Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: A Cultural History of Eyeliner Around the World

Host Lale Arikoglu sits down with author Zahra Hankir to get to the bottom of kohl's wide-reaching appeal.
Women Who Travel Podcast A Cultural History of Eyeliner Around the World
Abbey Lossing

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Is there a more universally used beauty product than eyeliner? Not according to author Zahra Hankir, who chats with Lale about her new book Eyeliner: A Cultural History, which looks at the meaning and symbolism of kohl around the world, from Kyoto to Chad, as well as throughout the Middle East—and dives into her own personal history with the enduring piece of makeup.

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Lale Arikoglu: Hi, I'm Lale Arikoglu and welcome to another episode of Women Who Travel, a podcast from Condé Nast Traveler. Today we're talking about a time honored beauty product, eyeliner. And how its use is both similar and different all over the world. And yes, we do get to talk about Amy Winehouse. But before we begin, we're asking for your feedback on our show. We'd love to know what stories you'd like to hear and what you've enjoyed most and the least. Go to Apple Podcasts and leave us a review.

Zahra Hankir: What are you actually striving for when you're lining your eyes? For a lot of people it's aesthetic, it's- it's about looking better, it's about some form of transformation. But really, I would say for most people, especially minority communities, it's about transformation in a way that goes far deeper. It's transforming the message that you're delivering to the world. It really is to convey something that has to do with your sense of self.

LA: In Zahra Hankir's book, Eyeliner: A Cultural History, she goes to six countries and explores our personal relationship to the ancient product, as well as its use as stage makeup, its medicinal properties and how it could be a signifier of rebellion and identity.

ZH: What I try to do is to deflect from the Western gaze to say, these are the contributions of these communities to the beauty industry.

LA: There's a passage at the end of your book which is actually a wonderful entry point into this discussion. Would you mind sharing a little bit before we start talking?

ZH: Absolutely. So this is from the acknowledgement section, actually, and I write, "On my birthday in October 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was stuck between continents having packed up my flat in London to relocate to New York City. While in limbo, I stayed with my parents in Lebanon. Though I tied with the idea of this book, I felt in particular in the aftermath of the Beirut blast in August that year, that a trivial subject would be a futile endeavor. How could I possibly write about eyeliner with so much tragedy unfolding in the world?

My mother, understanding but critical of these anxieties, told me that eyeliner would offer a layered study of cultures of color and reveal untold stories about these communities, amplifying their contributions while also bringing delight to readers. On that day she walked me into the depths of Sidon Souks and took me to a kohl seller to buy a traditional kohl pot. Surrounded by the copper and clay containers, as we surveyed the options, she said with a terrifyingly straight face that Eastern sons and daughters will be familiar with, 'You must write this book, ye Mama.' And so I did. Mama is always right."

LA: She sounds right. She also sounds great. [laughs]

ZH: [laughs] She really is. She's actually my first editor for everything I- everything I write. She's my harshest bis- but also my most complimentary editor. [laughs]

LA: I feel like it's what a mother should be. Your harshest and most complimentary critic.

ZH: Absolutely.

LA: Clearly, your mother has her own views on eyeliner. How did her own use of makeup influence you growing up? Was it a presence in your household? Was it a way in which you discovered your own beauty routine and use of eyeliner?

ZH: Definitely. I grew up in the UK. My parents had left Lebanon during the civil war and while we were living in the north of England, my mother used to beautify herself by wearing her eyeliner or her kohl as it is known in the Arab world, kajol. And she had six children, my father was often away with a very busy job and it was like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. But when she would apply her eyeliner along her waterlines, it was almost like the world stopped. It was, this moment was for her. It was an important moment.

And I realized that it kind of was s- symbolic and part of her identity and she was kind of tapping into that. And, you know, as a young girl also seeing your mother beautify herself is wonderful in and of itself, but I also have the understanding that there was something more to it. You know, she would be listening to Fairuz, like, Lebanese music and really taking this time as a form of self-care but also self-preservation and I felt like it not only tied her to something bigger than herself, back to her roots, but it also tied me to that too. And I often think that it was like I could see my ancestors in her face when she would have her eyeliner on.

LA: When did you start wearing eyeliner?

ZH: The first time that I wore it was actually I had it applied to my eyes by a, um, very trendy Egyptian friend of mine who was a couple of years older than me and very outgoing and I was very shy and very timid. And I was hanging out with her one day after school and, um, she said, "Let me make you up." You know, let me- let me put some makeup on your face.

