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Hair Braiding Traditions in Northern Sudan

The Mushat and the Mushatah

Above, portrait of a Sudanese woman (photographer unknown, 1890-1923, Wikipedia, CC). The young woman’s hair is dressed in the fine mushat plaits or braids interwoven with beads and jewels which for so many generations have embodied northern Sudanese canons of beauty.

Title photograph, an Omdurman woman with mushat dressing her companion’s hair, (Morhig photography, 1905-1910, personal collection).

This week’s post explores both the enduring beauty and symbolism of the mushat and the pivotal role of the mushatah or traditional hair braider in Sudanese cultural life. I draw on academic, colonial and post-colonial accounts of hair braiding by both Sudanese and non-Sudanese observers. The inclusion of colonial references should not be understood as approval of imperialism, whether Arab-Islamic, Ottoman Turkish, Egyptian or European in origin or of any activity relating to slavery.

This is the third in a brief series of posts on Sudanese women’s attire and adornments. Previous posts are: ” A Sip from Tattooed lips” and The Hagu / Hagoo

The photographs in this post come from books or prints in my possession or are in the public domain. Wherever possible I have credited their source. Recognizing sensibilities and issues of consent surrounding the circumstances in which colonial photos may have been secured, some images have been cropped or blurred. Above, a young woman of Omdurman with her elegant mushat. (Der Dunkle Erdteil, Berlin 1930).

Hair braiding, tenderly undertaken by mothers and grandmothers in intimate, unhurried domestic settings brings women of all ages together; the delicate patterns woven on the skull a cipher of continuity, change and cultural identity among the female community. Below, a little girl from Omdurman with fine braids framing her face, (Der Dunkle Erdteil, Berlin 1930).

Right, “young girl with hair braided in the mushat manner”, (Sisters under the Sun, Marjorie Hall and Bakhita Amin Ismail, 1981). Among riverain Sudanese, until recently, Griselda El Tayib notes, “a little girl’s hair was plaited in tight corn rows against the skull, with a little tuft left at the front or made into two little plaits at the side of the face.”

Acknowledging the spiritual and talismanic powers some Sudanese invest in the hair of a young child, Griselda El Tayib recounts that at puberty, around the age of ten, the girl would be taken to the tomb of a local saint where her hair was shaved off in a ceremony known as zayana. Once the hair had grown back, it would then be plaited in the style of adult women. (Griselda El Tayib, Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan).

Scroll down to the end of this post to read Abdullah El Tayib’s fascinating account of customs surrounding the hair of infants and young children, together with more details of the evolution of northern Sudanese hairstyles since colonial times by Griselda El Tayib.

Below, a young Sudanese girl today with her braids, (photograph, Wikipedia)

Hair in Sudanese folklore is richly symbolic of touch and contact between the opposite sexes, of magical powers affecting its owner as well as a woman’s ethnic origin and social status ; the deep symbolisms of hair in Sudanese folklore as identified by Griselda El Tayib

Hair Braiding Traditions in Northern Sudan

The Mushata – Wedding Braids – Coiffure Chic

Setting the Scene – A Description of Hair Braiding

Above, hair braiding in Omdurman, (Der Dunkle Erdteil, Berlin 1930).

Below, Anne Cloudsley’s description of the skill and patience required in hair braiding, as her friend, Saeda is attended by her hair plaiter in 1960s-70s Omdurman. Earlier colonial accounts mention that a porcupine quill was sometimes used to trace the tresses into fine, geometric maps across the skull.

Anne Cloudsley, Women of Omdurman, The Cult of Virginity, Ethnographica, 1984, p 31.

“Saeda Kamaal, Mahmoud’s sister-in.law, sat cross-legged upon the bed on her verandah; the woman behind her was also cross-legged in the half-light, with shadows on the scaling wall. Saeda’s companion was a shamrat, a plaiter of hair. She held what looked like a bodkin with a pointed end and parted Saeda’s hair from the crown to nape, each time a half centimeter apart. Starting high up on the crown she deftly took in the hair between each sharply defined line and that immediately below, so that when she came to the nape of the neck the plait was close and secure to the head, taking the shape of it. Where the plait became free from the scalp she introduced black silk thread thick enough to keep it the same size so as to beguile the onlooker. The plaits were quite slender, half the thickness of a pencil, like shiny black cords. When the hair was washed it would be rubbed with sandal and sesame oil, mixed with scents and herbs……… Saeda’s hair was curly and wiry and thinned out towards the shoulder so silk was introduced to bring it all to shoulder length…..Her hair was thick and strong so she told the dresser to leave some on either side of the centre parting instead of plaiting every bit of it. This gave a softness to her face and when her tobe was draped over her head her hair was more noticeable and became her. Silk is not always used and then the little plaits may be tied up in a bun while working in the home.”

