I spy a kohl-lined eye: Zahra Hankir highlights the
makeup’s non-Western lineage.
Eyeliner: A Cultural History, by Zahra Hankir,
Penguin Books, 328 pages, $26
• • •
As a teenager growing up in Lebanon in the 1990s, journalist Zahra Hankir pored over Western fashion magazines. “Admittedly, at times, I wished I could look more like the blond white girls who stared back at me from the glossy pages,” she writes in Eyeliner: A Cultural History—a book ostensibly about a cosmetic, but more broadly about global politics, history, feminism, and culture. Then she discovered a vintage copy of National Geographic belonging to her father, which had a spread on the history of Queen Nefertiti. “I imagined that the queen—whose name, aptly, means ‘the beautiful one has arrived’—connected me to a larger constellation of beguiling non-Western women.” And so begins a narrative that, fittingly, bypasses dominant Western discourses of makeup and fashion, which is part of what makes this work so refreshing to read.
Eyeliner is believed to have been invented in ancient Egypt, where Hankir starts her story. The word “kohl,” as she explains, is derived from the Arabic “kuhl,” denoting a dark powder meant to be applied to the eyelids. It was thought to guard against the “evil eye,” which it is still used for in some cultures, and it had practical uses, too, like shielding the wearer from the harsh sunlight and possibly even offering protection against infections. (Though the eye makeup was often crafted from substances we now know to be toxic, such as lead and antimony, these compounds may also have an antibacterial effect.)
“Egyptomania” surged in the West in the 1800s, with the decoding of the Rosetta Stone in 1822 an important turning point, and this excitement peaked once again when King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922. The ensuing period of “intense Orientalist fascination,” Hankir writes, included articles in magazines about the mysteries of “exotic” women and their dark-rimmed eyes. Hankir name-checks Edward Said’s 1978 classic Orientalism here—and rightfully so—though Said did not contend too heavily with gender in his landmark analysis, and, sadly, did not discuss eyeliner. A few decades later, the craze for Egypt in the West was reborn with the epic 1963 movie Cleopatra, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Hankir hilariously describes a cringeworthy 1923 Vogue piece titled the “Kohl Pots of Egypt” and a 1935 Vogue article featuring a photo of a Western woman in the desert. “The lady at the right is busy ascertaining the secret of the Sphinx, which is that, if you want the lure of the Orient in your eyes, you should get yourself some kohl,” the latter article affirms. Later, it advises: “To apply it in true Eastern manner, close your eye and bravely draw the applicator (a little stick or a piece of bone or ivory) out from the corners of the eyes between the eyelids.” Other media outlets advertised ways to get the “Nefertiti look.”
The book then speeds through numerous geographic regions, practices, and histories, from the use of kohl in the kingdom of Jordan to stories of geishas in Japan, Kathakali dancers in India, Mexican American culture, drag queens in Brooklyn, and the last days of Amy Winehouse. In one chapter, Hankir travels to the country of Chad in central Africa, where the men of the Wodaabe ethnic group sport colorful and elaborate makeup and jewelry. “The men’s preoccupation with their looks is celebrated, not frowned upon,” she writes. “Their beauty is sacred.” Covering all of these varied subjects in 315 pages is a tall order, to say the least, and any one of these topics could have been its own book-length study. The ambitious, wide-ranging scope of Eyeliner: A Cultural History makes it feel more like a collection of long and fascinating magazine feature stories than a book with a single narrative.
The chapter on Iran is one of the best segments, because it is one of the few where Hankir seems to take a breath and slow down. She does not travel to Iran for a firsthand account, but goes to Brooklyn instead to interview the Iranian American artist Shirin Neshat; Hankir also discusses the tragic death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in 2022, which triggered worldwide protests. The interview with Neshat is one of the most thoughtful parts of the book, as it provides some necessary context and depth. Via makeup, Neshat discusses art, life, and politics across cultures.
“The majority of Iranian women’s self-expression is right here on their faces, because most of the rest of their body is covered,” Neshat explains to Hankir. “So they treat their faces very differently than a woman in any other part of the world. And your identity is defined right here in your eyes, your lips, your skin, and your gaze.” Neshat always wears eyeliner, but applies it in an idiosyncratic way: a thick black line of kohl adorns the lower eyelid, not the upper one, and angles sharply outward. Her look defies convention—she recalls when two women in Morocco once approached her to tell her that her makeup was wrong—and that is what makes it her own. “There’s an ancient past behind me and there are roots behind me that I still belong to,” she tells Hankir. “Yet I’m here, and I’m with you, and I’m modern.”
Hankir’s penultimate chapter is on Winehouse, and how her iconic winged eyeliner symbolized her power. “Amy’s eyeliner and beehive didn’t only give her confidence,” the singer’s erstwhile hairdresser explains to Hankir. “They were her confidence. . . . She wasn’t wearing a mask when she wore her eyeliner . . . she wasn’t channeling a ‘look.’ It was her creating a new Amy. She was re-creating herself.” As Winehouse’s life began to unravel, her makeup seemed harder for her to do, her vulnerability exposed. If her aesthetic “was simultaneously an affirmation and a bold assertion of her vision,” Hankir writes, “it was especially distressing, then, when eyeliner sometimes appeared to have been imperfectly applied, smudged and asymmetrical.”
While Hankir admits “it’s possible, of course, to assign too much meaning to one’s physicality,” for so many of her diverse subjects, like Neshat and Winehouse, makeup can be about far more than appearance. For the author herself, “kohl is . . . a celebration of my identity and the glorious and profound histories swirling around it.” This book demonstrates that eyeliner is not simply a frivolous decoration; it connects back to a much larger story. It is a tool of modernity and self-expression that also links us back to the civilizations of the past.
Geeta Dayal is an arts critic and journalist specializing in twentieth-century music, culture, and technology. She has written extensively for frieze and many other publications, including the Guardian, Wired, the Wire, Bookforum, Slate, the Boston Globe, and Rolling Stone. She is the author of Another Green World (Bloomsbury, 2009), a book on Brian Eno, and is currently at work on a new book on music.