LA: Everyone's got that friend. Everyone's got that friend. [laughs]

ZH: We need that friend. We all need that friend. And she used to wear bell-bottoms and scrunchies. I used to think she was the most fashionable person. And she put mascara on my eyelashes and then she put eyeliner along my- my waterlines and, um, I remember looking at myself afterwards and feeling like I had sort of come into focus. Like, I could see myself for the first time, which is strange to say, but I really, really felt almost like for the first time that I was pretty. And to feel that when you're 12 years old is- is something that stays with you, I think.

I come from quite a religious family and a religious background and it wasn't easy for me to start wearing makeup because it wasn't something that my father would have approved of. But I started wearing eyeliner a couple of years later in sort of very subtle ways. Like I would take it to school with me and hide it in my bra and then reapply it in the bathroom, that kind of thing. So it was, it was almost rebellious in a way, but it was, I would say, my first experience with it was when I was a young girl watching my mother wear it. And then really I started wearing it myself when I was about 14.

LA: I was about the same age. I think I was about 13 when I started wearing it and honestly, I don't think I was applying it very well. Like I look back at pictures of- of myself and I mean, it was not skillfully done. I'd get to the end of the school day and it was, like, smudged everywhere, but it also felt like it was a part of the identity I was trying to, I guess, find for myself, whatever that was going to be. And you know, you touched on feeling a sense of, you know, feeling beautiful for the first time at age 12 which is not an age I remember feeling beautiful at much. Did that feel like the moment that you were carving out an identity for yourself in Northern England in a place that you said you, as a family, didn't feel like you were being particularly welcomed or made to feel at home in?

ZH: I definitely did. I, I absolutely also didn't think of myself in general while I was growing up as a teenager as beautiful. I think that I started to look at eyeliner and understand it as being an object that transcended aesthetics and beauty and that connected me to my own heritage. And that was really the role that it played for me.

Of course, you can't complain about its aesthetic benefits. I mean, when you learn how to apply it well, which as you noted is- is sort of a long process. It doesn't come immediately. You want a very steady and skilled hand for it. Um, but yeah, I absolutely found that it connected me to kind of a constellation of very beguiling non-Western women.

LA: We said eyeliner, we said kohl. We mentioned kajol. What are the other words for eyeliner that you learned?

ZH: Yeah, so kajal, which I was familiar with before. Uh, surme, surma, tiro. The eyeliner's one of my favorite, I mean, I knew that one before. [laughs] But there are so many, yeah, there are so many different, um, ways of referring to it. The composition varies around the world. I would say outside of Western formulations of eyeliner, they are almost always, if not always, uh, made from natural materials and substances.

LA: I love this cover. I think it's just beautiful. What was the thinking behind these concentric circles?

ZH: It was honestly the cover design of my dreams. [laughs] As many authors know, it's really hit or miss with covers. I like to think of this as that epicenter of that, that s- it's- it's basically an eye. Clearly the eye of a brown woman. And then several different colors around that one eye. As you say, concentric circles. So you've got pink and purple and all these other gorgeous colors and I think that that speaks to the idea that swirling around this woman in the middle, who I like to think of as Nefertiti, the original beauty influencer, there are so many other communities and cultures that have u- used eyeliner in very significant ways that go beyond beauty. You know, I didn't want a picture of, like, a- a very pretty woman, sort of lining her eyes or anything like that. Because this was not to me a beauty book.

LA: On the British book cover, we see nine differently outlined eyes and they see the world from different points of view. As a teen, Zahra looked to a couple of iconic singers for inspiration. One from the Arab world and one from North London.

ZH: It sort of happened at around a time that there was several pop stars who were becoming quite famous and one of them, her name was Ruby. She's an Egyptian singer and she used to wear very heavy eyeliner and she would be quite sensual and sultry in the way that she kind of danced and- and would sing. And there's this one video of her, many years before Ariana Grande did it, she was on this stationary bicycle, like, cycling and she was wearing, like, this very elaborate makeup and I just remember as a child thinking, wow, that's- that's really stunningly beautiful.

LA: Another woman that you discuss in your book is Amy Winehouse. She was definitely very present in my late adolescence. I grew up in Central London and I used to, like, see her out and about in Camden when I'd be underage drinking in bars. And I- I was always mesmerized by her look. Uh, why did it feel important to kind of dive into her as well?

ZH: It's so interesting, because I can't expl- I- I think a lot of us felt that way. I- I think I grew up in a similar context and her style, her aesthetic was so bold. It was so unique. She actually borrowed from different looks to kind of arrive at her look, but I think she very much came into her own aesthetic. You know, she was inspired by girl groups like The Ronettes. She had traveled to America and was really sort of enamored with the Latina look. And then she kind of took these different inspirations, not just in her eye makeup, but also in her clothing and she- she made it her own. She made it the Amy eyeliner look.

