Khidab in Yemen, how is it done!! [Archives:2006/945/Last Page]

May 11 2006
A woman is working with several makhadib at the same time.
A woman is working with several makhadib at the same time.
Dr. Hanne Schonig
[email protected]

Yemeni Women's Body Painting (naqsh) with khidab During my field research in the 1990s in Sanaa and Wadi Dahr, the Tihama region and Taiz as well as in Wadi Hadramawt, I learnt much about the ingredients of khidhab, which I called gall ink in English, its manufacture and application.

The application

On the occasion of religious and private feasts, especially weddings, Yemeni women and girls use khidab for body-painting. The munaqqasha – in other regions alternatively called kawbara, marrakha, mashita, mu'arriba, mukhanjira, mukaddiya, muqayyina, muzayyina, naqqasha, raddiha, raysa, and in Sanaa of course shari'a, the woman who keeps the bride company during the wedding and performs a number of duties – applies the ink with a large acacia-thorn, a tooth-pick or any wooden chip or splinter. As a matter of course this is exclusively a female occupation. – Among the khidab-producers, however, I met a man in Sanaa, who even had a well-equipped separate room in his house for the professional production of many khidab-stones at the same time, which he then sold to the 'attarin in suq al-milh. – In addition, there are talented girls and women in many families , who learned the art of naqsh to perfection and usually decorate the bodies of family members and friends. The design is drawn on the hands, arms, feet and legs, even on the face, chest or the neck. The patterns differ from region to region and are influenced by foreign fashions, especially the Gulf region and Sudan. So in the course of time a preference for floral-ornamental or geometric-abstract designs develops. Accordingly, elderly women prefer to be painted by their peers as these still know traditional patterns, which have gone out of fashion among younger women. They prefer young painters who accept new fashions and are willing to adopt them.

The length of the procedure varies according to which body parts need to be decorated, and the procedure may take up to several hours. The painted body parts are smeared with sesame oil (salit tartar), vaseline (wuzali) or fiks, then flour or baby powder are sprinkled on. Finally they are enveloped with plastic to produce heat, which enhances the effect. As the ink has to dry for several hours, the painting is generally done in the evening and the substance is washed off in the morning.

Body decorating also has a status connotation as only women who do not have to work hard, who can avoid frequent contact with water and of course who have enough money to pay for a costly munaqqasha will be in a position to afford professional painting.

The ingredients

Its main ingredients are as follows: 1- Afs: the gall of an oak tree, which is sold by druggists ('attarin) mainly for medical purposes; 2 – sikka: copper-oxide, especially copper-1-oxide;

3 – Shadhir: dissolved sal ammoniac.

afs is frequently found among the ingredients of several cosmetic products, but in Yemen it is mainly known and used because of its adstringent property for curing stomach diseases. Gall is also an ingredient of ink which is frequently mentioned in classical Arabic literature.

sikka is called khabatha in other places and is imported from India.

shadhir is sold in the shape of a white bar (there is also a shadhir-powder), called nushadhir in classical Arabic literature on chemistry and alchemy. Together with potash (hutum) it is widely used to blacken henna.

On the production methods of khidab see my more detailed and illustrated article in:

Substitutes and confusion

Nowadays there are modern substitutes such as the Japanese sibgha, which dries very quickly, though it does not keep for several weeks as khidab does, only for some days. It is a white powder, originally produced to colour the hair, and the instruction leaflet warns that it may cause allergies. It is important to keep it away from coming into contact with the eyes as this my cause blindness.

Especially Western travellers and authors – even female ones – misintrepreted the black painting which they sometimes noticed on women's hands and labelled it as the universally known kuhl or black henna, and some even took the painting for a tattoo!

For more information on this see my publication, where I present detailed information mainly on plants, but also on animal and chemical materials that Yemeni women use to manufacture cosmetics and fumigating products, from akhdarain up to wars:

Hanne Schoenig: Schminken, Dufte und Raucherwerk der Jemenitinnen. Lexikon der Substanzen, Utensilien und Techniken. Beiruter Texte und Studien 91. Wurzburg: Ergon 2002.

There are two articles in English by the author, both with illustrations:

“Traditional Cosmetics of Women in Yemen. The black dye khidab: Traditional and modern ways of fabrication”, in: Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies (London) 26 (1996), 135-144.

“Utensils of traditional cosmetics in Yemen: use and terminology”, in: Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies (London) 29 (1999), 151-157.

Finally I want to use this occasion to thank in public all those women and men, who provided me with precious information and thus enabled me to write the mentioned book – but, who, on account of it being in German, are unable to read it. I have gained a great deal of my scientific knowledge from druggists (attarin), two of whom I want to mention here by name: 'Abdalwahhab al-Khalaqi in the suq al-mi'tara in Sanaa and Ahmad Khudafi in the old city of Taiz.