Monday, May 12, 2008

Travel Memoirs: Arabian Rituals

Encountering other cultures is often revealing of prejudices of one own’s culture. And nowhere is this more apparent than upon glimpsing the fragrant rituals of the Middle East and in particular the Arab world. Immersed in the tradition of aromas, which were brought to Europe through the Crusades, soon opens a vista of a sensuous world. Fragrance is used to augment not only a person’s attraction but also to enhance food, living quarters and personal objects, to give a sense of moral purity and to unite members of a social group. Furthermore, in Islam scent is coupled to beliefs of evil spirits being associated to foul smells, while “the scented person is surrounded by angels”. Fragrance therefore takes on a deeply spiritual meaning, a matter of sanctity or sin, allying one with the forces of good and dispelling evil influences.

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.


  1. I have always wondered how much of the olfactory tastes of a culture have to do with the cuisine we are used to. Certainly bestsellers vary very widely from continent to continent.

  2. This is a very interesting point, Dain, and it bears a very significant role in perfume choosing I bet: not only through cultural familiarity, but also because of personal chemistry being slightly different perhaps and because of some materials seeming less exotic. These (but not only these!) all form paragons influencing the perception of smells for each invidual.

  3. Anonymous10:32

    Though I've travelled to several Arabic countries, I've never had the chance to experience much of these scented rituals -- my contacts were business, and the few homes I was invited in were somewhat Westernized.
    However, in an interesting tidbit of information, the SA at the Tom Ford counter at Le Bon Marché in Paris told me that in the line -- surprise, surprise! -- her Middle-Eastern male customers tended to favour the Oud scent and the Rose one. What does surprise me a bit is that they would feel the need to buy them from a Western source, since they probably have access at least to much better oud... According to the SA, some pull out a vial of oud oil for her to compare! Wonder if Tom Ford thought of that market when he launched the line? Probably. Man thinks of everything.

  4. Thank you Denyse for your interesting comment!

    Some students hail from Arabic countries and it is always interesting to see the approximation and differentiation of diamterically different cultures. Of course many of the traditions are like fondly-kept memories more than actual practices, more narration for the benefit of interested parties than everyday lifestyle: young men and women especially are surprisingly modern in many ways; one without your experience would be truly surprised I guess.

    There is a degree of assimilation of the Western ideal, which has to do with image and "fashion-savvy" (being au courant, so to speak!) which accounts for the shopping in western shops. It is an interesting phenomenon tied to globalisation.
    They listen to western music as well, even though many western musicians do covers of their disco tunes (especially Moroccan ones, but I digress).

    True oud is indeed something entirely its own: a very multi-nuanced, sweet and intensely musty smell. And the mokhalats I have tried leave Montale and Ford and most of the others in the shadow, in terms of authenticity. T.Ford is of course ahead of marketing strategies in matters of image, so perhaps there is some truth in that SA tale.

    In any case there is no uniform Arabic taste in fragrance, despite the lovely traditions described. I have had girls lavish Coco Mademoiselle on themselves (but then they absolutely loooove Chanel)

  5. Anonymous18:35

    Fascinating! I believed Arab people to be fans of perfumes in the Lutens direction but they obviously have their own 'fumes.
    Have you liked any of the local ones, Helg?

  6. Anonymous00:40

    love seeing all the various ways in which they perfume themselves. i visit an arabic store here, and i think they are quite amused by my love of scents - both the masculine and feminine. i've bought some of both.

    i read or heard somewhere not long ago that the fumigating of clothing, with incense (bakhour?) on those little electric burners, has led to lung cancer in women. that would be sad. - minette

  7. Dear Aline,

    Indeed I have. There was a Rose mokhalat from UAE (don't think there was a brand name attached) which smelled wonderfully rich and liquor-like, as well as Haneen al-Qulub, a powdery floriental of sorts.

  8. Dear M,

    there is indeed great pleasure in finding out old traditions of other people.
    With the rate everything is held responsible for cancer it wouldn't surprise me, but as you say it is sad.

  9. Anonymous08:07

    Interesting! I hope we get more Arabian travel reports in the future. As my personal connections are just spreading in this region, i am very interested to read more. I will probably never forget the ancient muslim prayer niche, exhibitet in the Berlin Pergamon museum. The plaster was mixed with musk and even now, hundreds of years after, when entering the exhibition room you smell the intense musky, dusty odour, nearly powdery... fantastic!

  10. We could clearly learn a great deal from these people !

    Lovely, informative post.

  11. Dear N,

    hopefully there will be more :-)
    It is fascinating what you recount: so this is true, after all! I admit I hadn't had such a pleasure as noted, but it's good to know it's a fact. Thank you!

  12. Thanks dear I. I do hope those never abandon them completely, they're so lovely.

  13. Anonymous15:24

    Thank you again for a very interesting post! I'm sure we have things to learn from this culture, and we should perhaps also be more aware of how intertwined our the european and arab cultures have been from the beginning.
    Would have been interesting to get to know more about the aoud's. Was so lucky as to get to sniff some aoud oils in London last year, but (novice as I am in this field) have not yet tried european perfumes with aoud.

  14. You're very welcome dear S and I am happy you think so.
    Well, indeed there has been intermingling of the two cultures and it is interesting to note just how this came about and under what circumstances one influenced the other. The whole Middle East is like a craddle of fragrant beginnings.

    Regarding the aouds, many people would direct you to Montale, but I am not most people ;-)
    I suggest you order some straight up aoud/oudh/oud from a reputable seller of essentials/essences to get to know this complex smell and only then try out samples of fragrances with it: you will know the difference immediately!

  15. Anonymous16:38

    The advise sounds good; thank you! :)

  16. You're very welcome, S! Trust me on this, many claim aoud, few deliver ;-)


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