Monday, August 7, 2006

Arabian Attars: a journey to the mundane?

A while ago, I got a very kind invitation by Janet (Spadefoot) from Perfume of Life to review some Arabian attars which she had brought with her back from Yemen.
She told me that she would be pleased if I reviewed them. So, as promised, here it is.

The little package came with a postcard created by Janet herself: a great sketch of a tourist photographing two muslim women wearing the chador and humouring the photographer with playful gestures to one another. She had written on it: “Enjoy the journey” with a wide, sweeping handwriting that denotes artistic tendencies and expressive personality.
The little box that held the perfumes was a sight: bright vermillion and purple, painted by her on a box which seemed to be an Altoids tin in a previous incarnation. I found this so fitting; a humble box that would hold humble –maybe- perfumes, but full of brightness and confidence. Not an Ali-Baba cave, full of costly treasure, but a journey to the everyday. This touched me; simple, poor, honest people are just as entitled to the mythical, the chimerical, the fantasy.

The perfumes were all in oil form, thick and viscous, in varying colours that capture one’s fancy like the multicoloured crayons in a Caran d’Ache box catch the fascination in a child’s eye. The word Attar refers traditionally to distillations of vegetal materials into sandalwood or sesame oil, used mainly in India. It could also be applied to more modern perfumes in oil form, as I have experienced in Middle Eastern perfumes before. These are not exactly natural extracts, but that is beside the point in an international industry that increasingly uses mostly synthetics in its products. In fact many of the “attars” smell natural enough to me. The texture meant that although they seem very concentrated and potently harsh at first, they mellow nicely on the skin, not evolving in the classical pyramid of French perfumery that relies on gradual evaporation, but remaining close to the conceived theme of each one, only allowing their more volatile ingredients to exit noiselessly.
I do not know who makes those compositions, which made my olfactory adventure all the more exciting.

This introduction to my fragrant journey reminded me in turn of the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami and his films dealing with the mundane becoming philosophical. In particular A taste of cherry (Ta'm e guillas-1997) and Where is the friend's house? (Khane-ye doust kodjast? -1987). In the former a man is intent on committing suicide traveling all over the country, meeting people along the way and conversing, only to change his mind upon encountering an old man who was about to do the same but says the taste of cherry saved his life. In the latter a small boy is furtively searching the streets of the city, gaining experiences meanwhile, in pursuit of his schoolmate’s house in order to deliver his workbook that he had secretly borrowed, without which on the morrow his mate will be expelled from classes.
In this little non-heroic Odyssey I found the measure of my inspiration: imagine if a mature woman went through the streets of Yemen, this time, in pursuit of something else, savouring the tastes and smells along the way.

Arbitrarily I decided to baptise her Jasmin, an Arabian name of both the sweet little flower that is my favourite bloom and of women. Her true nature hidden by the conventional façade of an arranged marriage that had given her a family.

To quote Rabindranath Tagor (an indian poet)

“Yet my memory is still sweet with the first white jasmines
which I held in
my hands when I was a child.”

She would have an honest hard-working husband and kind children, friends and acquaintances. She would be tender, motherly, a little shy, a little wistful. She would smell of Abu Younis, honouring thus the losses of her youth. A light golden liquid like cloudy honey dribbling over lovers’ skin, like living things giving off their juice, smelling of citrus on the top like lime/lemon with a sharp greenness, segueing into a heart of rich and tender rose. She would evoke the nuance of a noble floral chypré with just a touch of the male in there, perhaps due to some incense or balsam (so ingrained in the Arabian tradition), to give a melancholic aspect of a long lost love that was not meant to be.

It would be a haphazard meeting with an old acquaintance that would remind her of that long lost love. Her gossipy, flamboyant, female friend would smell of Wejdan.
Golden ambery in colour it is fruity with peaches and plums, some bittersweet heliotropin in there and maybe even orange blossom, sweet vanillic ambery in the fond with just a touch of the animalic; this one would be the least Arabic in that cornucopia of smells that is an Arabian perfume shop recalling in fact a bastard L’heure bleue with its equally bittersweet background crossed with the very sweet nature of Jean Paul Gaultier Classique. That’s one acquaintance to either love or hate.
A passing mention of a man now ill, terminally ill, a man that had been the secret passion of Jasmin long ago, would set the latter upon a spontaneous one-day journey to the end of the town to bid him perhaps the last goodbye.

In her mental eye the woman Jasmin could have been beside him would be different, best represented by the whitish yellow of Shaikha: full of floral notes of a carnal and feminine nature such as lush jasmine that scents the alleys of middle eastern towns with its sweet fragrance during the balmy nights and exotic ylang ylang flowers touched with a little acrid wood and maybe a touch of leather; sensual, joyful , exalted. In this rendition the two flowers are intense and Arabian in nature; what Lutens might have come up with, not Guerlain. Perhaps not as complex, but uplifting and bright.

Her next stop would be at the mosque. Mosques are beautiful things, creatures of myth, tabulae for the arabesque word of spirituality. The majestic one in Cordoba is breathtaking. Yemen, I am sure, has many beautiful ones as well. The air is thick with incense, the walls sweat pure musk, ingrained as it is in the mortar by local craftsmen. And the mustiness of centuries would be a reminder of our own mortality. Although not musky to my nose, Shayma’a was my olfactory choice for that stop on Jasmin’s journey. It has a decidedly musty and herbal opening with a balsamic quality later on that recalls both frankincense and sweeter Peru Balsam. The rose is also making an appearance as it is so precious to muslims to appear almost everywhere, representing their tradition and unifying spirituality and sensuality in its thick petals.
The scent of wood is also prevalent, making this one a very complex and intriguing alloy that can be worn by both sexes who are willing to try something different.

