These Kurdish refugee women are proud owners of facial tattoos

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Marco Werman: When we think of war refugees, it’s not a pretty picture that comes to mind. Refugee camps are often bleak places packed with desperate people in need. Last fall, photographer Jodi Hilton visited a camp for war refugees at the Syrian-Turkish border. She saw the need--the lack of food, the shoddy tents, and then she saw something unexpected. She found beauty on the faces of Kurdish women there.


Jodi Hilton: I started seeing a lot of women, older women, who had facial tattoos.


Werman: And these women are mostly Kurdish or they’re entirely Kurdish women?


Hilton: These are entirely Kurdish women who have fled the war in Kobane. As you know, they were surrounded by an attack by ISIS, so about 100,000 refugees fled into Turkey at that point, and most of them are still living in several refugee camps across the border in Turkey.


Werman: Right, so they were fleeing Kobane in Syria. What do these tattoos look like?


Hilton: Well, most of them are a series of geometric designs, like dots, stars, X’s, and inverted V’s, and they’re basically generally covering the chin area of the face, but then you also see them on the hands. When you sit down and interview the women and inquire further, they also have them in some hidden places.


Werman: Like where?


Hilton: Well, ankles would be one spot. Also on the chest, on the neck, which is typically covered for conservatively-dressed women. In one case, there was a woman who, when I asked her if she had any tattoos on any hidden places, showed me her breasts and her breasts were tattooed.


Werman: This is an old tattoo tradition, I gather, with the Kurds called “deq.” Can you tell us what the difference is, if there is a difference, between these hidden tattoos and the ones that are kind of more overt?


Hilton: I’m not sure there is a difference, but there are lots of interesting symbols within the tattoos. For example, some of the tattoos look like vines and they have to do with fertility and productivity. There are other tattoos which are meant to be something like tribal identifiers, typically ones that are V’s along the bottom of the lip. In one case, I found a woman who had something that looks like a gazelle on her chin, and that probably is exactly just for beautification.


Werman: What did you learn about this tradition called deq? How far back does it go?


Hilton: I really don’t know. It’s really hard to find information because it’s a tradition that hasn’t been that well studied. There are tattoo traditions all across the Arab world, and the Kurds have their specific traditions, but what I did learn is that the tradition is dying out very quickly. The youngest women I found who had facial tattoos were in their 60s, and very rarely I found a few women who had very simple tattoos who were younger than that, so like a small star or a spot on the chin or between the eyes.


Werman: Did you talk with any men about how they feel about the women, their partners maybe or their sisters or mothers, who have tattoos on their faces?


Hilton: Oh, sure. In one refugee camp, I met a woman named Zubeyda Ali, and she has a few tattoos on her face but very elaborate tattoos on her hand which form an X and look a bit like vines. Her husband said that when he was courting her, he used to just drive back and forth down the street in his delivery vehicle admiring her and her tattoos. Another woman told me that her husband just loved her tattoos and when she was sick and in the hospital, he would just kiss her on her tattooed places, on her arm. It was very sweet. Men thought these women were the most beautiful of all, the ones that were tattooed.


Werman: Finally, the colors of these tattoos, it’s pretty monochromatic. They don’t use a lot of different ink, do they?


Hilton: Not at all. It’s very interesting how they made the tattoos. The ink itself is a combination of soot and breast milk, and occasionally they would also add some kind of gallbladder fluid from animals to make the colors more bright, let’s say--actually, it’s just kind a of a black--so, to make it a better ink. Then they would use a sharp object, perhaps sewing needles, sometimes three bound together, in order to make the little incisions, and then they would rub that mixture of soot and mother’s milk into the tiny little cuts and that would form the tattoo.


Werman: Scab up and then eventually you would have the drawing.


Hilton: Yeah.


Werman: Well, Jodi Hilton, thank you very much for telling us about the photographs you took of these Kurdish women with these extraordinary facial tattoos. We really appreciate it.


Hilton: My pleasure. Nice talking to you Marco.