Friday, May 29, 2015

The History of Harqus: Temporary Facial Decoration in North Africa

I’ve been swamped with thesis research and planning my upcoming move (!) so I apologize if posts have not been coming as regularly. My thesis (on demons in North African Judaism) has also brought up lots of interesting material on henna, so hopefully I can share some of that over the next few posts.

For now, though, I’d like to address an issue which has been floating around the internet for a while: the North African facial art known as ḥarqūs. I’ve seen a few posts on my tumblr referencing it with some misconceptions, so I thought I’d take some time to clarify things and offer some primary sources (both texts and images!).

The entry for ḥarqus from Belkassem Ben Sedira's Arabic-French dictionary (Algeria), 1882.

To begin with, how do we spell it? In standard academic transcription, the Arabic word حرقوس would be written as ḥarqūs, although in some areas of the Maghreb it was pronounced closer to hargus (or hargous in French spelling). Other spellings, like harkus (or harkous) or harkos, are encountered as well. Catherine Cartwright-Jones, who has put some material about it on her site, spells it harquus (with two u’s), following the transliteration system of al-Kitaab, the Georgetown Arabic textbook commonly used for Introductory Arabic throughout the United States, which recommends doubled letters to represent long vowels. While the “two u” spelling has become common on the internet, I prefer not to use it for two main reasons: it does not follow scholarly convention, and it confuses people about the pronunciation (I’ve heard people say “harkwus”). In this post I'll use ḥarqus, except in quotations, where I'll keep whatever spelling the author used. Basically it should be pronounced har-KUS, with a rough ‘h,’ a back-of-the-throat ‘k’ or ‘q,’ and a long ‘u’ as in goose.

Now that we've covered how to spell it and say it, let’s turn to what it is (and is not). Ḥarqus refers to a black ink used for painting the face and hands with small temporary designs. These designs are often very similar (or even identical) to the tattoo designs common in the same areas of North Africa… But ḥarqus is not a tattoo, and the word ḥarqus does not refer to tattooing! Tattooing is known generally as washm or usham in Moroccan Arabic, although many of the tattoos actually have their own names based on the placement and motif (see Herber 1948). It’s true that there is some relationship between them — many designs, as I mentioned, were done both with ḥarqus and tattoo, and tattoo artists also applied ḥarqus (although ḥarqus was also done by individuals at home).

"Fatima and Manoubia applying makeup," Alexandre
Roubtzoff, Tunis, 1917.
But before I get too distracted by tattooing traditions (which are well deserving of their own post), let’s get back to ḥarqus. The word itself is unusual in that it has four root letters; Herber suggests that the word itself ultimately derives from the Greek khalkos, ‘copper,’ although I suspect it is related to the root ḥrq, ‘to burn.’ In some Amazigh communities it was known as tanast.

Ḥarqus is essentially a gall ink, made from the tannic acid of oak galls and iron or copper sulfate, which produces a intensely deep black ink, lasting for a few days on living skin and permanent on parchment (a very similar ink is used in Jewish communities to this day for writing Torah scrolls). It was (and is still) used throughout the Maghreb, mainly Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia; a similar cosmetic was also used in the Arabic peninsula, known there as khiḍab (another subject for a future blogpost). When made at home, poorer women sometimes used just a simple mixture of soot and oil, but ‘professional’ recipes for ḥarqus show the variety of organic and non-organic ingredients:

  • “The black material which is used to make the harqous is obtained by heating (in a small and well-covered clay pan) a mixture of ‘afsa (a sort of gall nut) and hadida (lead sulfate); a fine black powder builds up under the pan’s lid; this powder is mixed with a little saliva and they then dip the end of a small walnut twig (merwed) with which they then trace the harqous. Generally the merwed is purchased on the day of ‘Ashura” (Bel 1908: 422).
  • “To make the ḥarqus, they place in the pot a mixture of incense (jawi), gallnuts (‘afs), Ethiopian nuts (zuzt usserk), the kernels of cherry pits (mahlab), and scrape the lid of the pot with copper sulfate (ḥdida). The baqiya [pot] is then placed over a very low fire. It must be hermetically sealed… When the ḥarqus is ready, it has the appearance of a thick, black, and glistening liquid” (Marçais and Guiga 1925: 396).
  • “The women also paint their faces with a dark colour, imitating tattoos, with a sort of gall known as iegg. This gallnut, ground and mixed with a little soot, burnt oleander, and oil, makes the hargous. Hargous designs are much loved by men, who consider them to give women a brilliant beauty. The greatest compliment you can pay a beautiful woman is to say of her, ‘zina bela hargous,’ which one can translate ‘beautiful without make-up’” (Legey 1926: 361).
  • “One prostitute [from Rabat] burns in a small pot [touijen del harqus] a little hadida zerga [copper sulfate], hadida l-hamra [iron oxide], jawi [incense], el-iegg [galls from Pistacia atlantica], and zrouda [sweet clover seeds], and she collects the soot that forms under the lid” (Herber 1929: 61).