And I think it speaks to far more than just the act of beautifying herself. Because it was, the lines were so vivid and the rings were so, so heavy and they would reach, like, sort of her temples, that, um, they were very- they were completely different than anything that you would see, uh, amongst celebrities. Then and even now. I don't think anyone has been able to emulate the look of Amy Winehouse. It's become a trademark look and was, uh, also so fascinating about that is that as she became more popular and was struggling more and more with her fame, she was scrutinizing her looks more and more.

But she was still struggling with her own demons, right? And I think perhaps, and this is just my own analysis, she found some form or protection in her aesthetic and I- I can deeply relate to that and understand that. So she was quite, I think, unique and- and to me she's very much an eyeliner icon. If you ask me who are my icons, I would say Nefertiti and Amy Winehouse. Um, but again, it speaks to sort of deeper themes. It's not just that she's wearing these very distinct trademark wings.

LA: Coming up, how Ancient Egypt's most powerful queen, a woman who lived in 14th century B.C. is popping up on our social media feeds. You have three chapters dedicated to Nefertiti. You mentioned her, you know, holding a source of fascination when you were growing up. Why and- and why does she continue to draw in so many people? I- f- from what I understand, she even kind of crops up on TikTok in terms of beauty lessons.

ZH: The idea that we have of Nefertiti derives from her bust. And the bust of Nefertiti was found over about 110 years ago in Egypt and then transported, and I put transported in quotations, um, out of Egypt and to Germany where she remains to this day. She should go home, I'd like to say, but she's still in- in- in Germany.

LA: In Berlin, right?

ZH: Yes. And, uh, I actually went on a pilgrimage there to visit her at the museum which was an incredible experience. But when the bust was revealed to the world a hundred years ago, and this is why I refer to her as the original beauty influencer, there was an almost immediate infatuation with her. And I think this is for several reasons. Firstly she is stunningly attractive. She has a perfectly symmetrical face. Um, if you measure her face against the so called golden ratio, she would score very, very highly, if not a perfect score. I actually measured her face. [laughs]

Her eyes are beautifully lined, very simple, elegant lines that, um, I think make her more alluring. Uh, and at the time that the bust was revealed, this infatuation manifested in a few ways. Beauty magazines clamored to write about her. There would be a white woman posing next to the bust of Nefertiti, kind of made up in the same way. There were fashion houses that made hats that looked like Nefertiti's crown, to wear a large color necklace or to wear- to wear eyeliner. This all happened, um, in the context of Egyptomania when there was this obsession with Ancient Egypt around the time that Tutankhamun's tomb was found.

Therefore, cosmetic companies starts to catch on to this and many of these companies started marketing kohl as something that you could use to attain this exotic look. They were exoticizing this look and fantasizing this look, that there were pieces that would say, listen, if you want to look like Nefertiti, do this, but don't darken your skin. Make sure that you don't darken your skin. Adding to this, there are actually arguments that, um, Nefertiti, one, her bust is- is- is a fraud. Um, this has been debunked. Many Egyptologists don't believe this.

The other one is that she'd undergone what I call plaster surgery and actually, um, this is true. Nefertiti has two layers. The inner layer she has wrinkles, she has a nose that is not as straight and her cheek bones are not as pronounced. So, um...

LA: That is fascinating.

ZH: Yeah, it's like a filter. Yeah, it's- it's- it's kind of like a filter.

LA: A nice Instagram filter.

ZH: Yeah, so what I tend to say is, she says more about us than we know about her, because we don't really know that much about her. But what we do know for sure is that she used to wear kohl. She certainly lined her eyes with kohl. There's virtually no representation of- of an Ancient Egyptian that has unlined eyes.

LA: As far as we know and understand it, where do the origins of eyeliner and kohl lie?

ZH: In Ancient Egypt. That is the historical consensus where eyeliner was used for multiple purposes and, uh, made from very natural substances, um, mineral substances such as malachite and galena. So it also signified things like status and class depending on sort of the quality of the kohl that you had. And a whole other discussion, but definitely part of this, are kohl pots. Eyeliner pots. They are highly valuable. They were so valued in Ancient Egypt they would be buried in tombs. It was closely associated with the idea of rebirth because to be able to experience rebirth you would have to p- procreate, you'd have to be attractive and part of the use of eyeliner is to make you look more attractive as well. So it was multi faceted.

LA: Mm-hmm.

ZH: But as we see, even though this was thousands of years ago, kohl is still used in very similar ways across cultures.

LA: After the break, Zahra takes us from Egypt to Japan where she spent time with a geisha, a hostess at a tea house in Kyoto and whose use of eyeliner is essential to her work.

