Scented Mementos: The Story of the Porter and the Ladies of Baghdad

The Iraqi capital Baghdad is associated today with devastation and sectarian violence, and every time another story of this troubled city unfolds on the TV screen, perfume is the last thing I usually think about. And isn’t it frivolous and unnecessary anyway? But then I remember a scented memento given to me by an Iraqi friend. “In our culture, we give a fragrant flower to sweeten the pain of saying goodbye,” she said. We were in New York then, and there were neither scented roses nor jasmine, so instead she gave me a small bottle of orange blossom water. Every time I use it in my cakes or tea, I think of Muna.

 bread-seller

The tradition of sharing scents–sprinkling guests with perfume or giving them small scented gifts as they depart–has ancient roots, and with few modifications, these practices continue today. Even as Iraq has been undergoing dramatic upheavals, some things remain the same and provide a thread of continuity which becomes even more essential when nothing else is certain. When Muna describes the fragrances made by her relatives, she doesn’t just describe the sweetness of jasmine or the medicinal sharpness of saffron, she tells me about her mother and grandmother and other women who left an indelible mark on her.

To get a glimpse of ancient perfume practices, consider Stories from the Thousand and One Nights, a compilation of tales dating to the 9th century. The introduction to “The Story of the Porter and the Ladies of Baghdad” gives lush descriptions of beautiful scented items available at a perfumer’s shop: rose water, orange blossom water, incense, oud. Today, except for real musk and ambergris, you will find the same scented wares at Middle Eastern stores and grocery shops catering to Middle Eastern clientele. Rose water is still used to perfume refreshing sherbets, offered to a guest in an Iraqi home, just as they were served to the heroes of ” The Tale of Nur Al-Din Ali and his son Badr Al-Din Hasan”.

Even contemporary Middle Eastern perfumes would be recognizable to someone in 9th century Iraq; just like over a thousand years ago, modern day attars blend rose, oud, amber, and other traditional essences. A drop of perfume won’t change the world, but as the world continues to change around us, a small reminder of beauty in our daily lives is a blessing.

The Story of the Porter and the Ladies of Baghdad, and of the Three Royal Mendicants, Etc.
Nights 9–18
Stories from the Thousand and One Nights.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

THERE was a man of the city of Baghdad, who was unmarried, and he was a porter; and one day, as he sat in the market, reclining against his crate, there accosted him a female wrapped in an izar of the manufacture of El-Mosil, composed of gold-embroidered silk, with a border of gold lace at each end, who raised her face-veil, and displayed beneath it a pair of black eyes, with lids bordered by long lashes, exhibiting a tender expression, and features of perfect beauty; and she said, with a sweet voice, Bring thy crate, and follow me.

The porter had scarcely heard her words when he took up his crate, and he followed her until she stopped at the door of a house, and knocked; whereupon there came down to her a Christian, and she gave him a piece of gold, and received for it a quantity of olives, and two large vessels of wine, which she placed in the crate, saying to the porter, Take it up, and follow me. The porter exclaimed, This is, indeed, a fortunate day!—and he took up the crate, and followed her. She next stopped at the shop of a fruiterer, and bought of him Syrian apples, and ‘Othmani quinces, and peaches of ‘Oman, and jasmine of Aleppo, and water-lilies of Damascus, and cucumbers of the Nile, and Egyptian limes, and Sultani citrons, and sweet-scented myrtle, and sprigs of the henna-tree, and chamomile, and anemones, and violets, and pomegranate-flowers, and eglantine: all these she put into the porter’s crate, and said to him, Take it up.

The lady… next stopped at the shop of a perfumer, of whom she bought ten kinds of scented waters; rose-water, and orange-flower-water, and willow-flower-water; together with some sugar, and a sprinkling-bottle of rose-water infused with musk, and some frankincense, and aloes-wood, and ambergris, and musk, and wax candles; and, placing all these in the crate, she said, Take up thy crate, and follow me. He, therefore, took it up, and followed her until she came to a handsome house, before which was a spacious court. It was a lofty structure, with a door of two leaves, composed of ebony, overlaid with plates of red gold. You can read the rest by clicking here.

