When I tell people where my parents are from I always get the same response: “Oh, but you don’t look Afghan”, and then I just smile awkwardly and nod like “yup, that is my ethnicity…no, no I am not joking.”
This makes me curious as to how others expect Afghans to look like and the image they have in their minds. So I pretended that I wanted to know a little more about Afghans and a little more about their culture–I went to Google. As I started my search, one of the suggestions in the dropbox stated “why do Afghan men wear eyeliner?”. To be honest when I read that suggestion, I chuckled a little.
What? Haha, eyeliner?!
I imagined a young teenage girl having seen Afghan men on the news with eyes smokier than hers and wondered “why do they wear makeup?”. Well my dear, do not fret, he did not copy your Covergirl look.
You see, it is not eyeliner…it is surma, pronounced suur-mah. It is like this coal/rich-black color powder that you apply, with the stick provided, inside your eye. It sounds complicated but it really is not. It is made from special rocks and minerals which are believed to improve vision (there is also a religious component to surma). Surma has been used for centuries and is found in many Central Asian and Middle-Eastern countries.
Many mothers apply surma to their newborns so that they have strong vision and because religiously it is good, many young preteen/teen girls apply it to look pretty since it so closely resembles eyeliner, and then there is the men. The majority of males who you see wearing surma tend to be from the village area; you would not see men from the city or urban areas wearing surma. The only reasons men from the villages wear it is in order to have strong/good vision and because religiously, it is considered good. Which is why if you see Afghan people on the news, for instance, not a lot of them are wearing glasses. This natural product has been used for centuries and has minerals that improve eyesight.
Along with health benefits, there is also a religious aspect attached to wearing surma. It is known to be religiously beneficial when worn on Friday night. Similar to how Sunday is the Holy Day for Catholics, Friday is to Muslims. On Fridays, it is believed that if you wear perfume and surma then God will be watching you. Not that the Afghan people do not wear perfume regularly, but on Friday’s it is considered to be more significant, religiously.
So to sum up on this surma “timeline”, almost everyone in Afghanistan wears surma because of the health and religious benefits, BUT at around age six or seven the males who live in the city stop wearing surma. On the other hand, the men who live off in far away villages continue to wear it.
So before you call child protective services on these people on how they put eyeliner on their young children, remember, it is not eyeliner; on the contrary, it is part of our culture.
Here I am as a baby wearing surma:
I do not know why I look so surprised, guess I was channeling the Gerber baby ;)
Peace & Love,