THE HENNA PARLOUR

Dear neighbour,

 

A veil sDearNeighbourHenna01eems to fall over our eyes whenever we look at women in Sudan. Religion, social customs, questions of freedom and rights draw a shady image of what they might be like.

A collection of shadow silhouette portraits on a mantelshelf, but if you pay enough attention, you can discern the images in the frames: the mother, the domestic goodness among her children and her recipes; the bubbly student on her way to university, someone’s best friend; the dedicated vet; the woman in government; the business woman driving her car in a hurry for her next meeting; the secretary; the teacher; the housekeeper…

But far from being a series of static obscure spectrums, women flow through the streets in Khartoum giving the city its rhythm and its different colours. The otherwise brown cityscape gains its tones of blue, red, green and yellow from their colourful garments. Some cover themselves, some let their long hair loose, some wear their hair short. Some are Muslims, some are Copts, some are Roman Catholics, and others I don’t know. There are the workaholics, the shopaholics, the ones on a diet and those who like to indulge… They are all different and the same, as women are all over the world.

And they all seem to keep a secret hidden behind their lined eyes, under the lightness of the fabric they like to wear… a knowledge celebrated only by women.

 

“In a busy street in Al Amarat, a central neighbourhood in Khartoum, I find myself in a small building, a gallery of stores spread along dark corridors. Crossing the main hall I see the door to the lift that will take me to the second floor.

When the doors open, a world of red velvet and strong perfume unfurls before my eyes. A world forbidden to men. The lack of embellishment in my clothes makes me wonder if I have left my femininity inside the unopened make-up box on the dressing table at home… Questions of a thousand years on the nature of the woman’s soul flood my mind in one second. I feel self-conscious.

But the voices in my head are silenced by the laugh and chattering coming from the main parlour. The receptionist guides me in, the chat ceases for a minute to restart soon after in a language familiar, yet still incomprehensible. Women lie down on velvet sofas around the room, waiting for intricate patterns of henna to dry over their hands, arms, feet and legs. The process is long and there is no evident effort to rush it. They take their time. The coffee, dates and conversation appear to be partly responsible for that. I dive into the catalogue with sample designs, still thinking of the unopened make-up box…

Suddenly, words that I can understand come to rescue me. They offer me some dates and I confess then my intention of losing the pounds piled up during the last vacation. At once all the other comprehensible words that were half-asleep on the red sofas wake up to voice their protest against the meaninglessness of my action. My concerns about the instability of body contours, my most indulgent secret sins and the love for chocolate are then all thrown into the conversation as matters of national security, and they are all taken as so by my fellow comrades.

And too soon I learn how fast henna can dry. I can’t help but wonder if having so many parts of their body painted has anything to do with the wish of the womeDearNeighbourHenna02n to stay longer in the parlour…

I leave the small building into a busy street in Al Amarat. I feel beautiful with my arm and hand decorated and I bring with me some small gifts of perfume and bukhoor – scented woodchips to be burnt as incense.

I rush home. As soon as I arrive, I run to the dressing table. I open wide the make-up box, find my eyeliner and make good use of it. Then I go to the balcony – the make-up box left open.

Just as the day comes to an end, I sit down and I watch the city, slowly savouring some dates…” – November, 2011.

 

 

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