As an interesting aside, you will notice that our lady buys sugar at the perfumer’s store. Sugar was a precious commodity at the time, although not nearly as precious as it was in Europe. Even a few hundred years later, in 14th century Paris, a pound of sugar would cost as much as 80 capons or 2 pigs.

If you like to explore unusual flavors, you can look for floral waters at Middle Eastern stores or online (in the US, I liked Kalamala.com and Sadaf.com). The mysterious willow water is a distillation of pussy willow flowers, and besides its medicinal properties–it soothes the stomach, it’s an alternative flavoring to rose or orange blossom waters. It tastes sweet and slightly green.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin, a modern day Middle Eastern bread seller.

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85 Comments

  • Zazie: Thank you for this inspiring travel in time and space.

    A fragrant gift must be a very pleasant way to greet or to say goodbye to a friend.

    Each evening, I sprinkle my green tea with an amazing rose water I found at a shop specialised in everything “rose” (real flowers, jams, sugared petals, candles, chocolates and honey…).
    It has become part of my very own tea ceremony! ;)
    and now, off I go finishing reading the story!
    Thank you!!!!! June 18, 2013 at 8:20am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, what is the shop called? It sounds like my idea of an interesting place to browse. I also love tea with rose water, and I’ve been spiking my green tea with mint and rosewater this summer. It works so well! June 18, 2013 at 10:52am Reply

      • Zazie: The shop is called “au nom de la rose”.
        I just discovered that: a) they have a website, b) they have a shop in bruxelles too!
        I thought it was a small local family business, but apparently I was all wrong, and it is quite a global venue!
        – have you heard of it before?

        I think their rosewater is to.die.for!!!!! June 18, 2013 at 12:06pm Reply

        • Victoria: The funny thing is that there is one not too far from where I live, so I will definitely check it out. Thank you very much! I passed it by several times, thinking that it’s just another florist (there are two on every block here!) June 18, 2013 at 1:45pm Reply

          • Andrea: I just looked up the website; they do the Deb Ball at The Hotel Crillôn and did a Hugo Boss perfume launch. Sounds like an interesting business! I wish they had one in the USA! June 19, 2013 at 5:53pm Reply

            • Victoria: I went there today, and while I didn’t buy anything, I loved the boutique and the atmosphere. They have rose jams, rose flavored honeys, candies, cakes, candles…. So, I will return and explore more properly. June 20, 2013 at 4:08pm Reply

  • Ann: Bravo, Victoria This was simply beautiful in every way. In a way it reminded me of my grandmother’s stories about growing up during the Great Depression in the 1930s. They lived frugally, but she wouldn’t give up her red lipstick. June 18, 2013 at 8:23am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Ann! My great grandmother also would agree–even during the war, she took time to embroider her camisoles (she made them herself). Whenever I look at the delicate lace work she created, I imagine her as a young woman, using a needle and a thread to take her mind off the troubles and worries about her husband and brothers. June 18, 2013 at 10:55am Reply

  • CK: I live in a neighbourhood with lots of Moroccan and Arabic stores and I’ve even seen other waters like dill, camomile and fennel. Do you know what those are used for? I tried asking the shop keepers, but they didn’t speak English well enough to explain. June 18, 2013 at 8:54am Reply

    • Bela: Hi, I would think that those flavoured waters can be used in cooking or as digestive aids: dill and fennel are traditional remedies for wind, and camomile is calming. June 18, 2013 at 9:09am Reply

      • maya: bela is right, we use dillweed and fennel waters to aid digestion.. my parents are from shiraz and my grandmother there once made them at home. peppermint water is another popular digestive aid. i don’t remember mom cooking with it. June 18, 2013 at 9:20am Reply

        • CK: Thank you, Bela and Maya! I’ll be more adventurous the next time and buy something to try. June 18, 2013 at 10:25am Reply

    • Victoria: I only wanted to add to Bela and Maya that these waters are really terrific stirred into tea, especially your after dinner cup. My favorite is fennel. June 18, 2013 at 10:56am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Yes, beautiful stories. In Greece I experienced the same gestures: I saw people giving each other a flower, and I myself got a gardenia (I still have it, now it is brown, but still fragrant), an armful of origano, an apricot..lovely. June 18, 2013 at 8:55am Reply

    • Victoria: So beautiful! It’s such a touching gesture. I keep all of the fragrant flowers I’ve received when I traveled in the Middle East. June 18, 2013 at 10:58am Reply

  • Natalia: Wonderful story, very inspiring! June 18, 2013 at 9:27am Reply

    • Natalia: “And isn’t it frivolous and unnecessary anyway?”

