The way Indians use incense sticks during pujas, Arabs use perfume sticks or incense-like concoction called bukhoor while dressing up. They keep their clothes near the fumes, so that the fragrance stays. Many also use a particular fragrance daily so that they eventually start smelling of it,” observes Siddhant Kapoor, a marketing consultant from India, working in Dubai.
The Arabs have been observed to be rather particular about using perfumes and fragrances. While it is part of their lifestyle, they also consider it holistic to anoint themselves before prayers. Fragrances are in fact omnipresent. People, homes, shopping malls, offices, traditional markets, all smell exotic, and of bukhoor, oud and frankincense.
The scents of Arabs
In the Middle-East, using scents is sacred, but using the traditional ones even more so. “The Arabs are not taken as much by modern fragrances as they are by traditional ones. To cater to the demand, even luxury brands bottle up traditional fragrances,” says Kapoor.
Brands like Hugo Boss, Dolce and Gabbana, Tom Ford, Yves Saint Laurent, Polo, among others that can be seen on shelves in shopping malls in Dubai, are either bottling raw oud or fusing it with rose, cinnamon, pepper, jasmine, leather and other fragrances.
Oud is the dense, dark and fragrant substance that Agar tree produces to protect itself when infected by a mould called Phialophora parasitica, a type of fungus. Thought to have originated in the north-east Indian state of Assam, the Agar tree is grown throughout south-east Asia, India and Bangladesh.
Agarwood is said to be the most expensive timber in the world, and is a precious raw ingredient. Part of the reason for the high cost is that the tree is registered at the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as potentially threatened, which is why the global Agarwood market is believed to be worth billions.
Usually described as warm, woody with a slight hint of damp rot, some varieties of oud are smoky and sweet. The scent itself varies considerably depending upon the quality of wood, which differs with topography and on the basis of whether the tree is cultivated or naturally infected.
Other than being used as perfume and in oils for application on skin, oud is also burnt to spread fragrance in homes or on clothes. Bukhoor, often a fusion of various fragrances, is another popular essence that is burnt.
While one can choose between oud and bukhoor, what is hard to overlook from Arabian perfumes is frankincense.
Another type of aromatic resin, frankincense is one of the main ingredients used in most Arabic perfumes. Found in Salalah in Oman, and Somalia in Africa, it grows on small trees and shrubs. Once a precious item of trade on the silk route, it used to be traded by Arab merchants in exchange for teakwood from India, silk from China and gold from the Roman Empire. A fragrance of value back then, it holds the same stature today as well.
Not just perfumery, frankincense and myrrh – another traditional Arabic fragrance, were used for other purposes as well.
Frankincense was used as a remedy for ulcers, hypertension, nausea, fever, indigestion, coughing, post-childbirth recovery, and even to repel mosquitoes.
Similarly, myrrh would be burned to repel insects and snakes, other than being used to treat sore throats, cramps, inflammation, colic and digestive problems. The fragrance also finds mention in the Bible, wherein it is said to have been mixed with wine to be used as a painkiller for Jesus. It is also believed to have been used for embalming mummies. No wonder Middle-East is obsessed with myrrh.
The craze, however, is not without logic. Middle-East’s fascination with perfume is linked to its high humidity, hot weather and winds, which are not in favour of the human system. Perfumes, and fragrant ointments and oils are thus used to protect skin and to overpower foul smells.
Traditional Arab oils and ointments have oud and myrrh, often blended with jasmine, peppermint, citrus fruits, almonds, aniseeds, cedar, animal fats and vegetable oils, which are ingredients readily available in the said topography.
The base in traditional Arabian perfumes is also similar – jasmine, amber and musk being some common ones for the ladies. A common fragrance for men is Dhan al Ward or rose flower oil. The Valley of Taif in Saudi Arabia is popular for its rose plantations. Since Ottoman times, damask rose, the one with thirty petals, has been cultivated there. It is the valley where taifi – used in the finest Arabian perfumes for men comes from.
Flowers find a special position in fragrances of Middle-East, even in the hand blended ones from Egypt, where contemporary perfumers choose two to three kinds of ingredients from more than a hundred flower oils and spices, and use ancient Egyptian methods of crushing flower petals in wooden pressing machines to extract oil, which is blended with spices.
In present-day Middle-East, like in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), manufacturing is done in fully-automated mechanised units, where after selection of essential oils, the perfumes are bottled and packaged by machines, to cater to the growing international demand.
The art of layering
Part of this international demand is also a mix of fragrances – some subtle, some sharp, which cater to the modern lifestyles of those in metros.
Underneath abayas (the long robelike dress worn by women) and thawb (long garment worn by men), the women and men in Middle-East wear layers as part of their lifestyle, not just in garments but also in fragrances. Throughout the Arab world, both men and women approach fragrance ritualistically – layering on multiple oils and perfumes. They use bukhoor for their clothes and hair, before spraying on perfume and then layering it with oud.
One of the most appealing characteristics of oud is its ability to be layered – it is said to enhance and boost the staying power of other fragrances, and not overpower them.
Even modern fragrances are developed in a manner that they reveal layers of scent without being overpowering.
People in the Middle-East are said to know their fragrances down to the ingredients, and thus layering up spices with flowers, with a dash of wood, is an art they would know better than anyone else in the world. Thus, instead of simply buying a perfume, when in Middle-East, one could take a lesson in layering fragrances.