Despite having no soap and very little water, the Qataris of the past managed to keep themselves both beautiful and fragrant - with a little help from nature!
by Yousra Samir
Beauty and hair salons are everywhere in Qatar. I calculated that I have at least eight women's salons within five-minutes walking distance from my house, and there are dozens more men's salons on every street. (In Qatar, most salons are segregated with salons exclusively for women or exclusively for men. Men are not allowed into women's salons, which usually have opaque windows).
What did people do in a time before salons, before running water, before soap and shampoo and imported makeup?
However, I've always wondered what did people do in a time in Qatar before salons, before running water, before soap and shampoo and imported makeup?
In my articles for QatarVisitor, I am always going on about how meticulous Qataris are about hygiene and self-grooming. But how did their forefathers (and foremothers) fare in the harsh desert heat?
The first thing I do everyday when I get home is to have a nice cold shower, lather myself up with soap, wash my hair with shampoo and finally spritz on some body spray. After a long day at school/university/work, people in Qatar, especially in summer, can get pretty sweaty (and smelly).
The pretty white flowers of the Mahleb tree.
Back in the days before oil, Qataris made clever use of nature to aide them in keeping clean. They made soap out of the leaves of lotus trees, which they would dry and grind and mix with water to wash themselves with. They also used a soap-like substance called dhiyya, which was made of fats. Dhiyya was also used to wash clothes.
Qataris made clever use of nature to aide them in keeping clean.
The oil of black musk, a substance called libaad, was used as a natural deodorant, rubbed under the arms and the rest of the body to see that person through the day without smelling of body odor! Women often bathed in rose water to smell good for their husbands, and people bathed in salt water as a natural antiseptic to any sores or cuts.
People kept their teeth clean by rubbing them with small parts of the branch of a tree called siwaak. This tree, which grows in the desert, has been used by Gulf Arabs for thousands of years and has been scientifically proven to contain natural elements which protect the teeth and the gums from oral and gum diseases.
A special sort of ground clay used to be imported from Iran, and was used with water to wash hair. People also washed their hair with ground lotus leaves, or with dhiyya. Women kept their long hair shiny and healthy by using lotus oil and coconut oil. Older women often put henna in their hair, which turned it an orange-ish colour and kept it young and healthy. To keep hair smelling good and protect it from drying out, people used the willowherb seeds, which they called mahleb.
The Qataris' obsession with perfumes is not new - back in the old days, Qataris used strong concentrated perfume, dahan 'ood, which they sprayed on themselves, their hair, their clothes - everything!
Every household kept a collection of perfumes and sweet-smelling substances which they called rushoosh. The collection was comprised of dahan 'ood, white musk, black musk, rose water and mahleb. Incense or bukhoor was continually burnt in every household, which kept people's hair, bodies and clothes smelling heavenly.
How did people wash their clothes?
Washing clothes was a job usually left to the women of the household. They would sit in their front yards and hand wash clothes in large washing tubs. Those who lived by the coast would often wash their clothes in the sea.
Apart from dhiyya, women used shanaan, which was made from the dried leaves of bushes 'araad, which was made from the ground and dried leaves of white trees and teen, which was made from powdered clay found in the desert to wash their clothes.
After having washed the clothes, the women would hang them over washing lines to dry in the sun and then spray them with perfume or burn incense, bukhoor, around them so that they would smell good.
How did people cut their hair?
A Qatari beduin.
The sophisticated hair styles and hair cuts of today of course did not exist back then. Men and women had a limited choice of what they could do with their hair.
The Qatari men with long, braided hair that we often see in old photographs and films were usually Bedouin men; most Qatari men, particularly those who worked as fishermen and divers, either shaved their heads bald or kept head hair light, out of practicality.
The Qatari men with long, braided hair that we often see in old photographs and films were usually Bedouin
For the same reason of practicality, women often wore their hair in two long plaits. Long, healthy hair was a sign of beauty in women and so most women since childhood grew out their hair. Many women had hair reaching their thighs. Any woman that cut her hair short would have been considered insane!
While today Qatari brides go to salons and spas to get ready for their weddings, in the past, when there were no salons, and certainly no spas, a woman called an 'ajaafa would go to the house of the bride and do her hair and makeup. Qatari women did not call the 'ajaafa just when they were getting married; they also called her to do them up for Eid and also on the day of the return of their husbands from the sea after months of fishing and diving.
Qatari women were definitely innovative - they even made their own makeup! The primary and most important item of makeup was kohl, which they called kehal. Today it comes in pencil or pen form, but in those days, women had to use raw kohl, a black rock, which they ground and powdered.
Women also made their own lipstick which they called deeram, from the bark of the deeram tree. And last, but not least, women often decorated their hands and feet with henna, which at that time was as popular as manicures and pedicures are today.
The Qatar Desert: Read about the plants and animals that inhabit the Qatar desert