      I think, in troubled times, it is the frivolous and unnecessary that becomes everything. It is a glimps of normalcy to hold on to when everything else is falling apart. June 18, 2013 at 9:33am Reply

      • Victoria: You said it so well, Natalia! Thank you. June 18, 2013 at 11:04am Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it. I was re-reading the Tales, and it all came back to me. I still have a bottle of Muna’s orange blossom water, although it’s now empty. June 18, 2013 at 11:01am Reply

  • solanace: Maybe a little frivolity is better than this pretense gravity that justifies wars and all kinds of atrocities. I think perfume, like food, is a great reminder that our similarities are way greater than the differences that separate us. June 18, 2013 at 10:10am Reply

    • Zazie: I loved the way you phrased something so true and so often forgotten! June 18, 2013 at 10:47am Reply

      • Victoria: Ditto! Very wise words. June 18, 2013 at 1:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s so true! I still remember the flashes of recognition when I traveled through India, Middle East or other places that seemed very different and exotic to me. For instance, a particular way women in Turkey wear their headscarves is no different from how older women in the Ukrainian villages wear theirs. June 18, 2013 at 11:07am Reply

      • Karen: An interesting thing about the scarves, the needlework on the edges is called “oya”. There are thousands of patterns, floral, geometric, abstract designs. Some patterns are from a specific location, so it used to be that you could tell where someone was from if they were wearing a certain pattern.
        Also, like flowers different patterns and colors could convey a meaning. June 22, 2013 at 8:46am Reply

        • Victoria: That’s so interesting. In Ukraine, the embroidery patterns function the same way. The traditional dress was cut more or less the same, but the decorations clearly spelled out the regional differences. June 22, 2013 at 10:58am Reply

  • nikki: It is so important to not lose sight of some of the positive facts of a culture, especially in view of the problems in Europe with Iraqi immigrants in Sweden. I spent a lot of time in the Maghreb and I always have to remind myself of Arabian jasmine hanging on the car mirror or drinking mint tea or tucking pieces of musk or amber into the linens when I read about one more incident in Iraq, Egypt or Syria.
    I agree with solanace, concentrating on common values such as beauty
    and perfumes is the only way out of this clash of cultures. June 18, 2013 at 10:23am Reply

    • Victoria: The scent of nightblooming jasmine is my favorite memory too. It’s so sultry and heady, completely different from the jasmine grown in France. June 18, 2013 at 11:09am Reply

      • nikki: Yes, it is….Arabian jasmine is just divine! June 18, 2013 at 12:18pm Reply

        • Victoria: I was just testing a batch of Egyptian jasmine absolute earlier this afternoon, and it made me think of your comment. It looks dark in the bottle, and it has such a seductive, leathery accent. The contrast between that and the white petal freshness is amazing. June 18, 2013 at 1:46pm Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: Is it possible to have the same jasmine in Europe? I remember a nightblooming jasmine with big flowers, smelled almost exactly like A la Nuit.That was in Rotterdam. June 18, 2013 at 5:12pm Reply

            • Victoria: Yes, it’s just a different variety, but it’s available. I’ve seen it in Spain, for instance. June 18, 2013 at 5:41pm Reply

  • Annie: I love you all so much for your words from the heart that heal the woes of the world with their simple, uplifting and absolute truth. Thank you all! June 18, 2013 at 1:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: Annie, I thank you and others too. All of your wise words definitely touched a chord in me, and I’m glad that I shared my little story in the end. I try to follow Muna’s example and give scented mementos to others. Rose water is always appreciated. :) June 18, 2013 at 3:13pm Reply

  • Austenfan: What a beautiful and evocative post! Thank you.
    Sharing fragrance that way is wonderful, and what could be a better farewell gift than a fragrance?

