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Ash-Shuluukh (Sudanese Facial Scarring) More than Skin Deep

Beauty and Belonging

Above, and title photo, northern Sudanese women bearing the traditional shuluukh (plural of shalikh) or facial scars associated with their tribal affiliation, and once prized in women for their beauty. Photos copyright, used under contract.

“…a pigeon stepped forward, uncovered her hair, / And spread wings and chest, / exposing gleaming scars on the cheeks.” From Wedding Parade, by Muhammad el-Mahdi El-Magzoub, (Modern Sudanese Poetry, An Anthology, edited by Adil Babikir. 2019).

Photo, colonial print, personal collection.

Women’s shuluukh were long idealized in poetry and song in northern Sudan, particularly during the hagiiba musical era of the 1940s-50s, greatly boosting their popularity. Verses praising the natural beauty of the unscarred cheek, as we will see below, would later take their place as the bonds of tribal affiliation loosened, intermarriage became more frequent and understandings of beauty changed in post-colonial Sudan.

This week’s post claims only to skim the surface of the vast and complex phenomenon of facial scarring, once widespread among men and women of both Sudans. The article outlines the context and experiences of tashliikh – facial scarring, among women of northern Sudan only. Scroll down to the end of this post for Yusif Fadl Hasan’s study of shuluukh in Sudan (Arabic), a research touchstone in the field and embedded in full.

Setting the Scene

The Grace of Grandmothers and Water Birds

Changing Understandings of Beauty

Shuluukh; The Colonial and Post-Colonial Gaze

Uses, Symbolism and Historical Context

Setting the Scene:

Above, a recent Facebook post by Rihla Sudan Tourism, featuring words of wisdom spoken by the archetypal, beloved Sudanese grandmother or habooba, proudly bearing her shuluukh and lip tattoos, and roughly translated as “if being patient has got the better of you, then be patient a little more”. Writing in the late 1980s, Janice Boddy (Wombs and Alien Spirits) stresses both the ancientness of facial scarring and its relatively swift decline in post-colonial Sudan, noting that “most settled Northern Sudanese above the age of forty-five are distinguished by having three vertical cuts on each cheek, a motif found also on the faces of royalty depicted in Meriotic temple reliefs, but largely abandoned by the 1950s.”

The Grace of Grandmothers and Water Birds

Pictured left, a Shaigiyyah elder, bearing the three, fine horizontal cheek scars of her tribe. Interviewed in صباح العربية | من بينها “الشلوخ”.. إليكم أغرب العادات والتقاليد السودانية, the speaker (name not given) is keen to stress that in her eagerness to undergo the scarring so central to the understanding of beauty she saw all around her in her childhood, she ran away from home before she was even ten, to have the operation by herself. For this stoical habooba, the scars she bears are still a source of pride – a noble insignia of her tribal heritage.

A rite of passage into puberty, womanhood and mark of marriageability, in the view of some researchers undergoing tashliikh mirrors the physical endurance needed in childbirth, thereby empowering the young patient to become a “survivor rather than a victim” of the pain she will face in later life. Perhaps for this reason, the Shaigiyya elder above feels no need to recount the pain she endured.

See too Skin as Canvas; the cultural relevance of scarification

Undergoing tashliikh was not for the faint-hearted.

Deep cuts, made without anesthetic, and using an often unsterilized razor, scalpel, thorn or needle, resulted in considerable bleeding. The wounds were re-opened and packed daily with cotton soaked in a mixture of tar, scented animal fat, soot, mahaleb essence and acacia pod paste to ensure they would deepen and eventually darken, producing the pleasing contrast paler skins might achieve through tattooing. Recovery was slow, the risk of severed nerves real and the patient would sometimes pass out, as Amna Sidahmed, interviewed in 2013, recalls;

“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 scars 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.” Sudan: Aesthetic Heritage, story of the scars and beauty

Above, right, Khuluud Musaa`id, speaking in عادة “الشلوخ” في السودان.. تشويه الوجه لتحديد القبيلة, relives her childhood experience of tashliikh;” They did it and I cried and cried but they said it had to be done. That it was a precious mark of beauty.” Watch the English version of this interview in Scarring for life: traditional practice fades in Sudan

Sudanese sources, see below, relate that the procedure was undertaken by both men, often the local bone setter, traditional village healer or barber, and women. The latter included the midwife and the shalaakha; a woman specializing in tashliikh. Famed, feared, and respected by village girls everywhere in rural Sudan, the best shalaakhaat were sought after and there are accounts of young girls even duping their fathers into allowing them to travel to Khartoum so as to have the procedure carried out by an expert local shalaakha who had relocated to the capital. Many of these practitioners became well versed in facial anatomy, enabling them to produce just the right depth, width and fineness of scars and skilfullly communicate subtle differences in tribal and esthetic preferences.

