Wānās, Henna, and the City: How Sudanese Henna Artists Navigate Greater Cairo

Gehad Abaza, University of California, Santa Barbara


Nawal began drawing henna when she was a child growing up in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. It was her aunt who first taught her how to carefully swivel and swirl the henna into patterns on the skin. “When I was in school, I would draw henna for the kids everyday…[the teachers] would see the other schoolgirls and ask them who drew that henna for them, and they would say Nawal…so the teachers would take me out of the morning lines and they would punish me,” Nawal said. “But then a week would pass and I would do it again, and they punished me again, but I would still do it, again and again, all of the time.” Later in her life, when war hit too close to home, Nawal left the Nuba Mountains for Khartoum before eventually making her way to Cairo in 2014. She has since relied on her henna skills as a means of livelihood. Having grown up surrounded by the artform, Nawal’s henna comes as second nature to her. When she really wants to treat someone, she sets aside her “catalog,” a binder of henna photos to emulate, and she meticulously forms her own patterns on their skin—a canvas for her artwork.

As an experienced hannana Nawal has taught other Sudanese women in Cairo how to master the art of drawing henna. Sa’eeda, for example, learned to draw henna after fleeing to Cairo from Sudan. In the time they spent together, Nawal helped Sa’eeda enhance her command of henna as a craft so that she could make a living for herself and her children. When I first met the two women in 2016, they were both houseless and spent most of their days and nights in a garden across from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) building in Giza’s 6th of October City. For years, refugees have used the spaces across from and around the UNHCR to meet one another, protest, work, cook, eat, and even sleep when they are houseless. Sudanese refugee women often use the space to sell tea and other goods from Sudan, or to draw ḥenna for interested passersby. In Greater Cairo, whether in 6th of October City or elsewhere, Sudanese women continue to keep each other company (wānās) in this way as they go about their daily lives. The word wānās is a colloquial form of the verb anusa(أَنُسَ) or anasaأَنَّسَ)). An anees (masculine) or aneesa (feminine) is one who gives companionship, who dwells, who staves off loneliness, and one whose presence imbues comfort, reassurance, and kindness. In classical Arabic, anees is one of the many words synonymous with friend. I rely on this word analytically because of how often the women used it to describe their gatherings—sitting together to drink jabannah, light bukhur, and talk was called nitwānis.

Sudanese refugee women practice a willful defiance (Shange 2019) to the anti-Blackness and layered structural violence of Egyptian policing practices (Puar 2015) by building community, wānās, and laboring for their livelihoods through henna art. Additionally, by dwelling in front of the UNHCR people claim space and counter their general invisibility within Cairo. By gathering in the garden, women create space to connect with one another, engage with each other’s henna work, critique it, admire it, and teach it. In this paper I argue that Sudanese women, specifically hannanat—or henna ­artists—traverse and shape the city through their agentic practices of wānās, forming bonds of companionship between one another. For many of these women, henna is a creative means of livelihood, of mobility, of creating bonds of solidarity, of expression, and of navigating the city. Whether they are sitting by the UNHCR, or working and drawing ḥenna in Old Cairo, Sudanese women in Egypt’s metropolises must constantly avoid arrest and imprisonment under charges of tāsawul, or “mendacity.” I follow the premise that the spaces that Sudanese refugee women create for themselves in the city are not chaotic and abject, but rather they are sites of cultural production and political refusal (Abusharaf 2009; Shange 2019). The material and quotes I present in this piece are taken from semi-structured interviews that I conducted in Cairo from 2016-2018, and in 2022.

“This Country is Harsh:” Racialization and Securitization in Historical Context

People’s everyday experiences of life and insecurity in Cairo are impacted by various factors and configurations of power such as gender, class, race, and religion (Fawaz et. al 2012). The intersections of these categorizations are intertwined with the histories of colonialism, imperialism, nation-state making, neoliberal labor hierarchies, and contemporary humanitarian regimes. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, processes of racialization in the form of socio-political relations and power structures continue to produce hierarchies of human difference and are revelatory of structures of oppression (Weheliye 2014, 3; Aïdi et. al 2021; Kassamali 2021; Ozcelik 2021). Sudanese and South Sudanese women traverse and carry the entanglements of the socio-political histories of racial formations in both Sudan and in Egypt. For example, Nawal explained: “We [people from the Nuba Mountains] were discriminated against in Sudan…they see us as not having a place there, us and the South [South Sudan]…In Khartoum, they were called [slurs] like khadim or even ‘abeed,” she said, adding “then we came to Egypt and here we’re all seen as the same…we’re all Sudanese…we’ve all been catcalled with ya Sudanya ya chocalata.” Abusharaf (2021) argues that in Sudan and South Sudan, generations of colonial administrators, historians, and ethnographers laid the groundwork for the racialized violence that the region has endured. In Egypt, processes of racialization include the historical legacies of the African slave trade between Egypt and Sudan and Anglo-Egyptian colonialism of Sudan in the 1800s. As Eve Troutt Powell argues, Egypt historically held the seemingly contradictory position of a colonized colonizer given its imperial campaigns in Sudan (Troutt Powell 2003; Troutt Powell 2012). As such, anti-Blackness in the region is intimately linked to the histories and afterlives of slavery (Elshakry 2020).

