What You’ll Find in This Post:
An introduction about natural hair and blackness
Some links to articles and videos about black hair (the fun stuff, the political stuff, and the historical stuff)
How black people in Doha wore their hair
How hair plays into modesty as a black woman
Hair products and services available in Qatar
How I wore my hair in Qatar, how people reacted to it, and how the environment effected my hair
Two stories: Being told not to wear my headwrap and being asked about my hair by another black student
Last thoughts about how my hair experience in Qatar effected me
Natural hair goes with every outfit and every facial expression.
No matter where you are in the world, black hair is part of the larger conversation about blackness, the visual qualities that identify someone as a person of color. Two of the most immediately noticeable qualities tend to be skin color and hair, melanin and curls. I grew up with my blackness being looked at through a U.S. lense, but every country and culture has their own relationship with blackness.
In addition to the biological aspects that define blackness, a person’s perceivable “amount” of blackness can vary based on the way they choose to style themselves. Does their dress adhere to Western culture or some other? Do they wear their curly hair straightened or as it naturally grows? At first those things seem minor, but stuff like clothing and hair can affect all sorts of things for people of color, like careers, education, respect, and expectations from others.
That dynamic between black appearance and social acceptance is how it was in the U.S. for decades, and that didn’t begin to change until the 2000s. Twenty years later, we can see more changes for the better, but it still isn’t perfect; there are still incidents of discrimination based on things like hair, to the point where in 2019 New York and California passed a law making it illegal to penalize people based on the texture and style of their hair (consider it a subcategory of the law that prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, & religion. . . after all, black hair is a part of black identity in the same way payot can be a part of Jewish identity).
In fact, before we begin, let me toss you some links: Two about the New York law (that also reference some recent incidents of discrimination against black hair), one about the California law (that directly expresses the links between professionalism, European appearances, and the” harsh and expensive standards” related to black hair), and one YouTube video that debunks some myths about black natural hair (just in case you wanted a refresher or are looking for some new info).
All that said, let’s discuss the black hair situation in Qatar. How did local black people wear their hair? How did I wear my hair? How did people react to my hair and what hair products & resources did I have access to? That’s some of the stuff we’re going to get into! This should be a relatively simple post; I’m just going to showcase my experiences and talk about black hair from both a practical standpoint (like taking care of black hair in a desert climate) and a social standpoint (like what it was like being in a country with such a small black population).
Alright, now let’s get started!
How do locals wear their hair?
Black people in Doha
Men: All the men I saw had their hair cut very low, usually buzz cut. I didn’t see many fades or that particular “fresh from the barber, just got shaped up” look and when it came to facial hair, every black man I saw was cleanshaven. It’s important to note, though, that most of the black men I saw were migrant workers save for a few students and one middle aged, white collar dad.
Women: I saw one set of box braids, one TWA, one buzz cut, and one 4C puff ball (most of the other hair textures I saw lingered somewhere around 3A). Overall, though, most of the women who were their hair out (as opposed to wearing hijabs) straightened their hair. Interestingly, the women I met who wore their natural curls had spent most of their lives in either the U.S., while the girls who wore their hair straight had typically lived in Qatar most their lives.
Oh, and just in case I caught you off guard with my 4C & 3A references, here is a link that clearly explains different types of hair textures. It’s got plenty of pictures, don’t worry.
Otherwise, I didn’t see dreadlocks, twists, bantu knots, cornrows, flat twists, twist-outs (or any form of afro) on anybody, male or female. I also didn’t see women wearing headscarves unless they were hijabi.
Ah, but speaking of hijabs, let’s talk about the idea of modesty for a second.
What about the whole modesty thing?
Nervous about the whole "Being a woman in a Muslim country, am I going to have to cover my hair all the time?" thing?
Do you have to wear a hijab?
A lot of people were worried I’d have to hide my curly tresses under a hijab because of the whole “woman living in a Muslim country” thing. Well, the quick answer is no, women don’t have to wear a hijab or any sort of headscarf in Qatar (unless they’re in a mosque). This rule goes for all women regardless of religion or nationality.
