On “Kuhaylah” as a metaphor for Arab women’s kohl-lined eyes

By Edouard Aldahdah

Posted on January 5th, 2011 in General

Yesterday, Lisa from the UK asked about the meaning of the word “Kuhaylan” and its feminine “Kuhaylah”, as applied to Arabian horses; I won’t tell you anything that most of you don’t know already, I only want to give a sense of its etymology.

If you want to understand the meaning of a concept in Arabic, you need to keep a couple things in mind: first, that the Arabic language was developed and enriched by poets — famously, at such venues as the Arabian market of Okaz, which by the way has recently been revived; indeed, the oldest evidence of Arabic language ever comes from an inscription found in 1979 at Ein Avdat in the Negev desert. The inscription dates from the 1st century of our era (0-100 AD) and consists of six lines, two of which are in Arabic, and they are in verse.  So, in a nutshell, not only is poetry a central feature of  Arab culture in general, and Bedouin culture in particular, but it is also central to its genesis, too.

Second, Bedouins are born poets, and like most poets and people who enjoy poetry, they make heavy use of metaphors to express themselves. Here’s Wikipedia (sorry) on the meaning of the word ‘metaphor’:

Metaphor is the concept of understanding one thing in terms of another. A metaphor is a figure of speech that constructs an analogy between two things or ideas; the analogy is conveyed by the use of a metaphorical word in place of some other word. For example: “Her eyes were glistening jewels”.

The concept of ‘Kuhaylah’ as applied to Arabian horses is a metaphor, and the eye example used above to illustrate the meaning of the word ‘metaphor’ is ominous.

Linguistically, the feminine word Kuhaylah, and its masculine form Kuhaylan are diminutives. Kuhaylah means ‘little Kahlah’, Kuhaylan means ‘little Kahlan’ and ‘little’ is used in an endearing way here. Now what does ‘Kahlah’ and its masculine form ‘Kahlan’ mean?

‘Kahlah’ means ‘she who has kohl around her eyes’, and Kahlan, ‘he who has kohl around his eyes’. Kohl is an ancient cosmetic eyeliner made of grinded antimony sulphide and traditionally used in the Middle East, in North and East Africa and in South Asia, which women used, but also men, including Muhammad the Prophet of Islam.

Since kohl makes eyes beautiful, and beautiful eyes are a desirable feature, the word ‘Kahlah’ and its diminutive ‘Kuhaylah’ is also used a first name for girls. The Arabic name’ website I just linked lists ‘Kuhaylah’ as a suggestion for naming newborn girls, and explains the meaning of the word Kuhaylah as “a diminutive of Kahlah, she who puts kohl around her eyes“. You can paste the Arabic words in Google Translate and check the translation for yourself, in your own language. The website also adds an additional meaning for ‘Kuhaylah’ as a girl name: “she who has beautiful eyes [naturally] with black around them, as if it was kohl“. This brings us back to the metaphor in Arabian horses.

While ‘Kahlah’ normally refers to women who put kohl around their eyes, it can be extended by way of a metaphor to refer to women, or any other beautiful feminine creature, mare, gazelle, etc, whose eyes are naturally lined with black, as if it was kohl.

So when Bedouins refer to a mare as “Kuhaylah”, or “little Kahlah”, they are expressing themselves in a metaphor; they are constructing an analogy between the woman, whose eyes are beautifully lined with the kohl cosmetic, and the Arabian mare, whose beautiful black skin around the eyes is reminiscent of the kohl. The analogy is conveyed by the use of the metaphorical word ‘kohl’ in place of the word ‘black skin’. They want to say: “the black skin around the mare’s eyes is kohl”, hence the mare is “Kuhaylah”. In the same way, the stallion is “Kuhaylan”.

That’s it.

7 Responses to “On “Kuhaylah” as a metaphor for Arab women’s kohl-lined eyes”

  1. Thanks Edouard, that idea seemed a bit fanciful but lovely that it is actually the case :). What a beautiful testomony for a language that the first recorded written words are in verse.

  2. I wrote that last bit while waiting for a horse to arrive at night at the clinic… sorry..I did mean testimony!
    Like Arabic, our Welsh is a well loved language whose best expression is in poetry (and particularly song), so I was glad to read what you wrote and that the word does indeed have such a lovely origin. It is hard for non (or at least extremely limited) Arabic speaker to sort the wheat from the chaff (eg the Old Woman nonsense vs Khol)though clearly one is much more plausible than the other. I wish that either I could read Arabic or that the King Abdallah book and others like it will be translated into English or French soon or that some knowledgable Arab expert (Edouard?)would write a book clearing away some of the veils of nonsense, myth and misunderstanding …
    I suppose we at least have Lady Blunt who … ( Hazaim Al Wair also made similar comments to your’s Edouard regarding her reliability at the AHS meeting. )
    He also made a comment that has settled in my mind into THE measure of an Arab horse… he said that he asked an old Bedouin breeder why a particular strain was so treasured ..the response was ‘blood is never spilt on their backs’ ie if a mare of this strain took you into war, you came out alive, the implications of this (courage, loyalty, agility, speed, endurance etc) are the essence of what I love about Arabian horses, the beauty is just the icing on the cake!
    PS Nice to note that Arab women’s Khol-lined eyes are also reflected in that other beautiful Arabian animal the Saluki and it’s derivatives.

  3. Yes, Lisa, the strain Hazaim was talking about is Hamdani al-Ifri, a ‘Anazah strain, and the person who made the comment about this strain not having blood shed on it is Mit’ib ibn Mahrut al-Haddal, leader of the ‘Amarat tribe of ‘Anazah, who made the comment to the father of Mr. Muhammad al-Nujaifi of the leading clan of Banu Khalid in Iraq. The information is from Dr. Nujaifi’s recent book.

  4. Thanks for that information, the comment has stuck in my mind, I like to mention it to my show obsessed clients and friends when they rave about spirit-level backs and ‘exotic’ heads! Whether it is horse or dog, if we don’t keep faith with the original function of a breed we lose it’s essence. I would hate to see that one day all we will have left of the Arab is the beautiful delicate shell that once contained the finest horse that this world has ever seen.
    Please could you tell me about Dr. Nujafi’s book , title and language?.. Thankyou again!

  5. This Mare is realy beautyful

  6. I know this is an old post so I hope you will see this anyway.

    What is the correct pronunciation for Kuhaylah and Kuhaylan? I tried to google search and could not find it.

  7. The classic Aravic pronounciantion is “KOO-HI-LAAN” and “COO-HI-LAA”.

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