It’s a sunny afternoon in Saratoga, California, near San Jose. Perfect for a barbecue. Of sorts.
Yasmeen Imam, 32, is stoking some charcoals on her kitchen stove. After about 10 to 15 minutes, they start glowing. She brings them out to her porch and sets them carefully inside an empty flowerpot. She then covers the coals with perfumed acacia and sandalwood, disrobes and carefully sits on a stoop of piled up bricks. She puts her feet on the flowerpot's edge and covers herself with a blanket, creating a small body tent. The sweet smoke billows around her body.
"It’s relaxing," Imam says. “I like the smell. I like the skin color it gives me. I become orange. That might sound weird, but it looks really nice. People here call it tan, right? So for us, dukhan does the same thing as tan.”
This tan comes from the tinting effect that acacia wood has when it’s burned. This is all part of the private beauty ritual called dukhan, which means smoke in Arabic.
If you’re from Sudan, you know it well. It's something many married women do at least weekly. And it's a tradition with history. Incense bathing goes back thousands of years to the ancient northeast African Kingdoms of Meroe and Nubia. Imam says the ritual reminds her of her mom, aunties and grandma back in Sudan. “Whenever I do dukhan, it pulls me back to all these memories. It's the warm feelings. It’s not the smell itself but the feelings that the smells give you,” she says.
Sudanese aromatherapist and skincare expert Alyaa Taha, 37, says dukhan is more than a beauty ritual. It is physically healing, she says, that some Sudanese women use to ease joint problems and arthritis.
But some Sudanese immigrants in the US have found it challenging to continue the tradition. Back home, the setup involves burying a clay pot in, say, a yard. But many Sudanese expats live in yard-less apartment buildings. So, some improvise by burning the wood in paint cans while sitting on the toilet, or squatting over a pot in the kitchen with a fan on high, while covering up smoke detectors with aluminum foil. The result is endless anecdotes about the fire department being called by neighbors who saw smoke and smelled something burning. All for a simple beauty regimen.
There’s also the fact that dukhan leaves a strong woody scent that lingers on the body for days.
Imam says it’s distracting to people who aren’t familiar with it. One time, she was shopping at the mall after a dukhan session, when the store suddenly went into lockdown. A clerk said she smelled smoke. Imam panicked as she saw firemen rush into the store. She asked the clerk to smell her hand and see if that is what she smelled in the air.
“Yes! Oh my God, this is what I smell, what is this?" the store clerk asked Imam.
She didn’t know how to explain it. The only thing she could come up with was: “I was sitting on fire!” That confused the clerk who thought it was some kind of "black magic" ritual. Imam left the store quickly.
Elhassnaa Amin, 40, also takes her dukhan seriously.
She’s lived in the US for about seven years. Amin lives in a single family home, so she has an authentic pit for dukhan dug in her backyard. Before that, she used a makeshift contraption her husband created: a barstool with a hole cut out of the seat. Still, Amin says her neighbors have been curious about the strange "barbecue smell." When they ask about it, she see it as an opportunity to teach others about her culture.
And for expat Sudanese women who have no access to any form of dukhan, Amin sells dukhan cream through her online store. She says it’s one of her most popular items. Squeeze the acacia paste out, rub it on your body and it smells and looks like you stepped out of a dukhan.
Still, many women say it’s just not a priority for them now that they’re outside of Sudan. And some women find it inappropriate to be perfumed so strongly in a professional environment.
Gamila Abdelhalim, 45, is a lawyer who has lived in the US for more than 20 years. She says it’s just not practical for her lifestyle and not intuitive for her job environment.
And for some women, location matters. Manal Abdelrahman, 43, says she only enjoys dukhan in Sudan.
“In this country,” she says, “I like to be Americanized. When I go back home I do it on a regular basis.”
It’s hard convincing older Sudanese women that dukhan is no longer a regular part of life for younger Sudanese women. Bit Wahab, a grandma visiting California from Sudan, scolded a gathering of younger women at a tea party, saying there was no excuse for not making dukhan a priority.
She says she has lived for 27 years outside Sudan, and has never skipped her weekly dukhan. She implores the women to stick to their heritage, no matter where their travels take them.
Aromatherapist Alyaa Taha takes it further. She believes the dukhan culture can spread to mainstream America and catch on as the next hot beauty trend. "If Moroccan baths and Turkish baths made it to the US, why not dukhan?” she asks.
Back at Yasmeen Imam’s house, I help her adjust her blanket while she sits broiling on her do-it-yourself dukhan pit. She says it’s hot, but she loves it.
It’s been 30 minutes. Dripping with sweat, she sticks her foot out of her cover and shows me her heel. It’s now golden orange, tinted by the acacia wood smoke. This, she says, is what it’s all about.
“It means that I'm not missing out,” she says, “I can tell my family I did dukhan. They cannot like tease me like 'Oh, I did dukhan!' We can do dukhan too! We can bring Sudan here.”
Note: Some of the names in this story have been changed for privacy.