|The entry for ḥarqus from Belkassem Ben Sedira's Arabic-French dictionary (Algeria), 1882.|
To begin with, how do we spell it? In standard academic transcription, the Arabic word حرقوس would be written as ḥarqūs, although in some areas of the Maghreb it was pronounced closer to hargus (or hargous in French spelling). Other spellings, like harkus (or harkous) or harkos, are encountered as well. Catherine Cartwright-Jones, who has put some material about it on her site, spells it harquus (with two u’s), following the transliteration system of al-Kitaab, the Georgetown Arabic textbook commonly used for Introductory Arabic throughout the United States, which recommends doubled letters to represent long vowels. While the “two u” spelling has become common on the internet, I prefer not to use it for two main reasons: it does not follow scholarly convention, and it confuses people about the pronunciation (I’ve heard people say “harkwus”). In this post I'll use ḥarqus, except in quotations, where I'll keep whatever spelling the author used. Basically it should be pronounced har-KUS, with a rough ‘h,’ a back-of-the-throat ‘k’ or ‘q,’ and a long ‘u’ as in goose.
Now that we've covered how to spell it and say it, let’s turn to what it is (and is not). Ḥarqus refers to a black ink used for painting the face and hands with small temporary designs. These designs are often very similar (or even identical) to the tattoo designs common in the same areas of North Africa… But ḥarqus is not a tattoo, and the word ḥarqus does not refer to tattooing! Tattooing is known generally as washm or usham in Moroccan Arabic, although many of the tattoos actually have their own names based on the placement and motif (see Herber 1948). It’s true that there is some relationship between them — many designs, as I mentioned, were done both with ḥarqus and tattoo, and tattoo artists also applied ḥarqus (although ḥarqus was also done by individuals at home).
|"Fatima and Manoubia applying makeup," Alexandre |
Roubtzoff, Tunis, 1917.
Ḥarqus is essentially a gall ink, made from the tannic acid of oak galls and iron or copper sulfate, which produces a intensely deep black ink, lasting for a few days on living skin and permanent on parchment (a very similar ink is used in Jewish communities to this day for writing Torah scrolls). It was (and is still) used throughout the Maghreb, mainly Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia; a similar cosmetic was also used in the Arabic peninsula, known there as khiḍab (another subject for a future blogpost). When made at home, poorer women sometimes used just a simple mixture of soot and oil, but ‘professional’ recipes for ḥarqus show the variety of organic and non-organic ingredients: