Sudan: Aesthetic Heritage, story of the scares and beauty

By: Mohammed Osman

KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - The Sudan is distinguished with a cultural diversity and possesses a tremendous heritage of customs and traditions that differ from one environment to another. A considerable share of this heritage goes for the adornment of women. Facial scars, tattoo, hair-braiding were symbols of beauty for the Sudanese woman but due to the growing health awareness and risks of transmitted diseases through the tools used for facial scars and tattoos, those practices, which were regarded part of beauty in the last century, have now diminished, though traces of them still remain, particularly in the remote rural areas.


Beauty and Distinction


Amnah Sidahmed, a housewife in her mid-age, says she will never forget the horrible moments when a number of women caught and flung her on bed and firmly pressed down her hands and another bulky woman came along carrying shaving blades. Amnah says she felt extremely frightened when the bulky woman held her chin and drew three black lines on each cheek and began cutting the flesh along each line. “I began bleeding heavily while I was crying loudly before I felt fainting,” Amnah said.

“After she was through with the process, the woman began putting on the scars dung paste the stinking smell of which made me wake from the shock,” she said.

“The women released me and I began to hear ‘mabrook, how pretty!’ when I began to lose consciousness gradually,” Amnah added.

“I woke up unaware of how long I was unconscious and when I made an attempt to rise, a woman commanded me not to move, although I was in fact unable to move due to the deep pain, my face swelled and I cried out painfully. My mother tried to pacify me and brought me juice and made me drink it with a spoon because I could not open my mouth and drink it by myself. I remained lying on my back for 10 days, having only water and juice. The pain and the swelling diminished gradually and my pretty scares s showed up and I became among the pretty girls in my village with the vertical scars which distinguish the tribes of north and central Sudan.”

She explains that in her time there were other girls carrying horizontal scars symbolizing the northern tribes.


She related that there are other vertical scars with one scar across them, inspiring the poets. This form prevailed among the women of Omdurman. In the east, the scars are vertical and fine and are carried by both men and women to distinguish the tribe.

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“In the northern and central regions of the Sudan, the men carry scars of an H shape, found on the men of the Ja’alis tribe, and another T shape in the central region. So you could tell a person’s tribal affiliation from the shape of his or her scars.”

The tattoos and scars, which were a form of beauty in the last century, have now almost disappeared due to the growing health awareness and the risk of diseases transmitted by the flesh-cutting and tattooing instruments. The religious awareness was another factor for cessation of this practice as a verse in the Holy Koran prohibits changing God’s creation.


In this verse, the Satan, after he was driven out of paradise along with Adam and Eve, asked God to let him live until doomsday and he threatened to make mankind to disobey God, saying: “I will mislead them, and I will create in them false desires; I will order them to slit the ears of cattle, and to deface the nature created by God,” The Women Sura, verse 119. Nowadays no trace of the facial scars can be seen, at least in urban areas and main towns in central Sudan.


Painfulness & Prettiness


The tattoo was regarded a feature of beauty for women, the most common of which was the one applied on the lips, with the tattooist gaining fame for her work that required a demanding personality on women to be able to drive a number of needles into the lips. The tattooist applies kohl on the bleeding lips as a permanent make-up.

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Aisha Osman, now a housewife, said she fled and hid in the neighbors’ when she saw her elder sister being firmly held by a number of women from the head and hands while a fat woman inserting needles in the lower lip. Blood was bleeding profusely from the lip of the frightened girl who was crying loudly. Aisha said when she was brought back home; her grandmother passionately embraced her and asked if she didn’t want to be beautiful like the other girls. Aisha said she had a look at her elder sister who was exhausted, with her lip swollen; her tears mingled with the blood and an ugly face and was in the lap of my mother.


“I wept and said she is ugly and I don’t want to be like her,” Aisha said, adding that her grandmother told her that all girls are beautiful with the tattoo and that they would not let her go and she held me firmly and the women repeated the process during which Aisha said she went unconscious.


Batoul Mohamed, another women in her late sixties in Omdurman said she looked for the tattooist by herself to make a tattoo in the form of small birds, a current fashion at the time, on her right cheek and another tattoo of small shapes that from other women on the inner sides of her arms.


Tattooing is a culture brought into the Sudan by the Egyptian gypsies called by the Sudanese as ‘Nagadah and Halab’. This habit has now abated, except among a few tribes that practice it shyly, clinging to the traditions. The women have now opted for the contemporary make-up styles such as the multi-colour rouge.


