Exploring My Heritage Through Beauty
I like to think I’m providing an accurate depiction of how most children of immigrants feel when I say that we’re caught up in a paradoxical nostalgia for a home that has never been. Despite my parents having yet to take me to the country that birthed them, Somalia, in my mother’s case her homeland has stayed within her wherever in the world she has lived. It’s evident in the food she cooks, the clothes she wears on special occasions, right down to her beauty rituals. Through her I know where I come from.
Growing up, my mother sporting bright coloured masks made from powdered sidr leaves or turmeric was as common a sight as rain in London. So was being her attentive servant by fetching the remote control and bringing her cups of tea whilst she was rendered immobile to avoid ruining the beautiful patterns of henna developing on her feet. Whilst I watched my mother beautify herself, she’d occasionally weave in anecdotes of Somali brides being scrubbed with a paste of ghee and dates or how she had plans to set up a salon in Mogadishu but was stopped by the impending civil war. For someone like my mother who’s been away from home for decades, I can see how these rituals make you feel as though you never left, but it my case these things have enabled me to make sense of my own identity and have somewhat compensated for the formative years I might’ve experienced had my family stayed in Somalia.
Source: Vintage Somalia
I can’t help but find humour in the fact that there were many times I felt alienated by the same differences I revel in today. To illustrate, I just couldn’t understand why my mother’s nails were stained with bright red henna instead of her talons being a glossy red like the manicures I saw on my friends’ mothers. Interestingly enough, I’m now the first to queue up to have my henna done in preparation for a family wedding or when I return home from a holiday as is the custom in my culture. I’ve even incorporated henna into my haircare, but in true hybrid British and Somali style I’ve found a way to make it work for me by creating what’s called a henna gloss, a moisturising conditioner treatment infused with henna.
Something else I’ve come to appreciate are the heady scents my mother likes to use with wild abandon. Much of my love for solid fragrance is owed to my mother who ensured I made the habit of using them daily, gifting me with a red and gold plastic jar containing a vanilla, amber and sandalwood scented balm. My other lesson in olfactory wasn’t as direct, but rather I learned the importance of burning frankincense over coal or uunsi, a mix of sugar, resin and fragrances including rose, sandalwood, ylang-ylang and oud, by watching her hang a dress underneath the plumes of smoke to scent the garment before going out for the night or scenting her hair as it dried. As I write this from Saudi Arabia, the clothes in my suitcase are getting the same treatment in order to avoid that musty smell after a flight.
Those who consider beautifying oneself to be a vain and vacuous pursuit most likely haven’t considered how it can connect them to their heritage, and that there’s a fascinating historical context behind our beauty rituals as Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint points out. For me, the traditions of my grandmother and mother have taught me a great deal, especially that beauty allows you to engage with your homeland irrespective of distance.