December 10, 2007 (KHARTOUM) — When the punishing Sudanese heat cools in late afternoon, Hiba Jiha strips naked, wraps herself in a blanket and sits on top of a burning hole in the ground to smoke her skin to silky perfection.
- Piles of the special aromatic wood called "talih", used by Sudanese women in the traditional beauty treatment called the "dukhan", are stacked in front of Sudanese traders at a market in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman, Dec 5, 2007. (AFP)
Aged 26 and getting married, Hiba will straddle the perfumed embers in the courtyard of her house for 15 minutes to an hour, every other day for a month before her wedding night in keeping with age-old Sudanese tradition.
Living in a simple house with her sister’s family in the town of Om Bada, just outside Khartoum, she can ill afford the luxury spa and sauna treatments in the booming Sudanese capital.
Besides, this is her second marriage and she already has two children. Hiba is not a virgin and her new businessman husband will be denied what Sudanese men believe is their right and pleasure in deflowering their wife.
In war-torn, miserably poor and traditional Sudan, men and women whisper that far more than smoothing the skin, the slow burning "dukhan" practice tightens a woman’s vagina, driving her husband wild.
Hamad Mohamed, the manager of an upmarket Khartoum restaurant, raves about the sex appeal of coming home to find his wife of 22 years, mother to his six children, smelling of the special wood called "talih."
"It makes the ladies very relaxed. When she uses the dukhan, I feel she needs me a lot. When I come home and find her smelling like that, it means I’m going to have something special tonight," he grins over a cappuccino.
"It’s like a salad as an appetiser before a meal. Dukhan works exactly like that, to whet your appetite sexually," adds Mohamed, also lauding the burning wood that he says accords medicinal benefits for rheumatism.
In the West, where pampered women splurge thousands of dollars for a surgeon to reattach hymens and tighten vaginas as a "gift" to the men in their lives, the natural remedy is a fraction of the price in Sudan.
Ahmed Zaki Yussef chops and sells wood 12 hours a day, seven days a week, sitting in the shade next to a busy road in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman, where women in colourful saris step out of jeeps to haggle over the firewood.
Yussef says women spend between 15 and 50 Sudanese pounds (7.5 dollars and 25 dollars) on a single purchase, carefully examining the wood before handing them to a boy to bag up as their husbands keep watch.
"Sudanese women who live in the villages really depend on it for perfume and lotions. But it’s private. That’s why you do it when you’re married. It’s only for your husband," says 23-year-old university teaching assistant Anwar Hassan.
But she and her mother quash talk of silky skin and special scent, insisting in urgent low undertones that the only reason a woman sits over burning wood for up to two hours at a time is for her husband’s intimate sexual pleasure.
"Forty days after they have a child, a woman waits until everything heals then she does the dukhan. It tightens things up. It’s a very important issue. It’s just like having a bath," says Anwar, her mother nodding in agreement.
Childbirth slackens a vagina, causing old-fashioned "ignorant" Sudanese men to start grumbling that their wife is past her peak and look for the ultimate humiliation — a more nubile younger wife, they say.
Anwar and her mother Zainab say that like leather, the skin tightens when exposed to slow, low-impact heat. "It’s just like cheese with wine," says Anwar, trying to draw a parallel between the dukhan in Sudan and Europe.
But the tradition has begun to divide the wealthy elite of Khartoum, made rich by the profits of oil and a construction boom, and the poor, illiterate masses who populate the rest of the country.
Professional women often avoid dukhan, so closely is the smell associated with intimacy that they say it creates the wrong impression for an educated, respectable female striving for equality in traditional Islamic society.
Zainab, married to a retired ambassador and dressed in traditional Sudanese sari, steers clear of the practice, for example, when she leaves her smart suburban villa for her job in architecture.
Hospital doctor Ammar Abbas goes further, dismissing the dukhan as a superstition with no basis in science that demeans self-respecting women as sex objects for their husband.
"I am Sudanese and I hate this habit. The woman should respect herself in relations between men and women," says Abbas. Prolonged exposure can see women scold or burn themselves, or develop hypersensitivity, he claims.
Most women in Sudan are also circumcised, which in its most severe form, means a young girl has all external genitalia removed and her vaginal opening stitched closed, leaving just a small opening, Abbas said.
Back in the courtyard, its door bolted to keep out prying eyes, Hiba sits on a cushion and plaited straw next to the hole, as smoke billows up through the blanket, and she and her sisters giggle about hair removal and weight loss.