ZH: I went to Japan a few years ago and spent some time in Kyoto and actually, and I don't know if this was just from complete naivety from my perspective, but I was actually, like, surprised to see that geishas were more than, to put it in li- I guess, like, very, um, basic terms, more than a tourist attraction in some senses.

LA: You spent some time with geishas and their beauty rituals and use of eyeliner. Tell me a little bit about that.

ZH: It's quite a fascinating, I think, segment of cultural history in Japan. Especially because they're highly, I think, misunderstood in the West, um, as they've been popularized in the West. And I was very curious about the meaning of the aesthetic and, um, their roles as geisha and what they're like both in and out of their makeup and their costumes or their outfits. And I spent and, um, some time with a millennial geisha and it was actually a wonderful experience because she's just like, she's just like me, really. That she was just- she would just tell me, "This is my job." You know, and-

LA: Right.

ZH: It's a job like any other and of course, yes, the aesthetic is very important and it carries profound meaning for her that the process of beautification was multi faceted, um, and it helped her gain confidence. Um, it also he- she used it at times as a mask be- because she had, um, you know, bad skin when was she was growing up. But the one thing that she found that she could always rely on was her eyeliner because it was, it would draw attention to her eyes.

The role that eyeliner played, um, or at least the, sort of the- the decoration or the adornment of the eyes have played historically, is that there was a use of red pigment around the eyes to protect the body from evil spirits. To protect the eyes from evil spirits. The geisha aesthetic, even though there are fewer geisha today, the- it's highly valued and respected and- and really adored, especially in Kyoto. So that was a really, that was a wonderful travel experience.

LA: Yeah, I'm interested to know when you were getting to know her, how you spent time together. What were you doing in Kyoto?

ZH: We hung out at the tea house where she lived. Had many conversations. She performed for me. Uh, she would just show me kind of what a geisha performance looks like. We had hamburgers together. We walked around the city. It was a very surreal and magical experience for me to be transported into the world of the geisha.

LA: Zahra's stories of eyeliner and its uses are unique to the places she writes about. But there are universal themes that tie all of them together, whether it be through descriptions of a geisha in Kyoto or dancers in Kerala in India.

ZH: I want to read a quote from a Kathakali dancer in India who I interviewed. She said to me, "You've never seen what heaven looks like, but a Kathakali artist can transport heaven to your imagination. Beauty to us isn't physical. We give you the feeling of beauty. How do we do that, you may ask. Through the eyes. When you look at the eyes and the way they are moving and when you look at the makeup, you'll experience something truly beautiful, something profound."

Even though Kathakali dancers are predominantly male and they wear very extravagant eyeliner on their eyes as part of their performance because Kathakali is a form of telling story through eye movements and hand movements. She is one of the few sort of female Kathakali dancers and there are more and more who are becoming dancers now. And that actually captures how my view of beauty has shifted in a way that I started to feel the same thing.

LA: Eyeliner can hold strong connections with spirituality. In some communities it also has healing properties. Like in Chad in Central Africa.

ZH: I don't think I will ever have a travel experience even remotely, um, as fascinating as that. I will also say what I found to be incredible was that, so in Chad a large, um, portion of the population is Muslim and they speak Arabic as well. So I was able to speak to many locals in Arabic and that gave me sort of a immediate, um, sense of closeness to them. And their valuing of the products of kohl is so profound. I spoke to one young man, his name is Adam. He was 19. He always wears kohl. He treats a- an eye condition that he has with it because it has medicinal properties and he was telling me how he wants to become a doctor because he was so fascinated by the medicinal properties of kohl and he wants to go to Europe and come back to Chad and kohl was part of that decision to go on that journey.

LA: You've clearly did so much research and also so much travel to so many different places for this book. How ultimately has it deepened your understanding of beauty outside of the Western gaze, um, which is something I feel like I get the sense you grew inside of and outside of, um, and how limiting do you think that gaze is?

ZH: I think it's incredibly limiting and I think that my experience in particular in the Global South in different countries was really, um, illuminating in terms of how people do not look at beauty solely as aesthetic.

LA: It's been a fabulous conversation. If people want to keep up with your travels, where can they find you?

ZH: On Instagram @zahrahankir and then also my website, which is zahrahankir.com.

LA: Well, thank you so much. Next week, the power of the passport. How it can help and hinder the way we move around the world, depending on where we're from. Plus, we tear up the rule book in sightseeing. I'm LA and you can find me on Instagram @lalehannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus and Gabe Quiroga. The show is mixed by Amar Lal. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer. See you next week.