    I’ve got 2 different translations of the 1001 nights, although not the one you are using here. I remember years ago there was this huge discussion about a new Dutch translation of the tales. There seem to be lots of different versions of the text in the original language(s) anyway.

    On another note; It’s funny that willow flowers supposedly have soothing properties to the stomach. The bark contains the famous salicin which is actually bad for your stomach and may cause ulcers. June 18, 2013 at 4:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: The fascinating thing about something so ethereal as scent is how well it can be remembered. I visited the old house where I lived as a child not long ago, and amazingly it still had the same smell. The moment I stepped inside, I was overcome with so much emotion, I couldn’t hold back my tears. And it was all because of this damp-dusty, sweetish scent that lingered in the hallway.

      Interesting about the willow bark! I didn’t know this, but I remember my grandmother mentioning it as an aspirin herbal equivalent. Perhaps, the flowers have a completely different composition. The willow water certainly doesn’t taste bitter like the bark infusion. June 18, 2013 at 5:53pm Reply

      • Austenfan: Willow bark was at the start of Bayer®’s success. Salicin was turned into Salicylic acid which equals aspirin.

        I remember some of the scents associated with my maternal grandmother with great fondness. I got some Maya soaps to scent my drawers as they were her favourite soap. Every time I pull something out of my cupboard I am reminded of her! June 18, 2013 at 6:02pm Reply

        • Victoria: I had no idea, thank you so much for explaining. My grandmother and I collected and dried various herbs, and I helped her make various mixtures, but I was too young to ask more specific questions. She recently gave me several old herbal medicine books, so I’m going to study them.

          I love Maya soaps very much, and though I don’t know if anyone in my family used them, the scent makes me nostalgic too. June 19, 2013 at 6:12am Reply

      • Austenfan: And apparently there is a very good French translation of the 1001 nights in a beautiful Pleiade edition! June 18, 2013 at 6:03pm Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, I must check it out! Nobody does books better in terms of presentation than French and Italians. I especially love the editions that come in their own removable hardcover cases. June 19, 2013 at 6:14am Reply

    • RenChick: I actually use willow bark powder capsules for headaches instead of aspirin because it is actually not bad for your stomach at all. It’s the chemically refined version made into aspirin pills that can wreak so much havoc on your system! Something about the other components in the bark that ameliorates the effect of the refined chemical…

      If your are interested in what else willow can do for you there is more info here http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/willow-bark-000281.htm.

      I find great pleasure in finding natural alternatives to all of today’s medicine chest basics. It’s somewhat soothing to the soul to break out of the mold modern technology tries to put us in! June 19, 2013 at 9:29am Reply

      • austenfan: The fact that the chance of side effects is smaller is much more likely to be caused by the fact that the concentration of the salicylic acid is that much lower. There is a very strong correlation between the incidence of stomach complaints and the dosage of sal.acid. June 19, 2013 at 12:33pm Reply

      • Andrea: Thanks for the info! I hope those with children will remember that willow bark still has salicylic acid, which can cause Reye Syndrome in children. I don’t mean to take away from your wonderful info, just making a reminder to check with a health professional before giving to children. Have a great day! June 19, 2013 at 5:42pm Reply

        • RenChick: Andrea, that’s a very good point to make. Herbal medicine can have side effects as well as conventional medicine, so the reminder to always consult with a health professional of some sort, or a licensed herbalist, is an excellent one. June 20, 2013 at 8:22am Reply

  • Joanna: The other day I was just contemplating perfume’s place in Middle Eastern culture, and how few books I’ve read about it and how what a fantastic adventure it would be to journey back in time via the tales of One Thousand and One Nights. And voila, I stumbled upon this post. How serendipitous! I’ll now go explore the rest of the story. Thanks for sharing! June 18, 2013 at 5:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: This story is one of my favorites, and I just love the description of the market scenes and the lady’s purchases. Baghdad of those days was a opulent place. A terrific book on the Middle Eastern history is The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years by Bernard Lewis. An ambitious work! If you’re curious to read more about the Middle Eastern culture and its various sensory aspects, I recommend A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East (mostly about food, but plenty about scents too) and Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes (California Studies in Food and Culture) (ditto). Perhaps, anyone else has other recommendations. I love this topic, and I also would love to learn more. June 18, 2013 at 5:40pm Reply

