When it comes to beauty treatments in the Middle East and North Africa region, countries such as Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey take the lead as the most popular destinations for women to maintain and enhance their beauty.
Beauty treatments like the ever-popular Moroccan bath and Turkish bath have become beauty staples for women throughout the region. In Lebanon, beauty is big business, where getting a loan for plastic surgery is not uncommon. In the West and the Middle East, women splurge thousands of dollars on beauty treatments.
Yet in Sudan, women spend more than half the price using age-old Sudanese beauty treatments to keep their beauty alive. Sudanese women worldwide depend on their own traditional treatments for better skin, body and health.
The beauty treatments Sudanese women undergo are usually correlated to marriage, meaning only brides and married women perform them. These treatments include having a woman sit in a sauna-like pit of perfumed acacia wood called dukhan for a 40-day period.
“In our culture, they prepare the bride in the dukhan, dilka and other beautiful mixtures. You cannot do without them and they are the best things in the Sudanese culture. It identifies a Sudanese person especially by their smell. There’s nothing like it…we prefer dukhan because we’re used to it, our families do it. And those who did it know it’s nice. We prefer doing dukhan and dilka over doing a Moroccan bath and things like that,” said Amal Idris Awad, a Sudanese hanana or henna artist, who works for a Sudanese saloon in Qatar called Bit Al Sudan, which means the ‘Daughter of Sudan’.
One of the most popular Sudanese beauty treatments is the dukhan. Before a wedding, it’s tradition for a bride to sit in a smoke bath of burning perfumed acacia wood called dukhan, which means smoke, twice a day for 40 days (shorter or longer). During that period, she wouldn’t wash. . The dukhan is a slow process where a woman has to perform it multiple times to see a result. Her body would be covered with aromatic oils as well until a thick layer forms on her skin. On day 40, the thick sooty layer would be peeled off revealing glowing skin underneath. Even after marriage, women continue to perform this private beauty practice.
Dukhan is created via a clay pot, which is dug underground or placed above the ground. Inside the pot, is burning coal, topped with the perfumed acacia wood and sandalwood. Covering herself with nothing but a blanket, the woman sits on a stoop above the pot. Now, she’s ready for the dukhan. Like being in a sauna and steam room, the smoke surrounds her body for as long as she wishes. Dukhan leaves a strong scent of the talih wood, lingering on the body for days. After the dukhan, a woman’s skin glows and smoothens. The practice helps to detoxify a woman’s skin. Furthermore, dukhan tightens the skin that’s why married women do it after giving birth – to tighten loose skin.
“Dukhan cleanses your body and changes the smell of your sweat,” said Amal. Today, dukhan is more than a beauty ritual. It is physically healing that some Sudanese women use to ease joint problems and arthritis.
“The dukhan goes into the bone. If you complain of bone issues, a doctor in Sudan tells you to do the dukhan just like doctors elsewhere tell you to do sauna. It’s the same idea.” It’s only meant for married women but Sudanese females who are looking for health treatments for the body are recommended to perform the dukhan.
In the recent years, the way to perform dukhan has evolved in a better and safer manner, as there were cases where women have suffered burns and/or died as the cloth they cover themselves with has caught fire from the talih wood. The Qatar-based Sudanese saloon, Bit Al Sudan, has come up with a new set up for the dukhan where a woman doesn’t have to sit right on top of the burning fire. “The idea came from the rules of safety here,” explains the owner of the saloon. “At first, we wanted to do it the original way with a whole in the floor and the women sits on it. The dukhan would be closer in our traditional way. But how do you convince someone to whom the idea [of the dukhan] is strange to, in a country which hasn’t seen something like this – you will put a woman over fire and this fire is directly towards her. They consider it unsafe. What if a fire broke out, what will happen? Won’t the lady burn? And this has happened a lot. We, as Sudanese, underestimate these safety precautions. During the dukhan, anything can fall, a piece of cloth and the blanket would catch fire and people have died just because they were doing dukhan.”