Like henna and kohl, ḥarqus was used both in daily life as a cosmetic, and in special preparation for festivals, holidays, and lifecycle celebrations. Newborn babies and new mothers, boys before their circumcision, and most importantly, brides, all received ḥarqus. Unlike henna and kohl, however, it seems that ḥarqus was largely cosmetic — the material was not itself associated with baraka or protection against jnun and negative forces, although the designs were often seen as warding off evil (especially during passage ceremonies).

Sex worker in Tunis applying lipstick (note her arm
tattoos and facial decorations), 1939; photo by Ré Soupault.
It was seen as particularly attractive, and excessive use of ḥarqus was often associated with sex workers. Legey writes that “the young bride has to be adorned, perfumed, and hennaed by a prostitute, since that one has between her eyebrows seven magic flowers which attract love” (1926: 188). Jean Herber, whose 1929 article on ḥarqus is (to my knowledge) the only published academic study specifically devoted to the topic, acknowledges that most of his information was collected from sex workers. 

I am grateful for Herber’s efforts to record these traditions, and especially his work on tattoos, about which he published extensively between 1919 and 1951. Herber was a French doctor, stationed (at least initially) in a maternity clinic in Rabat, and so had the opportunity to observe and interact with many Moroccan women (including many sex workers, apparently); he also travelled throughout the country and took a keen interest in interviewing tattoo artists. His observations and drawings are the most comprehensive record of ḥarqus traditions in the early 20th century. 

Hennaed hands and feet augmented with ḥarqus (in the
darker central bands), Taroudant, Morocco, ca. 1935.
Photo by Jean Besancenot.
Ḥarqus was applied, as we’ve seen, with the same small stick (usually wood or metal) used to apply kohl, known as a merwed. It was done mainly on the face — between the eyebrows, on the cheeks, and on the chin — and on the hands, especially to decorate a henna design. Budgett Meakin writes that “harkos, prepared from wood ashes, pitch, and spices… is employed to arch the eyebrows and unite them above the nose, and to trace with a stick a lace-like pattern on the backs of the hands, which imparts almost the appearance of mittens” (1902: 70). 

Emily Keene (an American woman who married the shereef of Wazzan in 1873 and published an account of her life) offers a similar description: “Sometimes [hennaed hands] received a decoration by a lace-work pattern being painted on the lines in ‘Harkos,’ a kind of Indian ink, which lasts for a long time. This is applied with a pointed cane pen… Sometimes a professional stainer will be summoned, and patterns will be designed with henna paste, which must be dried over a charcoal fire. This takes a very long time, and one can but admire the effect produced afterwards, especially when  the design is interwoven with the delicate tracing of ‘El Harkos’” (1912: 126).

On the face, ḥarqus was done between and over the eyebrows, on the cheeks and temples, on the chin, and occasionally down the bridge of the nose. Unlike tattoos, ḥarqus was not done past the chin (i.e., on the neck or chest) as far as I can tell. Also, unlike tattoos, which vary from region to region, ḥarqus does not seem to have been associated with tribal identity or geographic location in Morocco, but was a common cosmetic fairly uniform in pattern and practice.

However, many of the motifs were similar to those used in tattooing, and like tattoo motifs, had their own names in Arabic, like jem sidi, ‘the gentleman’s bridle,’ for a design that runs down from the temples to the chin, or ḥammaqat, ‘that which drives men mad,’ for a design between the eyebrows, and in Tamazight, like amurir, a zigzag along the jaw, and afruh, an X above the eyebrows (see Herber 1929 and Morin-Barde 1990). Herber’s article includes four gorgeous plates of designs, including both designs that he sketched himself from observation and designs drawn for him by Moroccan ḥarqus and tattoo artists.

Left: Herber's sketches of hand and face designs with ḥarqus. Right: ḥarqus designs
drawn for Herber by tattoo artists from Moulay Idriss (top) and Marrakech (bottom).

We also have records from photographs, since facial designs often appear in colonial photographs and postcards of Moroccan women. But how can we tell if a given design is done in ḥarqus or a tattoo? While there are plenty of beautiful patterns, there is almost no way of knowing for sure whether it is a tattoo… Except in one circumstance, of course: photographs of Jews! 

Jewish girl with ḥarqus, southern
Morocco, ca. 1930; photo
by Jean Belin.
Jews in Morocco, like the majority of Jewish communities worldwide, historically refrained from tattooing (Herber 1926 does note the presence of some tattoos among Jewish prostitutes and prisoners, but these are exceptions that prove the general rule). And we know that Moroccan Jews did use ḥarqus, both at lifecycle events and for daily adornment. 

Herber (1927: 217) records that a newborn Jewish baby had a long line drawn on their forehead with ḥarqus for protection, called the sba’ (’finger’), and Malka (1946: 22) calls it khemoussa (‘little hand’), suggesting that it was once a stylized khamsa. As described in this post, Jewish children in Morocco and Algeria were adorned with ḥarqus and henna for a special ceremony known as the kettab, a mock wedding celebrating Shavu‘ot and marking their entrance into the world of schooling (Briggs and Guède 1964: 29). 