Alright, but what about modesty when it comes to wearing your exposed hair? Are there any rules about that?
I remember trying to figure out how to style my hair before arriving in Qatar, and I remember being worried because there were a few excerpts in the Quran addressing what sort of hair was halal and haram (good and bad within the rules of Islam). Some people on the internet were interpreting the text as saying it was haram to wear your hair in any way that wasn’t what was naturally growing out of your scalp, which seemed to mean that unnatural colors, hair extensions, weaves, and wigs were a no-go.
However, aside from those few Quranic quotes and those particular interpretations of said quotes by those few internet people, there was nothing else that implied my hair—however I chose to style it—would be haram. So, I decided to go ahead and put in some yarn twists, but instead of doing my usual color choices (like purple, blue, or grey), I did something more subtle: Black, dark brown, and a few streaks of caramel. To me, this was playing it safe.
Ultimately, though, I didn’t have any problems in Qatar when it came to my hair, neither the hair extensions nor the unnatural colors. So, do what you want! Dye your hair, wear a wig, add extensions, because the emphasis on modesty in Qatar doesn’t apply to your hair. Sure, you may get some glances if it’s dyed neon pink, or even if you’re just a woman with very short hair, but the looks you get will likely be with a curious & surprised eye, not a haram one.
What hair products & services were available in Qatar?
Throughout my stay, I didn’t have reason to seek out any hair products or services because I brought my own products with me and I did my own hair. However, I quickly noticed in passing that Doha was very different from Richmond. The hair aisles weren’t stocked with the products I’d find in my house, the posters in hair salons never featured black models, and hair shops—you know, the kind with entire walls of hair extensions and wigs, gels and creams—didn’t dot the scene the way they did in Richmond. So, I began to ask around, just out of curiosity, to see what I could find out about the hair situation in Qatar. It’s not an incredibly comprehensive list, but hopefully it will give you a rough idea of what black hair will be up against in Qatar compared to the U.S.
Extensions & wigs:
It seemed like some places in Doha sold extensions, but the chances of seeing a store with a whole wall featuring a variety of textures, colors, lengths, bundles, and pre-made twists & braids was unlikely. I showed a photograph of a typical U.S. black hair store to my friend with twenty years of experience living in Doha and he said that he’d never seen anything remotely close to that image, and when I asked him what types of hair extension bundles he had seen, he said he’d seen lots of straight hair in brown and black.
Wigs, though? Wigs (and hairpieces) seemed easier to find, and some of them even featured kinky, curly, and coily hair textures. Where can one find these wigs? I haven’t the slightest clue, but I’m sure Google does.
Juices & berries (hair products):
Stores in Qatar did not sell many—if any—products for kinky or curly hair. Shampoos, gels, moisturizers—I even had a black student passionately ask me where I got my almond oil—because, evidently, Qatar didn’t sell the type of stuff that worked well in natural hair. Heck, one of my friends even asked me if my mom would be willing to mail her some Cantu when she sent me my care package because that stuff worked “soooooo well” on her hair and nothing in Qatar could compare.
The store chain Nazih Cosmetics seemed to have a substantial amount of options, though! They've got all the basics when it comes to combs and brushes (including afro picks) as well as the little but necessary things like spray bottles. Judging from the store, Creme of Nature seemed to be a popular brand that looks decent for natural hair, and they evidently put Moroccan argon oil in everything (argon oil seemed to be the most popular in general).
However, things like du-rags, bonnets, and silk scarves?—not too sure where in Qatar those things exist. Also, events akin to the “Black Hair & Beauty Expo’s” Richmond sometimes hosted—events all about the education and celebration of black hair—didn’t seem to be a thing in Doha, as far as I could tell. I mean, there was the inaugural African Festival (AFROFESTQATAR), which occurred months after I had reentered the United States, but that seemed more like a music/food/dance sort of event. Katara, Qatar’s cultural village, also planned to host an African Festival in early 2019, but I’m not sure if that ever happened.