In addition to the colonial, representational, and nation-state making histories that contribute to the ways in which anti-Blackness and racializing processes manifest in Egypt, there is also an important global component, which can be seen in the ways that international media, humanitarian organizations, and most host states racialize refugees and migrants. The UNHCR is complicit in this anti-Blackness through its unequal allocation of funding, the blind eye it turns to police brutality against refugees, in its status determination procedures, and in how support programs are extended (or not) to refugees (Edward 2007). As a long-time resident of 6th of October City, I frequently noticed the gatherings of refugees and asylum seekers from Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, among other African countries, in the small, hardly green, garden across from the UNHCR. In the evenings, they write their names on a piece of torn up cardboard, hoping this will hold their places in line before the crowds of people waiting to meet with the UNHCR employees arrive in the morning. The day begins with long lines of people standing outside the building waiting for their chance to speak to employees about their cases, but by nighttime only a handful of people remain. Their temporary, but ongoing, encampments are precipitated by a variety of different causes, including lack of housing, lack of attention from UNHCR, and demands for asylum and protection. People sleep in front of the UNHCR for days, weeks, or months at a time, often leaving and coming back. Officers from the neighborhood police station nearby occasionally pass through the garden, harassing and surveilling the dwellers.

When I began visiting people in the garden more regularly, Ayah, who had camped in the garden for a few weeks at the time, told me that for her this space in front of the UNHCR was the most secure in the city. “We wouldn’t really be allowed to stay anywhere else…here, the children can play, they are outdoors, and the place is generally safer.” She was there for a short time while she waited for the UNHCR to help her secure housing after she was evicted from an apartment in Nasr City, on the other side of Cairo. The space was also an opportunity for the women to lean on each other for support and care. Sa’eeda, for example, continued to work in the al-Hussein area while camping in the garden. She would go to work in the mornings trusting that she could leave her children in the care of the other women and in the evenings share meals and titwānis—be in the company of these women. For many people, their visible presence in that garden was also a reminder to the UNHCR to fulfill their duties of refugee protection. “Of course, no one wants to sleep in the streets,” Sa’eeda reminded me, “but when they [the UNHCR] aren’t giving us housing, we have to stay there so that they see us.”

Since 2016 police have dispersed the refugees’ gatherings and assaulted or arrested them several times. One of the women reckoned that the 2017 police dispersal could have been due to the opening of a nearby supermarket. I did not witness it, but the women told me that police arrested some people, hosed some down, and took belongings from them. These consistent dispersals have a history in the city—one of the most notorious instances was the 2005 massacre in Mostafa Mahmoud square, close to where the UNHCR stood at the time (Fadlalla 2009). The UNHCR’s ongoing role in these predicaments calls into question humanitarianism’s relationship with white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Dominant racial hierarchies are reflected within the humanitarian regime as international organizations like the UNHCR continue to frame certain refugee communities through different, racialized lenses (Turner 2020; Benton 2016).

Over the past few years, police have cordoned off the small garden with metal barriers and barbed wire barricades. Still, people refuse to leave completely. They continue to return, and return again, even if it is to stay on the sidewalks by the building rather than in the garden across from it. The most recent incident of dispersal that I heard about from interlocutors was in 2022, when a police truck came to the area, forcibly gathered the women, and left them in the middle of al-Wahat desert road, a highway near 6th of October that leads to Fayoum. In February 2022, Sa’eeda was again camping on the street by the UNHCR after the landlord of the apartment she had most recently rented asked her to leave. Frustrated by UNHCR’s inaction, Sa’eeda wore an entirely red jalabeya, adorned with a white cloth that read “you have sentenced us to death” in Arabic as she stood by the building. I knew the women had circulated that dress among themselves. I had heard of it months earlier, when I met Sa’eeda and her friend Sayeda in the coastal town of Marsa Matruh where they had both traveled to work as hannant on the busy beaches during the summer season. “After I wore it, a man who is a big name in the UN came out and asked me ‘what are your demands?’ He said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want but please take this off,’ so I told him, look they [the landlord] attacked me at home…I can’t deal with this anymore [mush adra]. I want you to rent an apartment for me and give me my monthly salary, an actual salary, not something that you give me for a month and then skip for three months, and my kids need to go to school,” Sa’eeda explained. “Then a few days passed, and the police came, and they beat us and left us in al-Wahat.” Anyone who knows contemporary Egypt, knows how powerful Sa’eeda’s confrontation and commanding presence with the red jalabeya is in such a difficult post-revolutionary political moment.