And real weddings too, of course: Jewish brides were decorated with ḥarqus and henna, going back at least to the 18th century — Romanelli, an Italian Jew who visited Morocco from 1786-1790, writes that the bride’s attendants “draw strange designs on her forehead, her nose, and under her lip with black pitch to save her from the evil eye” (1926: 28), thus confirming not only the presence of ḥarqus designs but also their purpose in protecting the bride during her vulnerable moment of transition. Legey's note that the best compliment is that one is "beautiful even without ḥarqus" appears in the Judeo-Arabic wedding song Ya Mashta.

Jewish girls, Kelaat Mgouna, ca. 1930; photo by Jean Besancenot.

We can therefore confidently assume that photos of Jewish women with facial decoration (of which there are plenty) show designs with ḥarqus — this might even help us narrow down what the visual distinctions between tattoos and ḥarqus designs. The patterns range from simple lines and dots on the cheeks to delicate and complex motifs between the eyebrows like those recorded by Herber. It can be assumed that Jewish women were the artists, although they may have also turned to a Muslim neighbour or professional. Among Algerian Jews, the henna artist was known as a ḥarqassa, implying that she was also a ḥarqus artist. Like with henna, it doesn't appear that the patterns used by Jews were any different than those of Muslims.

Jewish girl with ḥarqus designs in Agdz, the Draa' Valley,
ca. 1930; photo by Jean Besancenot. 

In these rural Jewish communities, especially those living in Amazigh areas, ḥarqus was a regular cosmetic. It seems to have been popular with women and girls of all ages (although it should be remembered that many of these young girls were already married).

Young Jewish bride with ḥarqus, Tillit, ca. 1935; photo by Jean Besancenot.

However, like tattoos (among Muslims), by the early 20th century ḥarqus had fallen out of favour in the large cities for daily use. Nonetheless, it was still done for ceremonial occasions, as shown by these photos of David and Hassiba Bensimon, a Jewish couple from Fes, who were married in 1930. For their henna ceremony, they are both dressed in traditional Moroccan clothing — for David, a white jellaba [robe], a tarbush [felt hat], and belgha [leather slippers]; for Hassiba, the keswa lkbira, the gold-embroidered ensemble unique to Moroccan Jews. Hassiba’s fingers have been hennaed up to the first knuckle, and her palms were probably hennaed as well; her face is painted with a black line in ḥarqus down her chin, and dots (likely in red ‘aker) on her cheeks and forehead. For their wedding, though, they wore European clothing and cosmetics, and Hassiba has her hair in  a stylish bob.

David and Hassiba Bensimon, Fes, 1930; night of the henna (left) and wedding (right).

Among Maghreb Jews in Israel and France, the use of ḥarqus has unfortunately disappeared almost completely; I don't think it is used even for weddingsḤarqus is still used in North Africa today, though! It is especially popular in Tunisia, where it is used to add ornamentation to the edge of henna designs.

Muslim bride in Djerba, Tunisia, with henna accented with
ḥarqus, 2007.

Unfortunately, ḥarqus recipes are sometimes replaced with the quick, easy, and dangerous PPD, and artists using PPD justify it by claiming that they are using a traditional cosmetic. Yikes! This woman wants YOU to keep yourself safe:

Jewish woman with ḥarqus,  Dadès valley, ca. 1935;
photo by Jean Besancenot.

If you’re looking for a safe alternative to practice ḥarqus designs, many professional artists recommend Temptu black body paint, which can be painted on with a small brush and will last for a few days (you can also remove it with rubbing alcohol). Give it a try! And remember to treat these traditions and their history with respect.

Bel, Alfred. “La Population Musulmane de Tlemcen.” Revue des études ethnographiques et sociologiques, vol. 1 (1908), 200-225 and 417-447.
Briggs, Lloyd Cabot, and Norina Lami Guède. No More Forever: a Saharan Jewish town. Cambridge: Peabody Museum, 1964.
Herber, Jean. “Tatouages des prisonniers marocains israélites.” Hespéris, vol. 6 (1926), 423-425.
Herber, Jean. “La Main de Fathma.” Hespéris, vol. 7 (1927), 209-219.
Herber, Jean. “Peintures corporelles au Maroc. Les peintures au ḥarqūs.” Hespéris, vol. 9 (1929), 59-77.
Herber, Jean. “Onomastique de tatouages marocains.” Hespéris, vol. 35 (1948), 31-56.
Keene, Emily. My Life Story by Emily, Shareefa of Wazan. London: Edward Arnold, 1912.
Legey, Françoise. Essai de folklore marocain. Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1926.
Malka, Elie. Essai d’ethnographie traditionnelle des Mellahs. Rabat: Omnia, 1946.
Marçais, William, and Abderrahman Guiga. Textes arabes de Takroûna. Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1925.
Meakin, Budgett. The Moors: A Comprehensive Description. London: Swan Sonnenschien, 1902.
Morin-Barde, Moreille. Coiffures féminines du Maroc. Paris: Edisud, 1990.
Romanelli, Samuel. Massa‘ ba‘Arav, hu sefer haqorot. Warsaw: Traklin, 1926 [originally published 1792].

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