One such esthetic preference, observed by Boddy in the late eighties, was the “rounded T bird track”, or darb el-tayr, once incised on the cheekbones of northern Sudanese daughters everywhere and “thought to resemble the delicate footmarks “of water birds on the beach”. Water birds, geese and pigeons were held to be graceful, “pure and clean”, Boddy claims, and this affection is lyrically echoed in Muhammad el-Magzoub’s Wedding Parade, quoted above, in his evocation of the bridal pigeon dance.

Changing Understandings of Beauty

For so many of the haboobas interviewed in the Sudanese media over the past decade, shuluukh were intrinsic to perceptions of beauty of their youth; “so much so that a girl who not scarred in her childhood, would, in spite of the pain, demand to be scarred for the sake of beauty in adolescence.” Whole theses have been written on how the beauty of shuluukh is invoked in Sudanese song and verse.* See too الشلوخ في أغنية الحقيبة

In To scar or not to scar, teacher and writer al Iskaafi encapsulates both the shift in attitudes, now largely disapproving, towards the practice, and the fact it is so entwined with affectionate reverence for their elders. When a student in his class announced he would like his bribe-to-be to bear shuluukh, al Iskaafi relates, “The young ladies, previously bubbly and frivolous all stared at him in horror, as if he secretly may be harboring a razor and a stash of garad (acacia seed pod) paste in his shoulder bag.” It soon becomes evident, though, that his “seemingly dreadful expectation came from his unending love for his mother and grandmother. They both were mushallakha (scarred) and to him, the most beautiful people he knew, therefore he wanted his wife to be of them… the most beautiful.”

Shuluukh are viewed in contemporary Sudan with a mixture of respectful homage to the heritage of their elders, curiosity and a certain queasiness. Of another time, retrograde, a throwback to remote rural life and even un-Islamic or simply, as one researcher says, the botox and filler of their day: “No beauty without pain, “maa samaaHA bi-raaHA”, as one habooba reminds us.

Verse above by poet Abdel Rahman al-Riih, and just one of many verses sung by famous artists praising the unscarred, natural beauty of a young woman that emerged in step with greater urbanization and shifting perceptions of womanly beauty, full translation to be added shortly. The poet celebrates the fact the object of his admiration has not “deformed” her cheeks with scars and that “God’s creation needs nothing more”.

Also pictured above, women of the Danagla region of northern Sudan in the late 1980s, with their deep, vertical cheek scars.

Above, a member of the Dar al-Manasir tribe, with his fine lower cheek scars, photo, Wikicommons.

Shuluukh; The Colonial and Post-Colonial Gaze

In the 1980s, western understanding of the practice was still very much that found in Sisters Under the Sun, broadly reflecting colonial disapproval; “mutilated by the slashes of tribalism inflicted during the defenseless years of childhood”, the writers contended that “facial deformity would continue until men chose to marry unscarred girls.” By 2017, more nuanced contextualization was being explored; scarring is seen as an element, together with lip tattooing and FGM, of “beauty, belonging, fertility and sexual preparedness” – “gender expectations, obligations and responsibilities were written on the body”, which also formed part of the community’s “social maps of belonging.” Khartoum at Night, Marie Grace Brown.

The author above claims the abandonment of facial scarring promoted under colonial rule was seen as a marker of political and cultural maturity serving to validate self rule and it was a cause taken up by Sayyid Abd al-Rahman, who, in 1944 declared cheek scars “barbarous backwardness.” The cause was soon embraced by Sudanese women reformers too, such as those active in the union movement. The decline of shuluukh must also be seen in the context of fading tribal association, growing intermarriage and urbanization. As “beauty markers turned into scars of shame”, Brown observes, the shuluukh lost out as new expressions of womanhood took hold, with fashion, and in particular, the toub, offering “expansiveness and fluidity of identity”.

Above, left, facial scars radiating from the eyes of a South Sudanese woman, copyright

Photo above, copyright, used under contract.

If colonial perceptions of facial scarring were culturally skewed, then so, it has to be said, are those of Sudanese commentators keen to distance themselves from the custom by insisting on its rigourously non-Arab origins, despite evidence of the custom occurring among Yemeni Arabs. Its incompatibility with Islamic teaching (see Ahmad Mohammad Ali Al-Hakim) is also stressed. Others believe the adoption of the custom by Arab tribes to be a case of the “unsophisticated” Bedouin migrating into Sudan and striving to assimilate and marry into the “comparatively advanced” Nubian culture they found there. It should be noted that facial scarring and tattooing are believed to have been practised as far back as 5000 BCE among the pastoral communities of the Sahara.