At Bit Al Sudan, the burning wood of the dukhan is connected to a tube, which delivers the dukhan to where the woman is siting, which is in a sauna-like seat. “With this dukhan, you move away from her any kind of heat. The dukhan is the only thing that comes to her, which leaves the color of the tan and smell of the dukhan on your skin. This dukhan leaves the same effect,” said the owner.
Along with the dukhan is the dilka, which is a Sudanese body scrub, made of a type of whole-wheat powder. “What makes it special is that it’s made with the wood of the dukhan,” said Amal. Like a woman in the dukhan, the dilka gets wrapped in a cloth and remains in the dukhan for two to three days to bake. “The other mixtures are inventions, which act as cleansers. People add to the dilka the skin of oranges, turmus and vegetables like potato, carrots and hilba. Like the dilka, they clean and remove dry skin,” said Amal.
The owner of Bit Al Sudan added, “The dilka has been modified. People throughout time have modified it. For example, the skin of the orange is known to clean, tighten and color the skin so people have begun to add it to the dilka. Tirmus is also good for the skin. It tightens it so people added it as well. Every time, people add something to the dilka.”
Besides being wives and mothers, Sudanese women today are working women with very little time for leisure activities. As a result, “now, in Sudan, the dilka is manufactured. People don’t have to make it at home. You can find it ready at shops,” explains the owner.
Although the black henna is not a beauty treatment, in the Sudanese culture, it plays a significant role in a traditional Sudanese woman’s life. “Henna is beautiful. It’s is sunna to have henna especially on the nails. Our families say a woman should always have henna specifically married women. But today, mashallah, even young females apply henna,” said Amal.
In addition, the henna specifies a woman’s marital status. “By looking a girl’s henna, you’ll know if she’s married or not. What separates a married woman from an unmarried one is the henna. The henna is a major mark that identifies you as a married woman. Without it, you can’t differentiate. Until today, it reflects a lot of things in relation to a woman.”
From weddings to funerals, Sudanese women have to get henna. Although you find it anywhere in the world, black henna is originally Sudanese and predominately found there. Although henna is a plant, for centuries, Sudanese henna artists have applied several chemicals to make the henna black. The history of black henna in Sudan as unknown but according to the owner of Bit Al Sudan, the use of black henna is dated back to the 70s where the black stone was used to make the henna black. “The black stone is now banned. It’s poisonous and fatal. They used to break it, mix it and make henna. The black color didn’t appear unless you did the dukhan,” she explains.
Today, black hair dye is added to the henna to make it black. “Black henna has begun to leave an effect. It has now become banned so people have started applying red henna, which is the original henna. Originally, people used to apply red henna, which is a plant. It’s beautiful and has a festive color. Black henna used to be considered a depressing color. People used to say we should apply a color of celebration and red is that color,” explains Amal. However, Sudanese women still see black henna as an important body art.
New generations, new practices
Today, some of the new generation of Sudanese men and women want to do away with these long-standing beauty practices. Brides nowadays can choose not to do them – a choice women rarely could make in the past. “In the old times, it was compulsory especially for brides. The first thing the groom would do is bring the materials for the dukhan. Then she is locked for a month,” said Amal about the process of getting a Sudanese bride ready for her wedding day. “The one-month lock has many functions. First, you have to clean your color. It’s also considered the time where a woman’s body should get used to the dukhan – for your body to accept it. You should get used to its hot temperatures and how to do it. This is the main point. If you had problems with it before the wedding, you will decide not to do it anymore or do it, but rarely.”
Due to modernism, new practices are replacing old ones. However, a significant number of Sudanese women still hold on to beauty practices including the henna, dukhan and dilka are beauty practices, which come hand in hand especially when a special occasion such as a wedding is taking place. As Amal said, “they are the best things in the Sudanese culture”, playing a significant role in defining the identity of a Sudanese woman.