By Mojgan Ghazirad

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It is called sormé in Farsi, the black soot that women use to magnify and beautify their eyes and face. You can name it eyeliner, but in reality, sormé does not “line” the eyes. It is used inside, on the inner pink rim that harbors the eyelashes.

I saw the sormé-dan, the jar containing sormé, first time in my grandfather’s pistachio robe. I was a curious little girl, eager to explore the gifts and gadgets he had brought from the Hajj Pilgrimage. The sormé-dan was a souvenir he’d bought from a salesman in Mecca’s Bazaar. It resembled a pocket watch, a tiny arrow jutting out from the twelve o’clock location. The picture of Mecca’s cubic shrine was engraved on one side of that brass jar and Medina’s emerald mosque on the other. He twisted the arrow and pulled the metal rod attached to the arrow out from the jar. The rod was blackened with sormé. He drew the rod against the back of my hand. A narrow black line marked the touch. Then he drew another line and a tiny little V of a flying bird emerged.  Then another V and another V and soon a flock of birds flew in the peach sky of my skin. He showed me how to apply sormé on the eyes. He separated the eyelid from the eyeball and carefully dabbed the inner rim with continuous soft strokes until the pink line surrendered to a black coat. He didn’t press the rod too hard, just a caressing, tender touch, enough to blacken the rim.

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Applying sormé is a delicate task. It’s scary when the sharp stick is aimed at the cornea. One wrong move and it can scratch the eye. But this is how women and men in my country have been applying sormé for thousands of years. If you don’t put your heart in it, you will make a mess of your face. Just like using charcoal on a snow-white blank paper, you have to be mindful of every line that you draw. Even the softest accidental stroke of the hand can fade the boldness of the lines. Just a tiny drop of that fine powder under the lower eyelid is enough to ruin the look of your face. And if you try to clean that betraying dot, it will seek revenge by leaving a tarry hue under the eye: never will the two eyes be the same again. This is the reason many women avoid sormé nowadays. It deserves the attention and delicacy our rushed world lacks.

My grandfather used sormé to heal his clouding eyes. He said, “Sormé sooyeh chasm ra ziyad mikonad.” It is considered by many a medicine more than a cosmetic in the East. Muslims say it was the tradition of Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, to line eyes with sormé. They apply it during the month of Ramadan and on Eids to pursue the path of the Prophet. Egyptians believe the blackness surrounding the eyes shields them from the ominous rays of sunshine. Indians paint the newborns’ eyes to protect them from the “evil eye.” Persians believe it accentuates expressions of love. Somehow this supreme, black powder brings protection, treatment and affection for the ones who wear it. It has something to do with lining hope for a better future when it adorns the eyes.

I always wondered why Persians believe using sormé accentuates expressions of love. I used to apply the sormé and stare at my face in the tall mirror hanging in my bedroom. I had hard time believing the blackness added beauty to my eyes, though it did highlight them in the constellation of my face. The voiceless powder cried to be seen. Eyes grabbed immediate attention: “Seekers of beauty! Do not sail around and get lost!” Like a bright lighthouse in a deadly storm, the blackness pointed to the light that resided in the sea of inside. Is that why they said sormé accentuated expressions of love?

“We tread the bazaar, in awe of the colorful shawls dancing in the air and the layered spices that mound in gunny sacks in front of the stores.”

Persian poets love using sormé as a metaphor for light—in contrast to its stygian blackness. Naderpour, a contemporary poet, says in his Sun’s Sormé poem:

               I was the blind bird of the black forest,

               The whirling winds my sole companion.

               When the night bore down on me,

               I only asked for death in my sleep.

He pictures himself as a blind owl in a deep black forest, sunrays pricking him one early morning in his dark nest. He imagines the sunrays as rods containing sormé. The rods line his eyelids with light and bring back vision to his eyes:

               But it was your warm hands, dearest love,

               Your hand and your infinite fire,

               I was the blind bird of the black forest,

               You brought sight with your sun’s sormé.

In the love poems of Attar, the great mystic poet, winds bring dust from faraway lands, from the land of the beloved. Even a speck of dust from the beloved is a cure, those tiny particles she shakes from her cloak. The wind-brought dust becomes sormé, and makes him see the silhouette of the beloved:

               The dust that morning breeze

               Veers from her door to me,

               Is the sable sormé,

               That brightens the world in my eyes.

