Zahra Hankir’s tiny brass kohl pot may fit neatly in the palm of her hand, but it conceals a powerful inheritance. “I carry my history with me through the lining of my eyes,” says Hankir. “This single object connects me to my identity in a very profound way.”
One constant in Hankir’s childhood, spent between Lebanon and London, was watching her mother make time to apply kohl in a cherished daily ritual: “It was like everything stood still and this was an important moment for her,” she recalls. Ultimately, it was her mother who inspired her to travel the world to write Eyeliner: A Cultural History, out today. When Hankir, who previously edited Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World and often covers socio-political developments across the Middle East, expressed hesitation about broaching a subject she feared some might consider superficial, her mother set her straight. “She really pushed me to realize that the stories of our culture are as important as the stories of grief and pain and suffering, and it’s important to elevate these stories.”
And so Hankir and her kohl pot set off from her Brooklyn apartment on a quest to understand the history and significance of this universally beloved cosmetic. Along the way, she met geishas in Japan, male kathakali dancers in India, Wodaabe tribesmen competing in a male beauty pageant in Chad, and Bedouins in the Jordanian desert. Closer to home, she interviewed chola women, Iranian activists, beauty influencers, and drag queens. She also dedicates entire chapters to two of the most iconic eyeliner enthusiasts of all time: Nefertiti and Amy Winehouse.
No matter what its winged may wearers call it—kohl in the Middle East, sormeh in Iran, kajal in India, tiro in Nigeria, mebari in Japan—Hankir discovered that eyeliner is wielded across the global south as a powerful tool. Eyeliner’s first-known use was in ancient Egypt, and its purposes have evolved over thousands of years: It has medicinal virtues, protecting the gaze from sunlight in harsh desert environs; spiritual significance, as a method for warding off the evil eye; and cosmetic value, beautifying men and women alike. Important figures have championed it throughout history—the Prophet Muhammad regularly wore ithmid kohl for its health benefits. Today, it doubles as a tool for resistance everywhere from Iran, where women express themselves through the application of sormeh, to the US, where Mexican Americans celebrate the chola aesthetic in defiance of Eurocentric beauty norms. And from the beaded kohl pots she encountered in Chad, worn by men as talismans, to clay and copper jars across the Middle East and India, the vessels themselves serve as beautifully embellished accessories.