Policing Henna Artists

As they continue to draw and re-draw their henna, Cairo’s hannanat also continuously re-draw their pathways through the city (and between cities) to circumvent constant police encroachments. Old Cairo’s Khan El Khalili market is a prime location for the henna artists to find customers among the tourists and the Egyptian men and women spending leisure time in the area. In the alleyways of the old market and by the al-Hussein Mosque, the Sudanese henna artists walk around calling out, “Ḥēnnā yā bānāt (Oh girls, henna).” Many of the Sudanese refugee women I spoke with said they prefer this line of work because it grants them a certain degree of mobility and control over their time that other jobs do not. It is not uncommon for police in Old Cairo to arrest and detain the henna artists on charges of “mendacity,” especially before big holidays, which are considered busy seasons for the artists, or political events. Mona recounted that the police often made racist comments, such as “this isn’t the Sudanese Embassy” or call the women “abid,” the Arabic word for slaves. Police may also arbitrarily deport the women who do not have valid residency permits. To avoid arrest, the women often must pay the police officers a percentage of whatever money they made through henna that night. As such, their mobility around the city is shaped by the ways they are gendered, racialized, and classed (Rieker and Ali 2008).

Scholars of critical security studies and urban studies have pointed to the ways in which security, and the insecurity that people face daily in police states, acts as a structuring force for cities (Fawaz et. al. 2012; Monroe 2016). Securitization processes impose changes on the mobility of city dwellers, including changes to how people relate to their cityscapes. Cairo’s securitization processes coupled with processes of urban development (that have resulted in the displacement of thousands of families through the elimination of entire neighborhoods) have led to rapid changes over the past few years. One of these significant changes for this paper is that of the urban development of the Khan El-Khalili and al-Hussein area, which was also a shift in the space that many of the henna artists labored in. Eventually, Nawal stopped going to Khan El-Khalili, but Sa’eeda continued to go to Old Cairo. She took care to maneuver her way around the alleyways of al-Hussein to avoid encountering policemen, whose moods about the henna artists were arbitrary. Occasionally, security personnel who have good working relationships with one of the artists may warn them if an arrest campaign is imminent, and the henna artists warn one another.

When the security situation in the Khan El-Khalili area is too difficult to navigate, the henna artists may instead roam around the nearby Sayeda Zaynab Mosque or Ramsees Square. More recently, Nawal has felt safer offering hennaservices in or close to beauty salons, where she is more likely to meet women who need a hannana for their bridal showers. During the high seasons for henna—primarily Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and other holidays—hannanatsometimes travel together to Alexandria, where they can offer their services to vacationing families. On the road, their presence together provides them with wānās. Of course, human relationships are messy and nuanced. For example, Nawal has been bothered by what she felt was sabotage from Sa’eeda’s friend. She and her daughter had planned to travel to Marsa Matrouh over the summer to work there with Sa’eeda, but when she called, Sa’eeda’s friend answered and told her not to come, that there was no space and no work. “That night Wafaa and I stayed in Ramsees and we did our best work,” Nawal said as she recounted her disappointment in the situation. Still, the artists continue to move through and across cities laboring with their henna. “I always carry henna with me just in case,” Nawal says. The last time I saw Sa’eeda, in February 2023, she was about to head to Aswan for work.


For years, the women that I kept in touch with moved between jobs, cities, and neighborhoods, and between being housed and housed, while navigating ongoing economic instability and inflation, political repression, and increasing securitization. There is a violent repetition of arrest, detention, demands for bail money, encampment dispersals, and residents’ racism that contribute to the racialization and criminalization of Sudanese refugee women in Greater Cairo. Fawzeya told me before: “We are tired of this treatment…we are tired of these conditions…we are tired of them constantly arresting women…” This exhaustion is a byproduct of structural violence. Since 2016, there have been a few more hurdles added to the web of difficulties that Sudanese women in Cairo face. This includes a series of economic crises, inflation, and neoliberal structural policies that have burdened peoples’ lives, as well as an urban development plan that is contingent on the elimination of informal settlements in Egypt. The COVID-19 pandemic also added to their difficulties. Yet, amid these conditions, the women refuse to stop laboring through henna, they refuse to stop demanding visibility from the UNHCR, and they continue to provide one another with wānās and support. As Simone (2004) reminds us, the creativity and sensibility through which people navigate cities and their informal economies involves reworkings of urban space (and of peoples’ connections to that urban space). While Nawal learned from her aunt how to make and draw henna, she taught Sa’eeda, Sara and other women how to hone their henna drawing skills. Here, one can invoke bell hooks’ chapter “Work Makes Life Sweet,” in which she investigates the difference between a “vocation” or a “calling” that one has passion for and a job that one must do merely to survive (hooks 1993). Can henna perhaps be both for the Sudanese henna artists of Greater Cairo?



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