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February 21, 2012

Persian Beauty Rituals & Fairytales


Every couple of weeks, I devote an evening to beauty rituals. They are not fancy, nor do they require an appointment at a spa for an expensive treatment, but my evenings of beauty, as I’ve taken to calling them, are just as satisfying. I make a sugar and lemon juice scrub, a yogurt and rosewater mask and a colorless henna treatment that leaves a sweet leathery scent on my hair and everything else it touches. Sometimes I listen to music as I wait for my treatments to work their magic, sometimes I read, but most often, I simply lie down and fall into a daydream.

As I carefully apply the sticky brown paste to each lock, I remember my mother and aunts sharing their beauty secrets and relationship advice as they painted their nails, mashed strawberries for a gentle facial scrub or applied a chamomile and egg yolk mask to enhance blonde highlights in their hair. The taste of strawberry as it dripped from my cheeks and the stickiness of honey on my fingertips is how I remember those long summer evenings. I hope that when I have a daughter, she will instinctively know, just as I now know, how long one needs to rub honey into the skin to make it glowing and how to listen to a story of heartbreak before offering words of support.

Since I have quite a collection of beauty recipes, I find it fascinating how other women make themselves beautiful. In previous posts on this subject, I shared the sacrifices of women in the 13th century Arabia for their beauty, the game of flirtation in medieval India and the perfume secrets of the Nauru islanders. In this article, I am offering an excerpt from Persian folklore. In a tale about a woman who fell in love with Amu Norouz (Uncle New Day,) beauty rituals are explained in some detail. It is a bittersweet love story, which tells how every first day of spring, in anticipation of meeting the object of her dreams, the woman would dress up, perfume herself and set the table with delicacies, only to fall asleep just as he arrives.

“Every year, on the very first day of spring, she would wake up early, neatly fold her mattress and blankets and …clean the house from ceiling to the floor. After sweeping the yard, splashing fresh water on the ground, she would take a bath and groom herself. Then she would apply henna on her hands and legs and do the haft ghalam makeup (literally, seven items, a phrase which connotes a combination of many diverse things. Numbers 3, 7 and 40 are significant numbers in Persian traditions), from drawing lines and putting a small khaal (literally, mole, making beauty spots) on her face to applying kohl and blush. Wearing a richly pleated shaliteh (loose skirt worn on pants which became a fashion trend during the Qajar period) over a red tonbaan (pants, an outfit in old Iran) she would perfume her hair and face with musk and amber.

Then she would bring the best of her Persian carpets and spread them on the veranda which faced the pool and its fountains along the small garden which was abundantly blessed with many colorful flowers and fruit bearing trees that were now full of spring blossoms. On a beautiful and sparkling tray, she would then place the delicacies : seer (garlic), serkeh (vinegar), somaagh (Sumac fruit or powder), senjed (dried oleaster fruit), seeb (apple), sabzeh (wheat, barley or lentil sprouts) and samanu (sweet pudding made from wheat germ).

On another tray, she would then arrange seven types of dried fruits, noghl (a traditional Persian confection, sugar coated almonds) and nabaat (saffron rock candy). Then she would light up the manghal (traditional Persian charcoal pan) and set the hooka right next to it, although she would not light it. She would then fix her eyes on the road, awaiting the arrival of [her beloved].”

From Masnavi in Prose by Dr. Mahmoud Fotouhi, translation from Persian by Maryam Ala Amjadi, published in Tehran Times.

Proposal, a painting by Feeroozeh Golmohammadi. Golmohammadi draws from Persian literature, folklore and mythology to capture her vivid and striking images of women.



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