Oh, just a note, though: The only products I brought with me were almond oil, shea butter, my favorite Giovanni Deep Moisture shampoo, and a wide tooth comb. Just these three products alone served me well, but if I had known Qatar was that barren when it came to products for kinky-curly hair, I would have brought an entire arsenal of hair care supplies.
Chemicals & electricity
Towels tend to cause extra frizz when I dry my hair, and hairdryers can be a bit harsh on my tresses, so instead I use old t-shirts . . . or whatever is lying around. That rainbow thing on my head in the second photo is actually a cotton skirt.
When I say “chemicals” I mean things like perms and relaxers. You can most definitely find beauty salons and DIY home kits for relaxers all around Doha. However, I didn’t do much research about this because I’ve never had a relaxer and I didn’t ever plan to get one.
They did have plenty of flat irons, though! I’d actually recommend buying a flat iron in Qatar instead of bringing your own from the U.S. because of the whole electricity situation. See, the outlets in Qatar supply a different voltage than the outlets in the U.S., and when you plug up your U.S. electric tools to an outlet in Qatar, you sometimes run the risk of frying the device. Having a power converter can help minimize (or totally eliminate) this risk, but then that depends on how much voltage your converter can handle. This same rule goes for things like cellphones, laptops, and hairdryers, the latter requiring a substantial amount of power . . . I’ve had hairdryers blow a house’s circuit many a’time.
Oh, and hot combs! I didn’t notice any hot combs on store shelves, and all the non-black students I asked had no idea what a hot comb was, but the black students did (including the ones who had grown up in Qatar), so perhaps they’re out there somewhere! Perhaps you’ll be able to relive all your night before Easter childhood memories.
Barbers and salons
Quick fun fact: Salons are called sometimes called “saloons”.
At first, it really seemed like you had to know someone who knew someone who did black hair, as though there were some random ladies furiously braiding & loc-ing in someone’s basement. I’m not saying that this wasn’t the case, but I will say that hair salons that cater to black hair did exist in Doha, though they were few and far between. I didn’t learn of any places that exclusively specialized in black hair, but there were a few spots that seemed to do a bit of everything. Extensions & sew-ins for both kinky and straight hair, as well as things like manicures, pedicures, and henna. I’d like to believe that these places could also style the natural hair growing out of one’s scalp (without adding extensions, I mean), but I can’t say for certain because none of the photographs I saw from these salons featured black women who simply got their hair done without the use of extensions or weaves.
However! Roughly a year after I had left Doha, I finally learned of two salons that most definitely cater to black hair: Embellie and Pambo Salon & Spa. They are both legit, although Embellie has more of a social media presence, and thus, plenty of pictures. They also seem to pretty familiar compared to black beauty shops in the U.S. Here's some links, my friends:
And barber shops? Can’t say I’ve got much info on them; I didn’t ask many questions about barber shops because I didn’t have a need for them. If you want my guess, though, I’d say it’s unlikely one would have found the the communal, multigenerational, “nourish the soul” vibes associated with black barber shops in the U.S., and I doubt many barbers in Doha had experience cutting black hair. Also, a woman walking into a men’s barber shop could probably expect to get some looks of surprise and possible questions, even if they’re rocking a cut that clearly requires clippers to be maintained (like a buzz cut, a fade, or even a TWA you’re trying to keep shaped up). This is because most women in Doha had long and/or “feminine” hairstyles.
What was my hair experience in Qatar?
Having fun with the automatic collage app in Google Photos was a highlight of my rapid-fire selfie habit.
First let me describe my hair:
It was an awkward combination of 4C kinky curls in the process of transitioning to a 4B with some patches 3A curls popping up intermittently (which I probably inherited from my Chickahominy granddad).
It held natural curls really well, a result of never having a perm and not having straightened it in nine years.
It stopped a bit past my shoulder blade, despite the extraordinary shrinkage I exhibited.
It was super thick. I’m a rubber band’s worst nightmare people have broken combs & brushes when trying to style it.
It soaked up water like a magically cursed sponge. It was magic because I could wash my hair, comb it, wrap it, sleep, and have it still be damp the next day—making styling easier—but cursed because wow can my hair soak up humidity, and wow can humidity ruin some hairstyles.
Alright, so, how did I wear my hair in Qatar?
As mentioned earlier, prior to my U.S. departure, I installed some yarn twists. I was still new to the technique, so they looked a little rough in places, but they were still the low-maintenance protective style I needed. After all, I didn’t know what sort of hair-friendly environment I was getting into; I didn’t know what hair products I’d have access to, if I’d be living an hour away from the closest salon, or how people in the country felt about natural black hair. So, I played it safer than usual.
Usually when I wore yarn twists, I installed colors like blue, purple, and gray, but I wanted to be a bit more subtle in Doha because, like I said, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I decided to stick with black, chocolate brown, and caramel brown (which wound up looking a bit blonde in contrast to the rest of my head, so there went my goal of subtlety).
The versatility of these twists was fun to mess around with, but my goal to not break my hair off at the roots with that heavy hand I’m so known for ultimately resulted in some loose twists, which was not a good look. Sure, my roots didn’t snap off—in fact, my hair grew faster than usual—but now I had the new growth to contend with too! I was thankful for the healthy follicles, but damn my roots drove me crazy with this hairstyle.
This was the first time I had done them that small and that long, and it really worked out . . . until it didn’t. Truth be told, I kept those things in my head way longer than I should have. They comfortably lasted about four weeks, but I recall keeping them in for six. In my defense, though, I was going to take them out after week four in exchange for some bantu knots, but then I had an unexpected week-long trip to Athens (and I was worried about drawing too much attention to myself as a black American in a country that was 91% Greek; let’s face it, bantu knots exhibit more blackness than yarn twists).
Eventually, though, I took those tired twists out my head and did my bantu knots. It was the first time I had ever styled them to look presentable (you know, with clean parts and evenly-sized knots) and they came out decent enough, a solid 8/10 if I do say so myself.
Some of them were a little lopsided, and I didn’t have rubber bands (only bobby pins), but they weren’t too shabby.
When I went to Istanbul in April, I put some short flat twists in my head with blue yarn, but I ended up doing them too tight and some of my edges broke off. However, it was nothing a good twist-out couldn’t hide! I wore twist-outs half the time in Doha, and I liked to add cowry shells to them sometimes.
Some of my better twist-out results. Compare the photograph of me in the red shirt to me in the black shirt: That is a month’s worth of new hair growth.
How did people react to my hair?
This is how I reacted to my hair sometimes.
How did people react to my natural black hair in Qatar? Quick answer: Most people expressed their approval of it. The peeps who handed me compliments were usually students or alumni in my same age bracket, and most of them were people of color, but not all. I didn’t have any old ladies questioning me, confused about what was happening on my head, and for the first time ever, the compliments I received from non-black people that weren’t . . . how should I put it? Dripping with ignorance? Unintentionally backhanded? Compliments like, “Oh, your hair stays so pretty for it to be so dirty!” or “It’s so cool how your hair is frizzy enough to not need rubber bands” (okay, what does that last one even mean, you guys?).
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t showered daily in waves of compliments, but it was still much different than my experience in the U.S. In the U.S. When it came to strangers, classmates, & coworkers, I didn’t get many negative comments about my hair, but I also didn’t receive many positive ones, and that’s how it had been my whole life. My experience in Qatar, however, was the first time people I barely knew made a point to compliment me on something that was so Afrocentric (especially considering I got most of these compliments when I began wearing my hair in twist-outs and bantu knots).
It was so new to me that I couldn’t help but contemplate why they were complimenting me. I thought that maybe the diversity in Qatar meant they were more open to varying definitions of beauty, or that maybe it was because the country’s atmosphere was more relaxed (and relaxed people tend to be friendly), or maybe it was because I was one of roughly ten black people at VCUQ and the hair on all us unicorns was inherently cool to look at.
What about reactions to my headwraps?
