliding off her shoulders. I watched sunburned men in shorts furiously clicking photos of their sunburned family walking like an Egyptian next to ram statues of Ra. I saw and Egyptian man in a gallabiya (traditional Egyptian clock especially worn in Upper Egypt) approach an old Japanese couple by greeting and bowing with a Konichiwa, his Japanese heavily peppered with a deep Egyptian accent full of rrrrr’s and kha’s. I even saw a woman (British. I could tell by her accent), with dark kohl outlining her eyes dramatically, just like Ancient Egyptian royalty did. Everyone wants to be a pharaoh, it seems.

Crammed at the entrance/ exit of the temple, I could not help laughing. These temples are very much alive. They are not empty. They are not a history lesson. They are spaces adapted through time- whether a ritual of birth, good luck, or for consumerism, Karnak still has a pulse.