Clothing and Fashion

Posts on clothing, fashion, and textiles in various NaTakallam cultures.

deq, the art of Kurdish tattooing

Deq: The Art of Kurdish Tattooing

Reading Time: 6 minutes
examples of deq, the art of Kurdish tattooing, with symbols inspired by nature

Tattoos and other forms of body art are a type of cultural expression shared by many communities across the world, but many of these unique cultural traditions are in danger of being lost to time and cultural hegemony. Across the Middle East and North African regions there is a rich tapestry of tattoo traditions, dating back thousands of years: Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and nomadic tribes living in Eastern Anatolia wear them, as do Arab and Amazigh women living in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. “Deq” is the art of Kurdish tattooing.

One Woman Takes Up the Ancient Art

woman applies Kurdish deq
Elu works on a client.

Elu is a tattoo artist and a Zaza Alevi Kurdish diaspora woman from Dersim, in northern Kurdistan, eastern Turkey. She is one of the very few tattoo artists committed to keeping the art of traditional Kurdish tattooing, known as deq or xal, alive for another generation. Deq is the Kurdish word for “tattoo,” but the word has come to refer specifically to tattoos in the Kurdish style. I had the pleasure of interviewing Elu to learn more about this centuries-old tradition.

Elu entered the tattoo world by doing machine tattoos, but while traveling in Thailand she learned about Sak Yant, a sacred form of hand-poked tattooing done by Buddhists in southeast Asia. Inspired, she started hand-poking tattoos herself.  “As I was researching traditional skin markings around the world, I wondered if Kurdish people had any tattoo traditions, as I didn’t grow up seeing them in the diaspora (awaretî, derbiderî or sirgûn). Through an online search I came across deq and immediately found myself mirrored in it,” she says. “Later I found out my great-grandmother, whom I never got to meet but thank my path for, also had deq on her face.”

An Artistic Heritage of Women

There are many factors that make deq different from other forms of tattooing. First of all, the ink for deq is traditionally prepared with a mixture of soot and breast milk from a woman (jin) who has given birth to a girl (keç). It can also be made from a mixture of herbs and animal intestines. The tattoo itself is created by piercing the skin with a needle (derzî) that has been covered with the ink. Secondly, deq is traditionally done on women by women, on various areas of their body, such as the hands, breasts or even the face. Tattoos on men used to be rare, but this has changed: the younger generation is interested in keeping the deq tradition alive regardless of gender.

Kurdish tattooing
All photos in this article are examples of Elu’s work.

Tattooing is often done at a young age. Usually mothers or other women in the community tattoo their children (mindal or zarok), but sometimes kids try to tattoo themselves, mimicking the designs of their elders. As a result, traditional tattoo art endures across successive generations, evolving into a valued cultural heritage (kelepûr).

Kurdish tattooing

The symbols and patterns people choose to tattoo on their bodies are deeply inspired by nature and daily life. Common symbols include: the sun (roj), moon (heyv), and stars (stêrin); animals (ajel or lawir) like gazelle (xezal), birds and snakes (marin); plants (rewik); and daily life objects such as scissors (meqes or cawbirr), spindles and dolls (bûkoke). Lines and crosses are also common motifs and they can also be used to combine multiple drawings. And each symbol can have multiple meanings depending on the region, cultural background and individual desire.

People mark their bodies with deq for different reasons: some women believe their deq is a sign of beauty; others believe that deq has healing powers (tattooing dots on the side of the forehead can help against headaches, for instance); while others get tattoos for protection — for example, women may get them to ensure a safe pregnancy. They can also be an expression of nobility, pride, faith or belonging to a specific lineage — or simply of being in an exceptionally good physical state. Overall, deq is deeply rooted in spirituality, but it’s also a symbol of heritage and cultural pride.