There is a secret when stones are crushed to dust. The stibnite or the sulfur compound of antimony is abundant in Iran. For three thousand years, Persians have pried tootiya—the stibnite—from the mountains near Isfahan and grinded the stone in tiny mortars to make the fine black powder. They believe when a stone is pulverized into powder, the idol of grandiosity is broken into tiny pieces of modesty. By applying the powder, the secret in the stones is released and the eyes able to see through the veil of ego. You can see what’s hidden from the eyes. Fables have it that Khosrow Parviz, the great king of the Sasanian Empire, possessed a special sormé that when he applied, he could see through the earth for almost a year.

But while sormé can bring light to the eyes, it can be a silencing sword for the throat. There is an adage in Farsi that says, if you swallow the sormé, you will lose your voice. Bidel, a mystic poet, sings this adage in a beautiful poem:

               My lute of hope is broken and I am silenced forever,

               Of all the colors, I wonder why sormé has stolen my voice.

Sormé is destined to guide one from the glitter in the eyes to the lilting throbs of the heart. But if you use it by mistake on your lips, you will diverge into a dead-end, a hushed-voice chamber, rather than into flowing songs of love. 


I take my little girl to Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. We come out of the Jameh Mosque after the prayer. This is the first time I have taken her with me to the mosque, and I want to show her how Muslims pray together in Iran. Raised in America, she has never prayed in a mass. She likes the flowers woven in the rugs. She thinks it is poetic that we caress the flowers with our foreheads while we genuflect during the prayer. We tread the bazaar, in awe of the colorful shawls dancing in the air and the layered spices that mound in gunny sacks in front of the stores. We pass a tiny turnery that has hundreds of wooden handicrafts. Every little object in the store is embellished with patterns of petals and twisted twigs. She likes the colors and configurations of the crafts. She pulls me into the turnery and points to a bulb-like jar. “What’s that?” she asks.

The old salesman brushes his grizzled beard and puts the azure-colored jar on the counter. A sharp arrow is pointing to the sky from its narrow neck. Tiny flowers entangled in each other, ornate the surface of the jar. “It’s a sormé-dan, little lady,” the salesman says to my girl. He pulls the arrow out from the jar and a thin blackened applicator appears.

“What’s this for?” she asks. I have never told her the story of sormé. I have abandoned using it since I came to America. The old antimony stone is long forgotten in the mountains of Iran.

The salesman asks for my girl’s hand. She looks at me and I nod. She places her hand on the counter and the old man nears the applicator to the dorsum of her hand. A black line appears. He dips the rod back into the jar and strokes her hand with a soft touch again and again. The magical flock of birds appears on the peach sky of her hand. She smiles. She wants the azure jar. The old man reveals the secret of sormé: the medicine, the evil-eye catcher, the beautifier, the eyeliner, the illuminator, the heart’s pathfinder. He says it accentuates expressions of love, and smiles. He keeps the love-emphasizer for the last. She stares at him with her large, beautiful black eyes. She has hard time believing the old man.

He wraps the sormé-dan in a parchment paper and puts it in a brown bag. He puts two vials of stibnite powder tightened with a cork in the bag and hands it to me. His fingertips have tainted black from handling the vials. He has sormé in his eyes like my grandfather. I wonder if he has visited Mecca and seen the thousands of men who apply sormé after the Hajj Pilgrimage.

We swing back to the bazaar. White pillars of light descend from the domes’ circular openings. Tiny black dust particles dance in the light, twirling up to the dome. Maybe a young lover has passed these narrow alleys and the sudden breeze has swept dust into the bazaar. Maybe the beloved has shaken her cloak near the old wooden gate.

Sunshine stings our eyes as soon as we come out. My little girl squints and tries to find her love-shaped sunglasses in her strapped handbag. Doves fly to and from the mosque’s dome in flocks of thousands. She sails her hands in the air like the doves. The black Vs on her hand merge with the birds in the sky. “Mommy, have you ever put sormé in your eyes?”

I smile and I nod.

They say sormé accentuates expressions of love. It’s the secret pathway to the heart.