Exceptional Interlacing Session


Sudanese women take much care about their hair and its inherited interlacing which developed and has taken diverse shapes over time and it still practiced. In the past, it had rules and a special ceremonial session held on a specific day and the woman neighbours and friends were invited to it.

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According to Hajjah Fatimah Abdul Mutalab, the event starts with contacting braiding woman expert to set a date for the session and preparations are made for the event which usually begins with a breakfast banquet in honor of the expert.


The woman neighbours are invited to the exceptional breakfast and cordial chatting. The interlacing tray is then brought in loaded with a container of ‘dilkah’ (local massage paste) and a container of hair cream in addition to sweets, dates and cigarettes. The interlacing expert woman brings along her instruments which consist of a long needle which is usually wrapped with a cloth ribbon for easy clinching. It is used for separating the braids.

After breakfast was consumed, the expert and the host sit on a bed with the former sitting on pillows for full view and control of the hair. The process has to be finished and the women leave the house before men return from work. If it happens that a man enters during the interlacing session, he has to pay a fine as a gesture of fun and humour.


The expert is paid an agreed upon remuneration or, in other cases, the friends interlace the hair of each other.


The Bride’s Braiding


In the past a special day is devoted for braiding the hair of a bride on which the neighbourhood women were invited to get together and sing to entertain the bride during the difficult and long sitting that lasts for two to three days, depending on the quantity of the silky, soft, black threads used to make longer the hair of the bride to reach her posterior to help her lower her head backward in performing the bridal dance which was the most important rite of the wedding programme. Liquefied, perfumed grease was applied on the added artificial hair to make soft and easy for the bride to bear.

The bride would forget the suffering from the added hair and long exhausting session upon standing on the red carpet with pieces of gold stuck on her hair to perform her long awaited dance amongst the gathering. 7 seven

This kind of interlacing has now changed and, in order to perform her dance, the bride places on her head a braid of artificial hair bought from a well-known merchant in Omdurman market called Abu Murrain whose shop contains all things a traditional Sudanese woman requires.

Mohamed al-Amin, an Omdurman merchant working with Abu Murrain, said that they always look for development and that their commodities are connected with the Sudanese culture which the Sudanese women will never abandon. The bridal dance is a very important part of the Sudanese wedding, Amin said, adding that in the past this event was held at home after the bride gets her hair interlaced. But now that time has become pressing, their trade has intervened to fill in the vacuum, Amin said.

“We previously engaged into making the dancing braid in the tradition shape and when the dancing style has developed to be held in reserved halls and the bride performs different styles of dancing, we began to manufacture braids studded with crystal, silver and coloured stones. The bride changed her style by dancing with w braids, one studded with silver and another with crystal. Now you can see an Indian-like braid with Indian make-up and dress and also a pharaonic- or Nubian-style bride and we manufacture the relevant braids and import the accessories from the countries of origin to sell for the coiffeurs who in turn rent them for the brides,” said Amin. The prices depend on the fashion, he said, adding that they have introduced a new shape for the ‘Jirtiq’ (make-up) to cope with the development. “Our trade is flourishing because it is difficult to abandon the heritage,” Amin said.

Coiffure v Interlacing


The interlacing has contended the latest coiffure and several locally invented fashions have dominated the scene.

Khartoum’s Coiffeur Hajir al-Tayeb said she has skilful hairdressers from Ethiopia and the considerable presence of the Ethiopian community is instrumental in the interlacing business in the coiffure. The Ethiopian interlacing experts everyday invent a new style on their special occasions and festivals. You do not find a Sudanese interlacing woman experts in the coiffures, because they cannot compete with the skilful and swift Ethiopians. The Ethiopians introduced men’s interlacing and nowadays you can see young men with braids on the back of their necks.

Najla’a Ahmed, an employee, said she has got three daughters but she has no time to take care of their hair-dressing and therefore she takes them to the coiffure where they will have their hair braided in a beautiful style that lasts for nearly a month, relieving her from the burden.

Sara Mohamed, a Medicine student, also complains that she has no time for her hair and, to save time, she always interlaces it. Interlacing is dominant among the girl students during examinations, she said.

The New Look fashion also contributed to the spread of interlacing, especially on occasions, because, unlike the coiffure, it is varied in style.

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Mothers and grandmothers, meanwhile, until now stick to the fashion of making a broad braid on each side of the head, winding each behind the ear, while the remaining hair in the middle is interlaced by itself or connected with artificial hair.






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