Above, a still from the recently released film, You will Die at Twenty – a moment of domestic intimacy as hair is tended and braided and news exchanged. More about this remarkable film in coming posts.

The Mushata

Photo above, Pinterest

“Hail and welcome to Al Doon / Whose hair is as strings of the rababah lute”;

Above, extract from Al Farrash’s poem extolling the beauty of Al Doon, slave to a Ja`aliyyin sheikh, whose hair braiding on her wedding was fabled to have taken three months. El Tayib recalls that the Al Doon hairstyle had been abandoned by the 1930s when brides’ plaits were lengthened with artificial silk threads (more on this below).

Abdullah El Tayib, Changing Customs of the Sudan, p118

Recent years have seen a reclaiming of African hairstyles as expressions of cultural and ethnic identity and a renewed celebration of their beauty. As with all aspects of women’s dress, the way hair is worn can also be profoundly political – both statements of defiance against esthetic norms imposed by others and powerful symbols of kinship with one’s community. And, as with all aspects of women’s dress, the way hair is dressed also reflects a complex interweaving of cultural influences over time, as fashions and concepts of beauty shift and are remade. See The Natural Hair Movement

The poet’s celebration of Al Doon’s beauty quoted above embodies the complex ambivalence surrounding hairstyles, class, the legacy of slavery, colorism and ethnic identity in northern Sudan. Griselda El Tayib notes in Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan that while many among riverain communities prized long, jet black curly hair, viewing “hair that is too frizzy” as “indicative of some slave or African blood” , and “hair that was too straight or fair” suggesting alien, possibly Turkish heritage, it was the hairstyles of slaves and servants that came to be admired and emulated.

“Most unmarried women in riverain Sudan went about with their heads uncovered. Slave women were supposed to go with their heads uncovered in the presence of their masters. The hair was worn in a plaited style called rasha, spreading, and the general shape and appearance of this style is similar to many pictures of slave and dancing girls in ancient Egyptian times.”

She also notes that the fashion for “jorse”, strands of black artificial silk thread, plaited into the ends of women’s back plaits, so much part of traditional northern Sudanese wedding rituals, was innovated by servants.

Marie Grace Brown’s fascinating study of Fashion and Body Politics in Imperial Sudan, Khartoum at Night, emphasizes the “host of service women; hairdressers, dayas (midwives) and slaves” embedded into the fabric of negotiating appearance, marriage and reproductive wellbeing among women.

Framed within values of “enclosure, purity and protection” – “not metaphors but real and determining facts of their lives”, Brown relates that the intimate nature of their work, coupled with the regularity of their visits “connected these service women to families as if they were kin”.

Brown notes that “in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries one of the defining aspects of appearance was the mushat”, subtly complementing the tobe as a fashion statement. “When the tobe slipped back off a woman’s head, the mustat could be glimpsed. Especially coy women might fold their tobes in certain ways to reveal a beautiful mustat.” Fine plaits were restyled every three months and thick plaits monthly. As braiding could take several days, gossip, news and advice could be leisurely exchanged and community ties strengthened “as the fingers of the stylist rhythmically moves across the scalp. parting and weaving strands of hair. A woman did her best to hold still as practiced hands pulled her hair taut.” For Brown, the mushatah was a “cultural broker”, called upon by and moving between all classes, summoned to create special styles for weddings, births and other occasions. She was ” A calendar of sorts where beauty, sexuality and fertility were marked and celebrated.” Mushatahs were treated as one of the family and well fed, often receiving perfumed oils or new tobes as payment for their work at weddings. (Photo, detail of Morhig postcard, personal collection).

Khartoum at Night Fashion and Body Politics in Imperial Sudan, Marie Grace Brown, Stanford University Press, 2017, p 51-2 Review; Moore on Brown

The skills of hair braiding were to travel across oceans to become a means of income and supportive cultural networking for Sudanese women of the diaspora. Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf in her Wanderings: Sudanese Migrants and Exiles in North America reports: “I was told by a Sudanese woman of another woman who started braiding hair for a living. A newly arrived refugee in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, supplemented the income she received through welfare. Even in predominantly white Saskatoon, Fawzia found a number of Africans who used her services. The commodification of folk art that has become a strategy for surviving under advanced capitalism is but one more irony of life in the ghorba “(foreign lands/as an emigre).