I wore headwraps often in Qatar, a habit I had picked up long before living in a Muslim country. The colors, the patterns, the versatility, the expressiveness—I liked wearing them for a lot of reasons—and, naturally, women wearing headwear was part of the Qatari norm. However, the style women’s headwear tended to be different than what I was doing. Wait, here is a picture:
These are all different types of hijabs. The word “hijab” in Arabic simply translates to “cover” or “veil”.
In Qatar, most women wore shaylas with a few hijabs, niqabs, and khimars sprinkled here and there (and most of the time they were made of black fabric). I, on the other hand wore things like this:
One of my favorite things about scarves is that you can tie the same scarf all different kinds of ways.
I had a very different aesthetic when it came to my headwear, and I tended to stick out in a crowd just as much as I did when I wore a big twist-out, but like with my hair, people tended to compliment me. I was surprised, just as I was with all the compliments I got on my natural hair, but what really surprised me was when some people began telling me not to wear a headscarf. However, I’ll tell that story a bit later. Let’s keep on topic for now.
How did the environment in Qatar effect my hair?
After I took out my yarn twists was when I realized how much my hair had grown in such a short amount of time.
Qatar was dry, windy, sandy, hot. I didn’t anticipate heat so dry I’d have to moisturize my scalp twice as often, nor did I anticipate the desert wind blowing dust in my hair (and subsequently having to shake it out in the bathroom sink). Further still, I was on a totally new diet in Qatar, with totally new eating habits, and my hydration levels were consistently subpar.
With all these external and internal factors going on, I anticipated my hair drying up and breaking off, but somehow my hair actually began to flourish. Maybe it was because I was less stressed, or maybe there was something in the mineral-heavy water, but my hair grew at least four inches in four months, faster than it had ever grown before.
Interestingly, though, some of the exchange students—both from my semester and past ones—reported having their hair break off while they were in Qatar. There could be a number of reasons for that, from their diet, to their habits, to the environment, to their hair texture and how they cared for it, but it was interesting to hear of that difference.
Here’s a good picture that evenly shows the length, but these curls are still subject to some shrinkage. Just double what you’re looking at and that was the length of my hair by the time I left Doha.
Another thing is that my curls held up better than usual in the 90% humidity Qatar’s winter & spring offered. Truth be told, though, the humidity in Qatar didn’t feel like the humidity in Richmond, the damp, thick, hard-to-breathe humidity I was used to. I don’t know if there is such a thing as different types of humidity, but I do know that a 60% humid day in Richmond could frizz up my afro in under ten minutes, while the 90% days in Doha did absolutely nothing. That said, though, my hair (and my skin) did get dryer faster than usual, so bring whatever heavy, long-lasting creams & oils you’ve got if you come to Doha.
Two hair stories
Being told not to wear my headwrap
“The turban is pretty, but your hair is really cute! You should wear your hair like this”, they said, touching one of my twists. Sure, the definitely had a point: My natural hair can be just as pretty as a patterned scarf. However, the hairstyle they were referring to in that conversation was . . . well, this:
Twists going every which way in a a mess of uneven parts and partially melted shea butter.
Two-stranded twists can look stunning, but this was not one of those stunning moments. My hair was in preparation for a twist-out, meaning that my parts were uneven, my edges weren’t brushed, there were visible bits of product speckling my tresses. After all, I was preparing to take my twists out the next day, so I didn’t spend a ton of time taking care to make sure they looked presentable; my only goal was to have them moisturized and evenly sized. In short, those bad boys were haphazard, reminding me of the way plants slowly bend as they reach for the sun, and no matter how gorgeous my natural hair was, this wasn’t a hairstyle I was comfortable wearing out in public. This is why I was surprised to hear people in Doha—specifically women of color— encourage me to wear my hair in this way.
I wasn’t offended by their suggestion, but it did get me thinking.
Were they encouraging me to take pride in my African features?
Did they not view this hairstyle as messy? Why? What about their life experiences informed what kind of hair looked messy, and what kind of hair looked presentable?
