The Daily Hustle: The ancient art of making surma

In Afghanistan, surma (kohl) has been used since ancient times by both men and women to enhance the eyes, for its healing properties and to protect the wearer against the evil eye. Traditionally made by grinding stibnite rock into a fine power, the use of the black concoction to line the eyes also has a religious aspect. According to accounts in the Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad used and recommended a form of surma, both for its medicinal qualities and as an adornment. It is therefore halal and its use permitted, or even encouraged. In recent times, however, this millennia-old practice has fallen out of favour with urban dwellers who are increasingly opting for imported eyeliners. There are also concerns about potential health hazards, if the surma has been made in unhygienic facilities, or, as is the case with some preparations, contains high levels of lead. AAN’s Sayed Asadullah Sadat has spoken to a man whose family has been supplying surma to Kabul’s residents for five generations about how the coveted black paste is made and what the future holds for this centuries-old tradition.

Surma, the family business

I’ve been selling surma in Kabul all my life. It’s a trade my brother and I inherited from my father 30 years ago, as he had from his father. My family has been selling surma for five generations and we have a reputation as among the most trusted vendors in Kabul.

There are four kinds of surma in Afghanistan. The best come from stibnite (ithmid) rocks from the mountains in Badakhshan and Ghorband.[1] These are the rocks I use to make my surma. I buy them from trusted traders who bring them to Kabul. The antimony from Badakhshan is a lightweight, ‘moist’ rock that makes for a true black surma. They say Badakhshi surma is ‘hot’[2] in nature and so good to use in winter to warm the eyes against the cold. The rock from Ghorband is heavier and it’s a ‘dry’ rock. It’s more difficult to grind into a fine powder and the colour is not a deep black like the surma the rock from Badakhshan produces. Ghorbandi surma is ‘cold’ and is best used in the warmer months. Both have healing powers and protect the eyes against all manner of ailments, especially air pollution.

There are other surmas, less expensive and of inferior quality on the market. One comes from Peshawar and is similar to the one from Ghorband. Another is imported from Russia. There are also commercial surmas, imported mostly from Pakistan and India, that are made by burning things such as apricot kernels into charcoal, but these don’t have the same benefits as rock surma and are also not considered halal.

Making surma then and now

As a boy, I learned how to make surma at my mother’s knee. Once a month, she would make surma from the rocks that traders brought from the mountains. First, she’d put the rocks in the fire to burn off the impurities. Then, she would grind them into a fine powder in her brass Russian-made mortar and pestle, sifting the powder several times through a mesh until she was satisfied with its fineness. Next, she’d melt beef fat, skimming off the foam until there was a clear liquid, the colour of gold, which she’d drip slowly into the powder until she had a paste. Finally, she’d wrap the paste into several paper parcels, which she weighed on a tarazu (traditional scale) to make sure they weighed three grams each. These little paper packets were my father’s stock for the month. He’d carry them in a small pouch on his route as he walked the streets of Kabul, hawking or calling at the homes of his regular customers.

In those days, my brother and I would sit next to my mother as her hands deftly turned rock first into fine powder and then into paste. She’d tell us the story of surma – where it came from, what it was used for and about the ancient people in distant lands who used it.[3] Slowly, as she recited verses from the Hadith about how the Prophet Muhammad used antimony, she’d line our eyes with surma to keep us healthy, ward off the evil eye and thank the Prophet for the bounties his gift was affording our family.

I still prepare surma much the same way my mother did, except modern appliances have made the job easier and faster. I now use a gas stove instead of a brazier, an electric grinder instead of my mother’s mortar and pestle, a battery-operated scale to weigh the packets and little plastic pouches instead of paper.

Health concerns and changing fashion

Business these days is not as good as it used to be in my father’s time. Many urban women, who used to wear surma as part of their makeup, have stopped using it in favour of eyeliner pencils imported from the West. They frown on surma, saying it’s old-fashioned and unhygienic. There are doctors and reports in the news that say it’s bad for the eyes and could lead to infections or even blindness, that surma contains lead and could poison the blood and cause all kinds of diseases. But I don’t think they’re aware that our surma, which comes from the antimony rocks of Badakhshan and Ghorband, does not have lead.[4] Anyway, my family has been selling surma for five generations, and in all this time, there’s never been a case of anyone having any trouble with our product.

We still have about 70 regular customers. Some shopkeepers buy from us and sell at a profit in their stores. We also do a fair amount of trade selling on the streets of west Kabul and sometimes customers call me on my mobile and ask for a delivery. Many families still use surma regularly. People still use surma at weddings and when babies are born. People also use it when they make a sacrifice, lining the eyes of the sheep [to be killed] with surma. This is not based on sharia, but it’s according to our own customs in Afghanistan.

The surma market is indeed dwindling, but there’s still enough custom for us to make a living. We buy the stibnite for 400 afghanis (USD 5.70) per kilo and can make about 1,000 afghanis (USD 14.90) per kilo after we process it. These days, we make about 7,000 afghanis (USD 99) a week, which my brother and I divide equally.

Surma, a dying tradition

My sons and nephews don’t want to take over the business. They say it’s a dying market and they don’t want to live hand to mouth. Two of my sons are in Iran chasing their dreams for a better future on construction sites along with their cousins. I have two other sons who are still here in Kabul. One works as a guard and the other as a driver. We always thought that at least one of the boys would carry the family tradition into the future. We wanted to modernise our operation, expand the wholesale side of the business, start selling to more and more shops and maybe even export to Pakistan and Iran. We had plans to buy some machines to do the grinding and mixing and invest in nicer, professional-looking packaging.

Now, my brother and I sit together to grind the rock and make surma in a melancholy mood and lament the end of our family as a long line of trusted vendors of surma. We will keep the tradition going as long as we can, hoping that at least one of our boys will come to see this tradition as a legacy worth saving.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour


1 Stibnite, an antimony-sulphide metalloid compound (Sb2S3), is the main natural source for the chemical element, antimony (atomic number 51).
2 In Afghanistan, as in the wider region, there is a belief that foods and other things ingested by humans have a hot (garm) or cold (sard) property, with a unique impact on the human body.
3 Just how ancient is testified to by the modern words used for surma. The Arabic name, koḥl, which was borrowed into English in the eighteenth century, was earlier used in Akkadian, another semitic language spoken 3,500 years ago. Greek and Latin borrowed a word from ancient Egyptian to get stibium. The Persian word, surma, comes from Azerbaijani – ‘to draw along’ (see Wikipedia).
4 Surma made from an alternative source, the rock, galena (lead sulfide), would contain lead.

The Daily Hustle: The ancient art of making surma