Hair braiding and the tobe – an intimate dance where each sets off the other to best effect. Commenting on the famous 1950s Ahmed Al Mustafa style of braiding, Griselda El Tayib notes “this close to the skull mushat affected the shape and style of the tobe as it passed over the head and what it lacked in width compared with the rasha style was somewhat compensated for by the two sets of very large earrings called fidayat”, pictured above.

For more on Sudanese jewelry, see “A Necklace of Shells from Distant Seas…”

Wedding Braids

Below, Abdullah El Tayib’s account of traditional wedding braiding, followed by the 1940s colonial account of Sophie Zenkovsky. These accounts capture the highly intimate, sensual and symbolic power of the dressing of hair for marriage. The shabbal wedding dance El Tayib describes is traditionally confined to close family and rarely videoed.

She would first undo all the hair, interlacing the curls into fine tightly finished plaits with fan-like un-plaited terminals which would be greased with karkar and pasted with mahalab, darira and other sweet smelling cosmetics.” El Tayib explains this style was known as rashshah, or shower “because tiny oily drops are sprinkled from the hair when the head is shaken for the shabbal; “as the bride dances she uncovers her hair, revealing the rashsha. Young men enter the arena with their sticks and swords and they jump about hopping high in the air in harmony with the sound of the dallukah or leap in a movement called “sagriyyah “like the hawk”. The woman’s dance is like a wood pigeon….each young woman, as she dances, approaches the dancing young man and shakes her rashsha plaits near his shoulder almost touching him.” The price he pays for this exquisite privilege is a whip lashing on his bare back from the bridegroom, or sometimes, El Tayib suggests, something even harsher.

Sophie Zenkovsky (Marriage Customs in Omdurman, Sudan Notes and Records, Volume 26, 1945) explains the dressing of the hair takes place after the bride’s lip tattooing has healed and precedes the henna ceremony. The braiding “forms a base for fixing the gold ornaments. The ends of the hair are inter-plaited with goats’ hair or black silk threads. They hang down to the waist and will be prominent in dancing. The hairdressing takes three or four day, as it is impossible to do more than a quarter of the head at a time. It puts a continual strain on the roots of the hair and the skin of the head and causes headache. The girls sing, clap their hands, beat the dallūka and enjoy themselves during the operation.

Photograph above, woman performing the pigeon dance (Der Dunkle Erdteil, Berlin 1930).

Below, Griselda El Tayib’s illustration of a 1960s bride, still wearing the jadla threads referred to above. Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, p 139).

In recent years, more exotic braids of artificial hair for the wedding dance have become fashionable as the tradition evolves:

“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. This kind of braiding 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. “We previously engaged in making the dancing braid in the traditional 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 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,”

Photograph above, Portraits of women in Sudan – photographer 1960s-70s. Source Sudanese Shoutout via Instagram, tweeted by AlSudaniya Mentoring

Sudan: Aesthetic Heritage

Above, a colonial era Sudanese dancer performing the ancient stomach dance (personal collection), her long braids swaying gracefully to the floor.

Coiffure Chic

Griselda El Tayib notes that by the 50s and 60s, the mushat hairstyle was giving way to a variety of European styles; a change led by schoolgirls. The hair was “freely combed and brushed; meseraha as they call it”. Visits to the mushatah were replaced by visits to the hair salon. Colonial and international influences invested the hair salon with chic allure, especially for bridal hairdressing. According to Sudanow, however, braiding continues to be a popular option in salons. “Khartoum’s Coiffeur Hajir al-Tayeb said she has skillful hairdressers from Ethiopia and the considerable presence of the Ethiopian community is instrumental in the braiding business in coiffure. The Ethiopian braiding experts every day invent a new style for their special occasions and festivals. You do not find a Sudanese braiding women experts in coiffure, because they cannot compete with the skillful and swift Ethiopians. The Ethiopians introduced men’s braiding and nowadays you can see young men with braids on the back of their necks”.

Photograph above, “Sudanese lifestyle of the 60s, 70s and 80s, photographer Abbas Habiballa”, tweeted by Sudanese Culture.

Despite, or perhaps because of the pressures of working life, braiding endures:

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 braids it. Braiding is dominant among the girl students during examinations, she said. 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.” Sudan: Aesthetic Heritage

Photo above, “From a collection of portraits by Sudanese photographer, Amin Rashid taken during Sudan’s golden age of photography”. Tweeted by Chin We

Customs relating to Infants’ Hair, from Changing Customs in the Sudan, by Abdullah El Tayib

Details of Mushat Hairstyles, Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan, Griselda El Tayib, p130-132

Above, detail of colonial era photograph of a young Bisharin girl.

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