Was this because blacks in Qatar had a different history than blacks in the U.S.? After all, in the U.S. black people have a history of needing to work twice as hard and be twice as good just to make it in the United States’ traditionally discriminatory society, and that concept applied to our appearances as well. As a black woman, I had to be very particular about my appearance society interprets a disheveled black person differently than a disheveled white person. I wondered if this societal norm I had grown up in didn’t apply to black people in Qatar, or if it did, what were the differences?
What about Islam? The black women who encouraged me not to wear a head covering were also non-hijabi Muslims, and I wondered if their relationship with Islam and modesty played a part in their consideration of the headwrap. I wondered if it symbolized something different for them than it did for me, and I wondered if the symbols they were thinking of were negative.
I wondered if they had even considered what wearing a headwrap meant to me and my relationship with my culture and heritage.
There’s no dramatic conclusion to this story; all I said was “Oh, okay” and then wore a headwrap the next day, as planned. This was just food for thought based on an unexpected interaction. But, hey, while we’re here:
Here’s a link to a brief, but simple article about black Americans reclaiming the headwrap from imposed slavery law to a cultural identifier.
And here’s a link to a more detailed analysis of headwear in African-American culture. Fair warning, though: It’s a lot of text written in Times New Roman with zero photographs and it might be from 1991. It’s still a worthwhile read, though.
Being told what to put in my hair
Black people have a variety of different curl patterns, which is why everyone in the black community knows there's no "one size fits all" when it comes to natural hair. Sure, all peeps with curls have some things in common, like how curls are inherently a bit more fragile than straight hair, meaning we have to take care to comb it right, not to wash it with oil-stripping soap too often, and to keep it moisturized to prevent breakage. However, it still depends on the individual, and when we take into consideration an individual's lifestyle—considering things like how often they sweat their hair out, whether or not their hair is in a protective style, or simply the sort of climate they live in—it makes absolute sense that every black person would have a slightly (or vastly) different hair care routine.
All that is why this 30-second conversation with another black woman really caught me off guard:
"You should use coconut oil in your hair!" she said.
"Oh, coconut oil usually causes too much build up on my scalp," I said.
"No, use coconut oil, trust me!" Then she suddenly changed the subject, leaving me a bit confused.
I had never had a conversation like that before. Usually when someone says, "you should use this for your hair" and I say "I've tried it and it doesn't work for me", the rest of the conversation becomes, well, a conversation. We talk about the different products, where to get them, how much they cost, what brand to get, how they react with our hair, how much to use, and any epic successes or misadventures we've had related to either product. Further still, it was odd to have a conversation about natural hair get shut down so immediately, specifically because I was talking to a black woman in the country that was 1) Extremely void of black hair care products and 2) Extremely void of black people (one of the smallest minority groups in the country)
A part of me figured she just wasn't listening, unwilling to actually partake in conversation by both hearing and being heard. However, another part of me wondered if there was something more to it. Maybe she was interested in the conversation, and maybe it was because there were so few black people and so few products for black hair in Qatar that it made her super excited to share what she knew with another black woman (even if it meant not listening to what the other had to say).
There's always more than one way to look at a conversation, right?
Being asked about my hair by another black student
This is how I had my hair when the student stopped me, one of the last days of this particular twist-out
I was walking from my apartment one day when another black student stopped me. She spoke English with an African accent I couldn’t quite place, and she told me how much she liked my hair (which was in a twist-out at the time). She wanted to know if I could show her how to do that to her hair and explained that she knew her box braids needed to be taken out, but that she had no idea what to do to her hair next. She knew she wanted something different, but she admittedly didn’t know how to do whatever “something different” she’d decide on. It’s one thing to not know how to do a particular style, but it came across as though the student didn’t quite know how to do manage her own hair.
I’m not mocking the woman, not in the slightest, but it did get me to thinking about a lot of things in that five-minute interaction.
