Adul Hamiv was about 10 years old when her Kurdish-Syrian mother mixed soot, breast milk and extract from an animal’s gallbladder, heated the mixture and with a sharpened feather used it to create dots, lines and shapes on the child’s face. Now about 80 years old, she is not sure of her exact age, Adul has fled Kobani, Syria, along with nearly 200,000 others as Islamic State militias attacked the city just across the border from Turkey. She now resides in a simple tent made of plastic sheeting along with hundreds of other refugees. Hamiv is part of the last tattooed women from Kobani. ‘That was the culture of our generation,’ she explains. ‘Every woman and every girl had tattoos.’
The tradition of facial tattoos, called ‘Deq’, in the Kurdish region of Syrian and southern Turkey is dying fast. Scholars believe that the tattoos were used as tribal identifiers, to ward off the evil eye and had symbolic meaning. Most women from Kobani don’t know the meaning or reason for their tattoos, aside from beautification.
The youngest women sporting sun-like images on the forehead or geometric shapes between lip and chin are now almost all over the age of 55. Facial tattoos are common amongst nomadic people in the Middle East. Yasmin Bendaas, researcher in anthropology who studies facial tattoos in North Africa and the Middle East, theorizes that tattooing for beautification and as protection against evil is quickly being lost due to modernization and the growing influence of Islam. According to the Koran, she says, marking the body is considered haram. ‘The basic idea,’ she explains, ‘is that it’s sinful.’ In some cases, she heard of women who felt stigmatized and even tried removing the tattoos with acid.
Bendaas, whose Algerian grandmother is tattooed, says that some elderly men she interviewed said that men wouldn’t look at a girl if she wasn’t tattooed.
In an adjacent camp, Emina Diyar, wearing a white headscarf a dress with gold sleeves explains that the young people don’t like facial tattoos anymore. The young people, she says, get tattoos on their arms or wrists nowadays.
* Jodi Hilton