Stories of Gulf Perfume

Imagine standing in the middle of nowhere, feeling a sweeping sensation of peace that is half-dense and half-fleeting. The mystery, packed in an aura ...

Feb 28, 2015

Imagine standing in the middle of nowhere, feeling a sweeping sensation of peace that is half-dense and half-fleeting. The mystery, packed in an aura of inexplicable charm, fragrance and allure, elevates the carrier and the witness; it's an encounter packed with curiosity, opening a door onto unexplored territory.
O.K., so maybe you are not alone in the middle of nowhere, and you do have a pretty good idea where these waves are coming from and what they seem to be, as they float towards you in their heavy and fragrant cloud. You know it’s the shape of a unique craft, but you don’t know it’s the outline of a signature: it’s perfume.
A particular aspect of the Gulf, the aroma is one you might have heard referred to as Arab or Emirati perfume. It’s labeled as such given that its birth and practice has been unique to the area. To defuse the curiosity bomb, the big question to be answered is: what's exactly in it?
The recipe of this aroma consists mainly of two substances known as oud and bukhoor. They differ in use, appearance and smell and have varying effects, as can be seen in the wide range of their purposes and the ways in which they are often described; not only as perfumes but as sensory experiences.
Emerging from a long and careful distillation process of agarwood, oud oil is at the heart of perfume-making. The oily nature of the substance influences the texture of the charged smell. Although oud itself can be considered the basis of many fragrance products, it’s most commonly used in perfumes. Perfumes made from oud oil are generally unisex, as the natural journey that the scent travels lends an air of neutrality.
The second piece of the craft are bukhoor woodchips, which are interestingly mixed with the agarwood and oud oil for extra aroma. The bukhoor is then scented with different natural ingredients in order to create a unique blend. It tends to have the appearance of coal, but it can vary, and for its use it is burnt in a similar manner to incense. This method results in a crafted amalgam of smells that allow the heavy, soft cloud to propagate throughout any given setting.
NYU Abu Dhabi freshman Maitha AlMemari grew up in Abu Dhabi and connects different Arab perfumes with the people in her life.
“Strong, notable, reminds me of my sister,” said AlMemari, when asked to describe what Arab or Emirati perfume means to her. It was difficult for Al Memari to identify what makes the perfume distinct. “It’s not as light as other perfumes and it just gives me the Arabian vibes.”
The particular ingredient oud reminds AlMemari of her father.
“Oud is a liquid that has a very oily feel,” said AlMemari. “My father applies it on a daily basis under his ears and on his nose, so when he greets people he smells super nice, and so do my younger male siblings. I only use oud on special occasions because the smell gives me a special feeling that I do not want to abuse — not that my father is abusing it.”
Oud is a routine part of life for AlMemari and her family. It has an impact on the environment, the people around them and on each other. As for bukhoor:
“Bukhoor is the smoke that smells really virtuous and in my household we use bukhoor on all of our clothes and we would always have a medkhan — the thing that holds the bukhoor — active in the living room.”
As AlMemari distinguished between the substances, she outlined each as facets of her home environment, tracing the bits and pieces that manifest themselves in areas of everyday living.
“Every Friday, I would walk around the house with the bukhoor so the whole house would smell nice," she reflected.
For AlMemari, perfume is not only a household mainstay, but also a cultural staple and symbol of permanence — something that seems timeless in a place where change and cosmopolitanism have become the unavoidable keywords of life:
“I love oud and bukhoor,” AlMemari said excitedly. “Leaving the house with my abaya bukhoor-less would definitely upset me, because it is a crucial part of my day and, of course, everyone wants to smell nice.”
AlMemari is assertive in illuminating the transcendence of the scent while recognizing the simple delights and her own identity within:
“I like the tradition and cultural value it holds and the fact that even with all these new foreign perfumes coming from all over the world, Emiratis still prefer the cultural oud and bukhoor," she added.
Vivi Kawas is a contributing writer. Email her at
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