Perhaps, as a reaction to the cultural prisms through which the practice is seen above, recent narratives surrounding the custom have oscillated between an almost wistful romanticization, anger at reductionist interpretations by non Africans, and even a delight in its subversive potential.

Discussing a recent documentary on shuluukh with director, Sameh Hatim

صباح العربية: وثائقي عن شلوخ السودان

Uses, Symbolism and Historical Context

It is believed that until the fall of the Nubian Christian kingdom of Saba, most facial scarring was very similar in form, with vertical markings appearing during the Funj Dynasty, predominantly as a means to identify tribal affiliation in war. They were known as hammers or maTaarig. Over time, numerous and subtle tribal variations emerged; such as the three fine long vertical markings of the Mahas, to be distinguished from the deeper and wider forms of the Danagla shuluukh, the Rubatab “H” or “ladder” and the “H” and “T” forms favoured by the Jaali people. See Jusif Fadl Hasan’s study below for detailed analysis and illustrations.

Scarring in boys, usually undertaken at the age of five, was associated with the rites of passage into puberty and manhood, where ability to bear pain as hunters and warriors was prized. It could also reflect lineage and status. As recently as 2016, the Catholic Radio Network operating in South Sudan reported that a man endured scarring “to stop his wife teasing him.

From its role as a tool for tribal differentiation, shuluukh came to be adopted by the men of Sudanese Sufi orders to signify affiliation and religious authority, see Yusif Fadl below. Left, from Yusif Fadl’s study, an illustration the markings denoting the Samaaiyya Sufi order.

Shuluukh were not only used to signal spiritual adherence to a Sufi order; the markings themselves were often felt to be talismanic and protective against the evil eye. Dr Ahmed Safi describes the practice of “an unusual pattern of scars”, sometimes “inflicted on a precious child’s face to protect it from an untimely death. He also relates “a single vertical scar is inflicted on the cheek so the hovering spirit would not recognize it. In intense grief upon the death of a close relative or beloved one, a “T” pattern is added to the usual set of scars.” Different patterns are used to protect one from dying of grief, camouflage the bearer “from the onslaught of the Angel of Death” or hide a child from Evil eye. Speakers interviewed recently in the Sudanese media also reference the protective scarring of a surviving child after death has visited a family.

Shuluukh were also believed to have curative powers and in the 1980s it was common to see fine lines, known as naddarat, on men’s temples, described by Abdullah Al-Tayib as homeopathic treatment for eye pain and discomfort. Jaafer Numieri though famously from the Danagla tribe, was born after the demise of the shuluukh and brought up in Omdurman, so did not bear tribal markings but commentators remind us he did bear the faSdtayn (two small incisions) used to treat eye problems. Shuluukh were also used to treat headaches, head diseases and as a means of bloodletting, thought beneficial for curing tumours and other growths, and enabling the release of toxins.

Sources – Video and Text

اتكاءة تراث: الشلوخ

الشلوخ وشم سوداني في طريقه للاندثار

لشلوخ ” الشيدلي

الشلوخ في أغنية الحقيبة

الشلوخ ، بطاقة الهويّة الأُولى

الشلوخ في السودان

الشلوخ في السـودان ما بين الديـن والهـويـة

صباح العربية | من بينها “الشلوخ”.. إليكم أغرب العادات والتقاليد السودانية

لشلوخ أصلها ووظيفتها في سودان وادي النيل الاوسط كتاب بروفسير يوسف فضل : دكتور خالد بابكر

الشلوخ الماخمج

Scarring for life: traditional practice fades in Sudan

عادة “الشلوخ” في السودان.. تشويه الوجه لتحديد القبيلة

FWD: “Facial scarification: Its Origin in Sudan of the Nile valley” [afikra community Presentations]

شباب السودان محظوظون باندثار عادة “الشلوخ” المشوهة للوجوه

جميع الحقوق محفوظة لصحيفة مداميك، لقراءة المزيد قم بزيارة

وجوة جميلة خربوها بالشلوخ

“الغرق” لحمّور زيادة .. وجه آخر للسودان حفرت فيه “الشلوخ” عميقاً!

صباح العربية: وثائقي عن شلوخ السودان

السودان: “شلوخ” الفتيات.. الجمال المخلوط بالألم

الشلوخ .. «بوتكس» سوداني -إفريقي للجمال والشجاعة

*Below, one of many studies dedicated to shuluukh as portrayed in song and verse:

Dr Yusif Fadl Hasan’s research on shuluukh

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