While documenting the war between Syrian Kurds and Islamic State fighters, photojournalist Jodi Hilton got the idea to make a portrait series of Syrian refugees living in camps along the Turkish border. What she found was more than strife – she found a vanishing way of life.
Women wearing Deq tattoos have almost disappeared, as the body decoration has been shamed as old-fashioned by modern beauty standards – or as haram(forbidden) by current Islamic interpretation. The patterns of the tattoos, which appear mostly on the chin and hands, are thought to be derived from tribal traditions that predate Islam. But still, many of the women enjoyed talking to Jodi about them – they’re a reminder of better days – of peace, and even romance.
Deq are almost exclusively found on women over 60: Amina Abdel Majid Suleyman, above, was tattooed as a baby, but mostly girls were tattooed between the ages of eight and twelve. Reasons for the tattoos vary from beauty to symbolism to warding off the evil eye – as the photographer told Coburn Dukehart at National Geographic:
“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.”
The tattoos were usually given by a nomadic “gypsy”woman, and the process is old school: designs are drawn on the skin and then pricked with a sewing needle. A mixture of soot and breast milk is spread over the cuts and left to scab over, which creates the tattoo.
There are also “secret tattoos” on ankles, necks and breasts, which the women admit that their husbands love. Adule Ali, above, told Jodi that as a young bride, her husband was apparently so taken by her beauty that upon seeing her, he accidentally cut his finger off with the scythe he had been using to cut wheat. Another woman relates how her husband, after fifty years of marriage, still finds her tattoos beautiful.
Amina Saleh, below, got her face tattooed when she was about ten years old. The twin gazelles on her face are thought to refer to beauty and grace:
There are still a very few younger women getting tattoos, though the designs are much simpler. Badiya Jelal Aqil, below, has three dots on her face and three on her left hand. Her tattoos were done by her grandmother. Her daughter Fatma asked for the same tattoos and now has one dot between her eyes (to ward off the evil eye):
So the tradition is literally vanishing, even in those few women who carry it on. But for these women tattoos are more than ornamentation – these tattoos are part of their identity, which is under threat. Jodi Hilton’s photographs personalize these women, who may never return to their previous way of life:
“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.”