Kohl enjoys a beautiful history

Emirati women use kohl for beauty and health reasons, even applying it to their children.

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DUBAI // Although it is often associated with the pharaohs or Cleopatra, kohl has also had a starring role in the beauty rituals of Emirati women for thousands of years.

She might apply it in the morning, and again before going to bed. Indeed some women are even using permanent cosmetic applications to carry off the kohl mystique 24 hours a day.

"Three things were buried with an ancient Emirati woman: jewelry, pottery and seashells containing kohl," said Ayesha Mubarak Obeid, who has been the director of the Dubai Museum for more than 30 years. "Those were considered the essentials a woman would take with her in the life after death. A belief in an afterlife was common in the ancient times."

Standing over the grave of a couple dating to the second millennium BC, which is on display at the museum, Mrs Obeid pointed out how the male would be buried with his sword, or dagger and arrowheads.

"It seems our traditional gender roles haven't changed that much," she said with a smile.

The museum has on display more than a dozen seashells that have been discovered in UAE graves, each bearing traces of kohl.

"We still don't know what the kohl was made of, but it was dark, and over time it took on a greenish hue," she said. "The fact we found it here proves that it wasn't just the ancient pharaohs that relied on kohl to make their eyes look beautiful."

Mrs Obeid, who is 53 years old, has been using kohl for most of her life. When she was an infant, her mother applied natural kohl to the eyes of her and her sisters.

"It is tradition here as well as the rest of the Arab world, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula, to put kohl on our children's eyes, both girls and boys, as we believe it protects the eyes and helps in beautifying it," said the mother of two girls and a boy, who when they were young were no exception.

Although she uses cosmetic eyeliners in the daytime, she applies natural powdered kohl, known as al athmad and made from crushed and softened black rock, before she goes to sleep.

"The natural one helps reduce the swelling in my eyes from using the computer all day," she said. "It really works. I wake up and I am not frightened by what I see in the mirror."

Sheikha Mohammed al Jabri has devoted four years to researching a book on Emirati beauty rituals and the philosophy behind them.

"I was just so fascinated in the culture of beauty, and how a woman in a conservative society found a way to express herself through her eyes by adding kohl either made of rock or ashes," said Mrs al Jabri.

Her book, Zeynat al Jasad, or Ornaments of the Body, was published in 2008.

"Kohl is part of our Islamic and cultural tradition," she said. "It is a significant part of our identity, and references to it can be found in poems and religious texts."

In her book, she describes how Bedouin men used to wear kohl to provide protection against both the "evil eye" and sandstorms.

The application stick, known as al maroud, was traditionally made out of seashells or desert plants.

"Eyeliner is now an international cosmetic item, part of most women's beauty regimen," Mrs al Jabri said. "The difference is that women of other cultures put it on for special occasions, while we put it on every day. Of course, it depends on each woman's personal preference, but generally, an Emirati woman would not be seen without it."

The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments released a fatwa on kohl last year, condoning its use as long as the intent was not to attract attention from the opposite sex.

Amal al Darmaki started putting on kohl in her teenage years after being "pushed" by her mother, who is from Egypt and wears it.

"I didn't like it initially, and found the natural-powder one painful to apply," said the 23-year-old. "But now I like it and understand why my mother always insisted on it."

Like the majority of those interviewed, when it comes to putting on makeup to go out and about in the hot and humid weather, Ms al Darmaki prefers waterproof liquid eyeliner. Kohl she reserves for home.

"I put it on for myself, to feel good about me," she said. "It is part of my identity, and it is beautiful."