Is All Fair and Lovely?

The best part about family gatherings is walking into a room mid-conversation and being privy to some gossip. Salacious subject-matter may include an aunt’s poor cooking skills, the financial woes troubling a distant relative and the minutiae of a conflict between cousins. Of course there would be times where you wish you hadn’t walked in. Once I’d chanced upon a discussion between aunts claiming they’d known their niece would grow up to be dark-skinned because, as a baby, her ears were swarthier than the rest of her body. The dialogue was shrouded with insidiousness and spite; denigrating her beauty due to her skin tone.

In spite of the racism faced by the South Asian community, there is a pervasive undercurrent of colourism and a self-hatred which stems from it. Whenever I’d visit Bangladesh, I would be bombarded with rose-hued billboards advertising Fair and Lovely, a skin lightening cream. The message, delivered with a model’s pearly smile, was clear; you’ll be more beautiful if you’re a shade lighter, or implicitly, you cannot be comfortable with your skin colour. Of course, seeing the blotched faces of those who bleached their skin was all the more distressing. As an ethnic minority living in Europe, this ostensible link between beauty and fairness privileged me with several insecurities. Ultimately, it played its part in fuelling a wider web of incessant despondency.

Beautifully translated by Elias Muanna, the ‘Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition’ is an encyclopaedia compiled by Mamluk-era historian Shihāb al-Dīn Ahmad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Nuwayri. The book provides a medieval Egyptian’s insight into formulating love potions, reasons for not speaking louder than others (even if you have a desperately profound statement to make) and the unconscionable habits of hyenas around human corpses.

Nestled between such morsels of wisdom are poems devoted to beauty and I happened across two pieces which provide a pleasant remedy to colourism:

How can I not desire a gazelle

Grazing freely in the protection of a king

Its duskiness a mix

Of camphor and musk[1]

This poem, however, is my personal favourite:

O you who spends his wealth

Upon the love of this fine gold-skinned one

How can silent gold, spent profligately

Compare to gold that speaks?[2]

To those of you with at least an atom’s worth of self-doubt about your skin colour – I’d like to wholeheartedly assure you that I am, and as are you, the gold that speaks.


Featured image: Louise Catherine Breslau – La Toilette (1898)

[1] Al-Nuwayri, Shihab al-Din. The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World. Penguin, 2016. p.57.

[2] Ibid.