The Dukhan Dilemma

An example of the Sudanese “Dukhan” or smoke bath. Photo credits: Nawal Elbagir

On a sunny afternoon, a day I would have rather spent outdoors than in a lecture hall, I sat lazily on a vacant seat waiting for a colleague to finish his presentation on Sudanese traditions. With failed attempts to humor the listeners, I listened in a state of mental yawn until he started speaking about the marital traditions in Sudan. He spoke of the Sudanese “Dukhan”. Otherwise known as a Sudanese smoke bath, the Dukhan is a way Sudanese women exfoliate their skin, lighten their skin-tone and remove dead skin by pealing a layer formed by the smoke with sugar wax. It all sounds good until we know how it is done. In a mocking manner, my colleague briefly explained that it is a process by which women burn their bums everyday for weeks before and after their wedding day, where they are not allowed to shower more than once a week, causing a white-like layer to form on their skin. Large slabs of wood and great amounts of coal are selected to light the ignite this ritual in a hole, whereafter a chair is placed on top of the fuming smoke for the woman to sit. A big piece of cloth is wrapped around the woman to trap the smoke and heat. Gruesome and barbaric, isn’t it?

The lecture hall raged in disgust, and whispered comments about the backwardness of countries such as Sudan were all that could be heard. Although the Dukhan is commonly used only in Sudan, I recognized the use of wood as a fragrance, being the Middle Eastern that I am. The sandalwood used in this ritual is filled with luring aroma so pleasant that people from the GCC would pay large sums of money to retrieve from countries such as India to incense their clothes and houses. Irritated, I interrupted the mocking presentation on the African country and turned to the whispering Europeans seated behind me. I started explaining how painless and relaxing the process was; how after weeks of repeating the ritual their bodies would constantly smell of that rich fragrance. Yet even after explaining this, with the confirmation of our sudanese colleagues and the presenter, the rude whispers still continued throughout the day.

I realized that it wasn’t the messenger’s fault that the Europeans viewed the Dukhan with such distaste, but it was what the Europeans wanted to see, regardless of the truth and given explanations. It is commonly generalized, NOT ONLY amongst Europeans, that African countries are backward, barbaric, poor and primitive. It is also well known that Europe consists of a collection of developed, rich, educated and civilized countries and peoples. Arrogance driven by excessive nationalism and increased ignorance led to this snobby reaction, if I may say.

This reaction is not restricted to Europeans and westerners, but is also extended to the Middle Easterners, Asians and Africans. Middle Easterners from oil rich countries obsess over their expensive cars, brand name clothing, well furnished homes and tribal origins, truly believing their superiority over blue collar employees from South Asia. Upper class africans frown upon their own. As a result to this collective behavior, people of different races, backgrounds, nationalities and beliefs are finding a hard time integrating themselves into foreign societies, as well as welcoming others into their own.

It is only fair to say that what is not familiar or normal to a certain society does not make it wrong, primitive or backward. Rather, what is not familiar or normal is just different. Different is what makes this world worth traveling and exploring. Different minds are what allow innovation and academic advances. Different is what makes us open-minded to what the future holds, to the unknown, to new possibilities and to diversity. Thus, this openness to the concept of “different” frees us of dilemmas, such as the “Dukhan Dilemma”, of whether to support, respect and learn from this inevitable diversity or not.

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