What reasons could there be for a black woman to simply not know how to do her own hair? Well, there could be a lot of reasons for that, many of which were commonplace in the U.S. too. Let me give you a mini history rundown:
Our ancestors in Africa could do some sick shit with hair, but then slavery happened. Slaves didn’t really have time to do but so much to their hair, plus they legally weren’t allowed to look too presentable and women had to hide their hair under handkerchiefs. Fast forward a little bit and slavery isn’t a thing, but racism still is, and the urge to conform to European beauty standards (by straightening the hair) is desired, expected, and at times necessary. Then, the 1960’s hit and the black power movement inspires natural hairstyles like afros, but by the 80s—when Civil Rights is no longer a headline and more black women than ever are in the workforce—Eurocentric hair becomes synonymous with a professional look. It wasn’t until the 2000s that the concept of natural curly-kinky-coily hair began to be accepted as both professional and beautiful, and with that came the education of black hair: How to take care of it, what products to use, what hairstyles one can do, etc.
Now, let’s break that down generationally: My great-grandmother was from a time where straight hair was “good hair”. My grandmother was from a time where straight hair was “good hair” until she rebelled in the 60’s, but then had to re-conform in the 80’s. My mom was from a time where straight hair was “good hair” (unless you were a man, interestingly). And then there’s me: The natural hair movement started when I was about 10 years old.
This all means that there were three living generations before me that weren’t brought up in a time where natural hair was celebrated and accepted, which means the knowledge of how to take care of natural hair was probably a bit murky. You’ve got the remember all our modern information go-to’s (like Google and YouTube) didn’t pop up until 1998 and 2005 respectively. Books & magazines weren’t publishing information about natural hair, the bulk of the haircare market wasn’t catering to black hair until the early 2010’s, and no one was interested in wearing natural hair (so learning how to take care of it was, to an extent, irrelevant). Thus, information about how to properly take care of, style, and nourish black hair would have been restricted to things like word of mouth, the sort of education passed down in families or exchanged between friends, but when no one is interested in the knowledge, and when no one has tools or approval to nurture their natural hair—well—whatever information there was to be shared naturally fell to the wayside.
This was the sort of stuff I was thinking about when that student asked me about teaching her how to do her hair. I may not have known where she was from, but chances were her environment had to some extent been influenced by European standards when it came to appearance. After all, by the 20th century, European powers had conquered, colonized, imperialized, and/or occupied, the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Heck, and even if by chance she had grown up in a magical place completely void of European imposition, entertainment—like the stuff coming out of Hollywood—has global reach and influences what beauty, fame, and success literally looks like. I don’t think anyone will ever forget the #OscarsSoWhite year.
I wondered what social environment she had grown up around, I wondered if she had been bullied like me, if she had had pencils stuck in her afro, been called “Medusa”, had had teachers talk about her hair as though she was a furry zoo animal, or had been told to remove her mini birthday crown because it was a distraction (when what they really meant was that her afro was a distraction, because the birthday girls with straight hair never had that problem). I wondered if she had had older generations give her and her natural hair the side eye, I wondered how many ignorant questions she had been asked, and I wondered if she had ever wished the interviewer had called her in before her decision to get cornrows. I wondered if she had had the uphill battle I had had when it came to learning about all it took to keep her hair healthy, I wondered if she had had to recondition herself, and I wondered if she was still learning like I was.
Right, but how did this story end? I told her I would love to help her with her hair, and we exchanged phone numbers, but we never saw each other again. Neither of us could find the time between the day we met and the day I’d have to catch my flight back to the U.S. four days later.
But hey, here’s another YouTube video. Here, two interviews ask some people around town questions about black hair culture and history. The men & women they found were black, white, and Israeli, and I thought it served as a nice starting point to express the varying levels of knowledge people have about black hair, and how different black hair is from the mainstream straight hair that was imposed on us for so long. Don’t worry, it’s a funny video, there’s even a puppy in it.
Here you can see the remnants of my first ever bantu knot-out. When I first took them out, I thought I looked like a sad, deflated poodle, but after futzing with it for a while (and tossing some bobby pins into the mix) I eventually loved it. I know I don’t look like a happy camper in the photo, but that’s not because of my hair, it’s because I was up at 10pm hanging artwork in the dark and getting covered in plaster. Yes, I got plaster in my hair too.