Kurdish tattooing

From One Generation to the Next

When asked what deq means for Kurdish people, Elu says: “Nowadays, deq has become a cultural tool to build bridges between generations and over geographic distances. Some people mark the same deq as their mother (or dayik), grandmother (pîrik) or great-grandparents have, and others do it to create a bond with their culture and identity. While there are many personal reasons why Kurdish people practice deq, there is a collective desire to reclaim this almost-vanished tradition as a form of self-identification.”

deq on a Yazidi family

Elu mentions that the placement of the tattoo is also important. “The placement can also determine the meaning, which can be determined collectively or by the individual. A dot, for instance, can have a personal meaning for every individual.” She showed me an example of a Yazidi family without a gap between the generations practicing deq. All the children have received the same dot as their mother.

Unfortunately, deq remains an endangered tradition (kevneşopî). Over the years, fewer and fewer people have been practicing deq. It has even become frowned upon, and women may be averse to showing their tattoos or to talking about them. Religion (ol) could be one of the possible reasons: Islam, the dominant religion of the region, often forbids body modifications that are not done for medical reasons, and belief in any kind of spirituality apart from God is forbidden. Another reason could be the desire, or sometimes the necessity, for Kurds to assimilate into a mostly non-Kurdish society.

Elu, however, remains optimistic. When I asked her what could be done to prevent this art form from dying out, she replied: “The continuation is the biggest factor in saving this tradition from disappearing. I am sure we are currently experiencing and witnessing the renaissance of this tradition, especially through the Kurdish diaspora community (civaka derbiderî ya Kurd). Many more tattoo artists are beginning to mark deq again.”

Kurdish tattooing

However, she is also quick to add: “The tradition needs active practice as well as preservation in order not to be watered down into remains of what it once was. Therefore, a lot more research, documentation and archival work is needed. I truly hope to contribute to this with my work, as I truly believe in the power of ink, on skin as well as on paper.”

To look at and support Elu’s work, please visit her Instagram page.

Kurdish tattooing

Deq: The Art of Kurdish Tattooing Read More »

man wearing keffiyeh with meanings of symbols

The Meaning of the Keffiyeh

Reading Time: 6 minutes

With the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, many people are eager to show their support for Palestine. One popular way to do so is by wearing the keffiyeh or kufiyyah (كوفية), a cotton or wool fishnet-patterned scarf. It can have different color variations but is usually a white background with black or red embroidered details. But what is the meaning of the keffiyeh? Its exact origins are unknown, but many Arab countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, have their own preferred way to wear it. In the Palestinian context, however, it’s not just a fashion item — it’s an iconic symbol of Palestinian culture and identity.

woman wearing keffiyeh and carrying Palestinian flag

In the 1930s the keffiyeh was worn mostly by farmers and lower-class people from the villages, who used it as a headdress to protect themselves from the harsh weather conditions. This was seen as a symbol of social inferiority and backwardness by the upper class and townspeople, who wore a Tarbuush (طربوش; often called a “fez” in English from the Turkish fes): a rigid, red, conical hat. But during the Arab revolts against British forces, rebels started wearing the keffiyeh to conceal their identity and urged upper-class and townspeople to start wearing it too, so that the rebels could blend in when entering other cities. The British tried banning them, but this only encouraged Palestinians from all social backgrounds to start wearing the keffiyeh collectively as a form of resistance.

In the 1960s the Palestinian فِدائيّين (feda’iyiin; guerrilla fighters) resumed using the keffiyeh as an emblem of national struggle and unity, while the Palestinian politician Yasser Arafat popularized it to a broader, global audience. Its symbolism became even more fundamental when Israeli authorities banned the Palestinian flag in 1967, and throughout the ’60s and ’70s left wing students and activists from all over the world started wearing it as a symbol of sympathy towards anti-imperialist and anti-war causes.

It was at this point that it became a fashionable garment. Mass manufacturers started producing and selling it to broader audiences, who were often unaware of its meaning and wore it for aesthetic purposes (which has led to accusations of cultural appropriation). For Palestinians, however, the cultural significance of the keffiyeh remains strong despite its commercialization.