Prayer though only being able to do so much, Jasmin would have to leave the mosque behind her as well. On to the streets through the souk she would bypass the rich reddish yellow of saffron and the dark brown of clove, dates and raisins wrinkling up in the heat, the proximity of numerous human bodies in all their olfactory glory, but also the smells of Maysoon and Zamani. Both of these are completely lovable, simple creations encompassing pleasing and agreeable notes that are more traditional and acceptable by a Western idiosyncrasy.
Maysoon is a light golden liquid with the playful, pretty, juicy smell of roses and violet leaves, with a fruity touch, insinuating perhaps the added use of damascones (which are naturally occurring in rose anyway); a sweet concoction for a young lady that is smiling behind her chador/yashmak, hinting with kholed eyes at a desire for private frivolity expressed by the background of some sandalwood oil. I see a street vendor trying to sell this to Jasmin herself, only to be rejected politely, and being asked for something for her young daughter instead.
Enter Zamani, a yellowish oil of lightness and zing that is owed to expressed peel of lemon coupled with the sharp note of petigrain perhaps, smelling like squashed lemon leaves, with pepper and another spicy note (which sadly eludes me), soaring into uplifting octaves of lightness and air, cutting through the heat of the Arabian landscape. I can very well see her buying that last one and her daughter smiling while playing dress-up in the small mirror on the stucco-ed wall. I see even her brother stealing drops of it when going out to flirt the veiled young ladies with his eyes.

As she would make her way through the market streets, tourists browsing and forgetting to haggle with the locals, she would change the itinerary to pass through less crowded places, allowing herself to glimpse through windows, catching women darning their husbands’ socks, children playing with frogs or chasing pitiful, dirty little dogs, men smoking the narguilé in silence lost in reverie, even a young bride getting dressed in the best cloth affordable by the family, anointed with Haneen al-Qulub in eager preparation. This oil of rich yellow was one of my favourites. I could see why the delicate young bride would wear it; soft, powdery, like a classic aldehydic perfume, rather sweet but not too much, it has the fizzy rush of someone embarking on an exciting adventure, oblivious to possible trouble; optimistic yet grounded with a little suede note hiding a budding sexuality. The more one wears it, the more it blends in to the natural smell of skin baked in the sun, imperceptible, yet still there, sensual and feminine, warm and inviting.

Diverting her eye and the melancholy such a sight would naturally produce in a woman who entered an arranged marriage, Jasmin would carry on to the little sweet shop in the edge of the town, in close proximity to her youth’s would-be-lover who had remained only the stuff of dreams and what-ifs all these years.
There she would purchase local variation loukhoums, smelling sweetly a bit like Mokhalat al Sed’ae. The white-gold of the liquid is watery like the airy flower-water of diluted neroli in the recipe of loukhoums, almondy like their flavour, rosy like the powderiness dusting sugar leaves on the palate, with the innocence of a white rose, like cherry pits in maraschino, yet not exactly gourmand in the sense we are accustomed to, neither exactly like loukhoum, but I wanted to fit this anyway I guess.
I liked the perfume oil a lot, I have to admit.

(By the way, to make loukhoums according to my recipe, one
would need 2 cups sugar, 1/8 teaspoon salt, ½ cup hot water,all of which one
would boil to thick syrup. One would then need to mix 2 tablespoons powdered
gelatin in ½ cup water separately and after a while add it to the hot syrup. To
that one would add ½ cup orange juice or flower water, 2 tablespoons lemon
juice, optionally 2/3 cup almond whites -roasted and cut coarsely- and ½
teaspoon bitter almond or rose essence. One would then pour into a wide pan,
refrigerate for 6 hours and when firm cut in little squares and roll onto
dusting sugar.)

Armed with loukhoums, to sweeten bitter memories of involuntary parting for the second time, Jasmin would call upon Karim (the imaginary name I devised for the ill man). He would be alone, deserted, with only a nurse to look after him. His tired face would alight upon finding out who the matronly lady was. Years had passed so quickly, only to stall in illness now.
After a few exchanges, he would direct her silently to an old chest of drawers squeaking when used. It smelled of aged Oudh. Old, musty, mouldy, the way a cold crypt would smell hiding bones of the holy or the unholy, it didn’t even matter by then… The dark thick oil that was named after that precious wood (which also comes by the name of oud, aoudh, aloewood or agarwood ) is dark brown, a singular colour for a perfume oil. Unusual and unfriendly, it would be very hard to wear alone, as if demons were festering a tortured body. And yet, it is an ingredient of so many fine perfumes it makes one wonder how the demonic can be rendered sublime.
In the words of Françoise Sagan:
"Doesn't perfume derive its beauty from that sensation of a time that doesn't
flow, but soars? Everything in this world is but smoke.”

To the bottom drawer, unused for years it seemed, under numerous yellowed papers she unearthed a little box; bright vermillion and purple. Inside it a man’s once-upon-a-time perfumed handkerchief holding a dried up remnant of a rose, smelling the way Taif smells. Rather musty and chypré, it has the vicious colour of absinthe, the green fairy of the damned poets’ soul. Its bitterness and mysterious smoky leather envelops the floral, its musty like vetiver background is reminiscent of the eponymous liquor too in its controversial reputation.

She instantly knew. That was her parting gift, her memento. No words were necessary. The long journey home awaited her.

I don’t know if “the taste of cherry” could save a desperate man’s life. It seems unlikely. It could certainly enrich a woman’s experience however and I am honoured I tasted it through that imaginary woman thanks to Spadefoot’s generosity.

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