I had only recently begun experimenting with my natural hair when suddenly I found myself living in Qatar for four months
The thing about black hair experimentation is that you need the tools with which to experiment and the creative inspiration for your experiment often comes from seeing what others in your community are doing with their hair. Well, Qatar lacked both of those things: A wide selection of natural haircare products and a wide selection of other black people.
Something as simple as being unable to just go down the street and buy marley hair, or run into Target for another bottle of hair milk, or play around with a new brand curl-friendly moisturizer caught me off guard. I wasn’t prepared for the change in black hair norms Qatar wound up giving me.
And yet, I found myself more inspired to experiment with my hair in Qatar than I had ever felt in the U.S.
I didn’t have anyone ask to touch my hair, and I definitely didn’t have anyone touch it without permission. I also didn’t have anyone say anything ignorant or offensive when it came to natural hair.
Not having to worry as much about the way my blackness would be perceived gave me some peace of mind and feelings of carefreeness.
Sure, people stared; I was a black woman with curly hair and big breasts wearing bright colors, patterns, and fitted shirts. However, it wasn’t the same sort of stare I had gotten in the U.S., that uncomfortable feeling when you were told to wear a ponytail, but the closest thing you could muster was a puff ball—and even though it’s the same basic concept—you somehow become the slightly exotic, ununiform oddity that everyone else can’t help but notice.
The unexpected compliments I received made me feel good. I felt proud and emboldened. I wound up trying three new natural hairstyles in Doha because I felt like my hair was locally more accepted there than in the U.S.
I say “locally” because the environment I was in most often—Education City—was inherently a diverse collection of students from around the world, many of which were around my age, people who had come of age in a world where natural was becoming normalized.
Qatar had its fair share of ethnic discrimination, but it wasn’t the same as we had in the U.S.
Qatar had a different history than the U.S., which made for a different contemporary social vibe. Their particular brand of ethnic discrimination was different than what I had grown up around in the U.S. and it was in those differences that I found room to better express myself with my natural hair.
Something else to note, the fact I was American likely played a part in just how much of my blackness was truly acknowledged. You can read more about that, though, in the post about being black & American in Qatar.
Overall, my hair-comfort in Qatar really allowed my feelings of independence, self-beauty and confidence to grow
I had a lot on my mind at times—money, food, a new school, a new schedule, a new apartment, a new country—but my hair was never one of them, not in a stressful way.
I had some of the best hair washes of my life in Qatar because I could get the handheld shower nozzle all through my scalp and for the first time washing my hair didn’t feel like a chore, it felt like a moment of peace.
I remember looking in the mirror while I was rinsing my hair and thinking about how beautiful I looked. I felt feminine and striking—like a black water spirit emerging from a divine lake—and I didn’t realize I had never felt that way about myself until that moment. Sure, I had never thought I was unattractive, but beautiful? That was a new one.
I used a hairdryer for the first time in Qatar, which sounds bizarre, but hear me out: My only hair drying experiences had been when someone else blew out my hair with the comb insert. I tried to do my own blow-out once, but, long story short, I used the wrong tools and it resulted in tangled hair and tired arms. Like I said, learning your own natural hair is an experimental work-in-progress. In Qatar, though, I used a hair-dryer to dry my twists—an emergency fix because my hair was still wet after five hours and I needed to leave for graduation in 45 minutes. How did that turn out? Guys…
Look at this curl definition!
Graduation was the best hair day of my life!
Overall, my black hair experience in Qatar was positive. My hair mysteriously grew a whole lot, it held up better than usual in the weather, and I felt more comfortable expressing myself than I ever had in the U.S. Be that as it may, though, I’d like to reemphasize: Remember to bring all the oils, butters, creams, milks, bonnets, gels, flexi rods, roller sets, satin scarves, do-rags, shampoos, conditioners, afro picks, rattail combs, wave brushes, edgers, needles, hair bundles, hotcombs, juices, and berries. If there’s nothing else you remember to pack, let it be your government papers, medical records, and black haircare products.