The patterns on the keffiyeh have many different meanings and interpretations: the fishnet pattern can represent the Palestinians’ connection to the sea, while the bold lines may represent the trade routes which made Palestine an exchange hub in ancient history. (Others believe the lines represent the walls that surround the land.) The oval stitches along the borders represent olive tree leaves: olive trees are of great cultural significance to Palestinians. They play a vital role in the Palestinian economy through oil and wood production, but the olive tree is also a representation of Palestinians’ resilience and attachment to their land. It’s important to note that the keffiyeh doesn’t have a religious meaning and that people wear it regardless of their religious beliefs, social backgrounds, age or gender.

girl wearing keffiyeh with olive tree

The keffiyeh’s patterns are a classic example of Palestinian embroidery. The Arabic word for embroidery of any kind is تطريز (taTriiz), but in English the word “tatreez” has become synonymous with the unique style of embroidery indigenous to Palestine, traditionally done by women.

Palestinian tatreez

Just like the keffiyeh, tatreez has humble origins. Village women used to gather to decorate clothes, scarves and other textiles and pass down this art form to the younger generation. In general, geometric forms and subjects from nature are the most common motifs, but most of them reflect ordinary items from rural women’s daily lives, such as food (apples and chick-peas), animals (cow’s eyes and scorpions) and implements (mill wheels and ladders). Other motifs symbolized basic elements in nature like the sun, moon, stars, trees, mountains and water.

The colors used in the embroidery were just as important as the design, and color schemes were chosen in reflection of a woman’s feelings and stage in life. For example, in the Hebron region, purple threads were preferred by older women, while girls opted for red and green. In some Bedouin tribes, blue embroidery was meant for unmarried women, while married women used red to represent their status as wives. Older women or widows who were interested in remarrying combined the color blue with red flowers and sometimes intertwined figures of children with blue embroidery on the back panel of their dresses. However, red also symbolized happiness and life more generally and so could be used in almost all Palestinian embroidery, alongside other bright colors for accentuation. The dyes came either from Greater Syria or, later on, from Europe.

Some patterns and colors were originally only used in certain areas of Palestine (palm trees from Ramallah, or orange blossoms from Beit Dajan), whereas other designs were stitched everywhere in the country. After the 1920s, however, transportation improved and differences between regions started to decline. 

symbols of Palestinian towns
The symbols of prominent Palestinian towns embroidered in tatreez.

Following the forced mass displacement of Palestinians into refugee camps post-1948, regional differences disappeared altogether. From the 1950s onward, practicality became essential in clothing, which featured plain decorations, but Palestinian women realized that they could make an income through their embroidery work. In the aftermath of the 1967 war and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, display of the Palestinian flag was forbidden, but that didn’t stop women from stitching red, green, white and black designs into their embroidery. The words انتفاضة (intifada, “uprising”) and فلسطين (“Palestine”) were skillfully integrated into cushion patterns, serving as symbols of passive resistance and expressing Palestinian nationalist pride.

As a final note, tatreez today remains a powerful vehicle of self-expression in the face of generational trauma, and some artists are taking its imagery into the digital domain. Click on the image to the right to see an animated explanation of one Palestinian artist’s digital embroidery at the end of the first month of the Israel-Hamas war.

woman wearing keffiyeh waving Palestinian flag and making peace sign

To learn more about Palestinian culture, consider learning Arabic with one of our Palestinian language partners! Here at NaTakallam, every language session contributes to the livelihoods of our skilled tutors from refugee/displaced backgrounds and their host communities. Book a session today, or start with a few key phrases: learn the meaning of inshallah, some common terms of endearment, or how to wish someone happy holidays.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alice Zanini is a copywriting intern at NaTakallam. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Middle Eastern studies. Her research focus is on sociopolitical and sociolinguistic issues in modern Turkey and the Persian-speaking world.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.

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