The Last Tattooed Women of Kobane

Last fall, photographer Jodi Hilton visited Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, across the border from Kobane, Syria. There, she encountered women who displayed the last of a fading art form—deq facial tattoos. I interviewed her about her experience photographing the women who bear these disappearing symbols.

COBURN DUKEHART: Where did you encounter these women and what made you want to photograph them?

JODI HILTON: I had been working in a Turkish border town across from Kobane, photographing U.S. airstrikes, border villages, and fighters’ funerals, when I got the idea to make this portrait series. I made most of the photographs in the refugee camps in Suruc, but I also made [a] few in a camp in Iraqi Kurdistan—another place where Kobane refugees were finding shelter.

I have long been fascinated with the regional facial tattoos, called deq. I had seen them in Turkey amongst both Arabs and Kurds, especially in the province of Urfa, but it wasn’t until the conflict in Kobane that I realized the tradition naturally extended across the border to Syria. On both sides of the border people are connected by language, tribe, and ethnic identity, so it makes sense that they also share other cultural attributes.

I was curious about particular aspects of the deq tradition, like why they are almost exclusively found on women above the age of 60. Why and when did people stop the practice? Also, I wanted to understand the lines and shapes and why they are commonly placed between the lips and chin. To my eyes, the tattoos resembled a sort of unkept beard, but in the past they were considered the height of beauty.

COBURN: Can you tell me a bit about the history of these tattoos?

JODI: It’s difficult to find historical facts about the Kurdish deq tradition. We can surmise, however, that the tattoos are not exclusive to Kurds or this specific region but are spread throughout swaths of the Islamic world.

Many women reported being tattooed by a “nomad” or a “gypsy woman,” and these traveling tattoo artists may well have dispersed the tradition. But some of the designs are unique, possibly referring to pre-Islamic religions that are, in some way, still in the hearts of some Kurdish people.

The tattoos are made from soot and breast milk and sometimes gallbladder liquid from a sheep or goat. The design is drawn on the skin and then a series of small punctures are made with a sewing needle. Then the mixture is spread over the design, which scabs over and leaves the tattoo. Most are done between the ages of eight and twelve. One woman even tattooed her own breasts, encircling the nipples with a thin round line.

COBURN: What is the symbolism behind the tattoos?

JODI: Common symbols include inverted Vs; Earth symbols like the sun, moon, and stars; dots and vines, especially on the hands; and, occasionally, animal designs.

An ethnomusicologist named Fethi Karkecili helped me interpret the symbols. Plant symbols, he believes, refer to wishes for fertility, productivity, and strength. The V symbols are tribal identifiers, the size of the symbol corresponding with the size of the family group. One woman I met had twin gazelles on her chin, probably in reference to the animal’s beauty and grace.

An often heard reason why tattoos are mainly drawn from lip to chin is so sweetness can exit the woman’s mouth when she speaks. A tattoo between the eyes offers protection against nazar, the evil eye. A moon next to the side of the eye may mean that the woman or her family converted from Yazidism to Islam but still holds some of the religious traditions.

Some women also shared tattoos in “secret places,” like on the ankle, neck, and even breasts. Mostly the women say that they were made for beautification, but some experts say that truly beautiful women sometimes had heavy tattoos made in order to hide their beauty, to protect them from the evil eye.

COBURN: Did you get the sense that these women were proud of their tattoos? Ashamed?

JODI: Some of the women I photographed were ashamed of their tattoos. They realized later in life that they are haram according to Islam, or they were made to feel old-fashioned by others. But most of the women were happy to speak about their tattoos—a subject other than the war, the dreary life of being a refugee, the pain of having deaths in their families and losing their homes.

One of the women happily shared stories of her husband’s fascination with her tattoos, recounting how he would kiss her tattooed places, including her neck and inner arm. In another case, a woman clearly enjoyed hearing her husband recall how at first glance, he fell in love with his future wife. He found her and her tattoos to be beautiful. Fifty years later, as they share a cramped tent in a refugee camp, he still does.

COBURN: Is this a dying art form? Are the younger women of this culture continuing the tradition?

JODI: The deq tradition stopped being performed, for the most part, about 50 years ago.

If and when we find women under 50 with deq, the designs are minimalistic—a simple dot on the cheek, between the eyes, or on the chin. Almost all of the women I interviewed were the daughters of tattooed women, but almost none of their daughters carried on the tradition. When I asked why, they mostly told me that it wasn’t “modern” or was “old-fashioned.”

What I’ve come to believe is that globalization, combined with the mainstreaming of Islamic religious beliefs, made women believe that according to Islam, altering the body in such ways is haram.

COBURN: What are you hoping that viewers will take away from your photographs?

JODI: I wanted to make these photographs as a historical document, to memorialize the women and their tattoos so that when they are gone we can still remember them. I also wanted to bring attention to something unique about the culture of the people from Kobane, aside from their status as refugees.

Jodi Hilton is an American photojournalist who has been working in Turkey and the Balkans since 2010. She was previously based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and a contributor to the Italian agency NurPhoto. Her work has been published internationally in newspapers and magazines, including in National Geographic (Italy) and National Geographic Traveler. See more of her work at jodihilton.com, read her blog, and follow her on Instagram.

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