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Arts & Culture
Barbecue of the Body: Sudanese women bring ritual to Bay Area
In Sudan, where my family is from, there is an ancient beauty ritual that married women perform called dukhan. It’s like a sauna, but with smoke.
At least every week, Sudanese wives shed their clothes, wrap themselves in blankets, and sit over pits of burning aromatic woods in the privacy of their yards. So, when they move to the US, do they still do it, or is that a tradition that is left behind? I visited Sudanese women here in the Bay Area to find out.
Some of the names in this story have been changed, for privacy.
It’s a clear sunny afternoon in Saratoga. Perfect for a barbecue. Of sorts. Yasmeen Imam is stoking some coals on her kitchen stove.
“This is just regular charcoal. This might take ten to fifteen minutes to heat.”
Once the coals are glowing, she scoops them up on a large spoon, goes outside to the back porch of her townhouse, and sets them carefully inside an empty flowerpot in the corner. She then covers the coals with a block of perfumed wood and carefully sits on a stoop of piled up bricks, putting her feet on the edge of the flower pot. The smoke rises into her bare body under a blanket she then wraps herself in. Her body sweats while it is infused with the heavy sweet scent of burning sandal and acacia woods.
“It’s relaxing,” Imam says. “I like the smell, I like the skin color it gives me. I become orange. That might sound weird but it looks really nice. For us, dukhan does the same thing as a tan.”
Dukhan is a smoke bathing ritual most women in Sudan perform weekly from the time they are married. It is meant to be for private enjoyment of a woman and her husband. Incense bathing goes back thousands of years to the ancient Kingdoms of Meroe and Nubia. Yasmeen says she comes from a long line of dukhan loving women.
“It reminds me of my mom, my aunties, my grandma in Sudan. Whenever I do dukhan, it pulls me back all these memories—it’s the warm feelings,” she says, “It’s not the smell itself but the feelings that the smells give you.”
Sudanese Aromatherapist and Skincare Expert Alyaa Taha says dukhan is more than a beauty ritual. It is physically healing.
“It will detox your body, and firm one's skin because of the heating effect.” She also notes, “Women have been using it to help with their joint problems and their arthritis problems for years.”
When Sudanese began emigrating to Western countries, many found it challenging to continue the tradition here. Back in Sudan, the setup involves burying a clay pot in the ground in an open yard. So, for the thousands of Sudanese expats who now live in apartment buildings, it can be a problem. Some improvise by doing things like burning the wood in paint cans while sitting on the toilet, or squatting over a pot in the kitchen with the fan on high, while dangerously covering up the smoke detectors with aluminum foil. The result is endless anecdotes about the fire department being called by neighbors who saw smoke and smelled burning.
Imam tells me about the time she was at the mall after doing dukhan. A store she was in suddenly went into lockdown; a clerk smelled smoke.
“I saw that the firemen came inside of the store,” Imam recalls. “So, I gave her my hand and said, 'Is that the smell?' She said, 'Yes! Oh, my God. This is what I smell. What is this?' I panicked, I didn’t even know how to explain it. I said, 'I was sitting on fire,' and the firefighter said, 'What is that? Are you doing like black magic or… how can you sit on fire?' So, I had to apologize and leave the store!”
Forty miles away in Livermore, Elhassnaa Amin also takes her dukhan seriously. She has an authentic buried pot in her backyard, and a contraption her husband made for her—a barstool, but with a hole cut out of the seat. She uses that in the garage. She says it’s the neighbors who have been curious about the strange smelling burning smell.
“I told them it’s our tradition!” She says, “Then they’re quiet. Some have even asked to try it.” Elhasnaa sells beauty products online and says one of her hottest items is dukhan cream—a quick and easy paste marketed to expat women.
Elhasnaa squeezes some from a fat tube, and it smells exactly like dukhan. Still, many women say, it is just not a priority for them now that they are outside of Sudan. And working women find it downright inappropriate to be perfumed so strongly in a professional environment.
Women like lawyer Gamila Abdelhalim. Today, she is at a friend’s house in Union City, chatting with a group of women about dukhan over tea and dessert. She doesn’t think it is practical for her lifestyle.
“Because I work outside the house on a daily basis,” Abdelhalim explains, “It’s not intuitive for the job environment.”
None of that is enough to convince a grandmother who is visiting from Sudan. She scolds the women saying there is no excuse for not making dukhan a priority.
“I’ve lived in Arab countries for 27 years, and haven’t once abandoned the dukhan!”
She says she has never skipped her weekly dukhan. She implores them to stick to their heritage, wherever their travels take them, as a sacred ancient ritual they should be proud of.
Aromatherapist Alyaa Taha takes it further. She believes the dukhan culture can spread to mainstream America and catch on as the next hot beauty trend, like other bathing rituals have. Korean baths, Russian banyas, and Middle Eastern baths called Hammams.
“Moroccan hammam found its way to the U.S., Turkish hammam found its way to the U.S., and why not dukhan?”
Back in Saratoga at Imam’s home, I help her adjust her cover while she sits broiling on her dukhan. It has been 30 minutes since she sat down. Sweat dripping, she sticks her foot out of her cover and shows me her now golden orange heel, tinted by the acacia wood smoke.
“This is what it’s all about,” she says. “It means that I'm not missing out. I can tell my family I did dukhan, and they can’t tease. We can do dukhan too! We can bring Sudan here!”
To listen to this story, please click on the audio player above.
This story originally aired on May 8, 2104.