Arab people use aromatics in abundance and they revel in expensive materials when they can afford it, but they try to use what they can lay their hands on when they cannot. Women adhere to the motto: “We must use lots of smells”. But contrary to the beastly trail one imagines being left behind, that does not happen in public. An intimate approach is favored: within family and friends or among other women’s company.
In the United Arab Emirates specifically, highly prized are aloe wood (with a price to reflect it of upwards 250$ a pound), saffron, musk, rose, ambergris, jasmine, Arabian jasmine, narcissus, sandalwood, civet, and henna. Oil form is prefered due to its sensual nature and because oil holds fragrance better. Seeds and leaves are grinded into powder to enrich those oils. Arabian women are increasingly appreciating the convenience of Western-style spray fragrances, emulating the Western ideal, yet there is also the belief those smell a little less beautiful due to the intense alcoholic blast out of the sprayer.
Different aromatics are employed for different parts of the body. After a thorough bath, based on the principle that the application of fragrance on unwashed skin invites disease, the ritual begins. The purpose of perfuming is to revel in the scent. Rose, musk and saffron are favored for use all over, while hair benefits from sesame seed or walnut oil, fragranced with essences of ambergris or jasmine. Mkhammariyah is a red-hued mixture of aloe wood, saffron, rose, musk and civet that is put on ears for scenting as well as coloring. The armpits are scented with ambergris or sandalwood, the nostrils with aloe wood, the neck with ambergris, aloe wood, saffron, musk, narcissus and rose.
The rituals become even more elaborate for a wedding: the bride is washed, massaged, oiled and censed with various unguents and lotions. The bridal dress is soaked in water aromatized with rose-water, pepper, saffron and civet and then fumigated with ambergris and musk. A husband says after describing his wife’s scents on her person and her garments: “We men like all scents used but have a preference for musk, ambergris, aloe wood and saffron”*. Arabian men are also catered for: often with the same scents ~ rose, ambergris and particularly aloe wood. They are rubbed on ears, under nostrils, on the palms and smeared on the beard.
Clothes are censed with “fumigation”: washed, dried and then placed on a rack over a big incense burner purposely used for this process. The scent captured by the fabric remains perceptible even after washing, that dense the cloud of smoke is. Darker clothes (usually worn by women) are being censed with aloe wood, musk, ambergris, rose, Arabic gum and sugar, while white clothes (usually worn by men) are only censed with aloe wood for fear of staining.
You can watch the ritual here:
Olfactory pleasures come in gustatory form as well. Food is cooked slowly, with lid on, so as to preserve the aromas of fragrant materials used, resulting in mouth-watering Epicureanism. Spices are highly prized, especially anise, pepper, cinnamon, clove, garlic and ginger. Rose-water, orange-blossom water, cardamom and saffron are recipe ingredients in desserts. Cardamom is used in Arabic coffee and saffron in tea, while both saffron and cardamom oil are often added to milk. Frankincense smoke is sometimes used for drinking water, also useful for disinfecting it, which is arguably the origin of the now archaic tradition. A pot is filled with thick frankincense vapors, then water is poured over it and the lid put back on.
An invitation to an Arab house is occasion for reveling in olfactory pleasures as a means of tightening social ties. Good manners dictate to arrive pleasantly perfumed and to compliment the scents of the house and the food. The end of a meal is a chance to partake in fragrance sharing rituals, which intensifies the group’s sense of unity. A 19th century narration of the process goes thus: “A small square box […] is filled with charcoal or live embers of Ithel and on these are laid three or four small bits of sweet-scented wood. […] Everyone now takes in turn the burning vase, passes it under his beard…next lifts up one after another the corners of his head-gear or kerchief, to catch therein an abiding perfume.”* Currently Arab hostesses bring out fragrances for the guests to savor and put on themselves. The higher quality the scents are, the higher the praise for the hostess when passersby and friends smell the guests leaving from the place of invitation.
The pious aspect of fragrances in the Arab world is reflected in places of holiness and funeral rites.
Mosques are weekly incensed with frankincense for purification and it is an old tradition that musk had been used in the mortar to render a pleasant smell for years to come. I haven’t personally smelled it as such but the literature insists that it was so.
Funerals are held to be scented affairs. The body is washed with water scented with fragrant leaves and then smeared with camphor, sandalwood and saffron oil. On each side a censer, with Arabic gum and frankincense respectively, is placed, while the burial ground is also aromatized with aloe wood sticks sending their fragrant trails to the heavens. However it is interesting to note that although perfuming is lavished on the dead, for this occasion it is reserved for them only: the living do not use perfume as a mark of separation from the realm of the dead and as an external manifestation of mourning.
Recapitulating, it is fascinating to contemplate that fragrance takes on so many aesthetic and moral uses in a rich culture such as the Arabic one. Perhaps the West has still things to get taught.
*1) A.Kanafani “Aesthetics and Ritual in the United Arab Emirates: the Anthropology of Food and Personal Adornment among Arabian Women”, American University of Beirut, 1983 pp.42-90
*2) W.G.Palgrave, “Narrative of a year’s journey through Central and Eastern Arabia”, Macmillan 1866, vol.2, p.26
Artwork "Two Lovers" from the 19th century, via the Hermitage museum. Clip originally uploaded by BBCWomeninBlack (from the homonymous documentary) and kindly sent to me by Kels.