      • Joanna: Thanks so much for the book recommendations! I’m somewhat book obsessed, so this is very much appreciated. :-) June 19, 2013 at 1:05pm Reply

        • Victoria: Also check out writings by Charles Perry, he is an expert in this field. June 20, 2013 at 12:47pm Reply

      • Karen: I think cook books can be the best travel guides. “Turquoise, A Chef’s Travels in Turkey” by Greg and Lucy Malouf has wonderful writing and good recipes, beautiful photos. It is a wonderful way to learn about the country (or help recall certain meals or sites). June 19, 2013 at 11:50pm Reply

        • Victoria: For me too, Malouf’s books capture the best of what a good cookbook can do–teach, inspire, delight with beautiful images. I’ve cooked a lot from them, especially Saha and Turquoise. June 20, 2013 at 12:25pm Reply

  • Daisy: I adored reading this post, Victoria! When the world seems chaotic, crazy, and prone to dissolve into violence and extremism, it’s so easy to forget these beautiful scented traditions based on hospitality and generosity. Thank you for the reminder!

    Incidentally, this post makes me think of the Turkish tradition of offering guests cologne to freshen and cleanse their hands when they come to visit. I forget where I was reading that but I thought it sounded great. June 18, 2013 at 6:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: How true, Daisy! The tradition of hospitality in the Middle East is such an essential part of the culture. One must also be careful when complimenting items in the house, because before you know it, they’re given to you as gifts! And I also remember being offer perfume to freshen up, which was such a lovely and unexpected gesture. It was in a small village, and the choices of scents included homemade blends, attars, and…. Ralph Lauren Polo. :) June 19, 2013 at 6:18am Reply

      • Daisy: I forgot about that! That is true too: don’t gush about the house!

        And the Ralph Lauren Polo made me laugh. Imagine eating with your hands after that . . . :-P June 20, 2013 at 7:55pm Reply

        • Victoria: RL Polo flavored kebabs, anyone? Yes, I also didn’t think so. :) I timidly went for a mixture of rose and saffron. June 21, 2013 at 7:30am Reply

  • Amer: A beautiful story Victoria! It really made my day! Some traditional fragrant materials have been described so well by traditional texts and have been so exquisitely interwoven with culture that have gained mythical status. When these things are offered as gifts, the gesture is symbolically charged and therefore out of the ordinary. I had an experience of the sort just recently. June 18, 2013 at 8:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for putting it this way. It’s definitely more than just a gift (of course, any gift is special). I love handmade gifts, even if very simple, for this same reason. June 19, 2013 at 6:32am Reply

  • Jill: I have a dear friend who after visiting a natural goat farm, where they not only made their own cheeses also their own vinegars brought me a lovely aged balsamic with garlic and goat cheese, she said it reminded her of me, which I found a compliment! I was later able to repay the favor by using the oil in a meal I made for us to share. More so then other gifts, these gifts of taste and scent allow us to share and reflect with those closest to us. Creating lasting impressions and memories. June 18, 2013 at 8:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: Food gifts are at the top of my list too for all those reason you mention, Jill. I love that you were able to use your friend’s gift in a meal you made for her. I bet she enjoyed it very much. June 19, 2013 at 6:38am Reply

  • mazlifa: Thanks so much Victoria for this sublime yet evocative piece through time. I’m from Penang and we have this culture of dabbing a bit of perfume when a new baby is brought home from the hospital. Likewise the host will also dab perfume on baby guest. I recall vividly 20 years ago my aunt asking me to dab liberal doses of perfume amidst petals of roses, jasmine and frankincense on my mum just before the last piece of white cloth shrouds her body for burial. And I did the same thing 2 years ago to this aunt of mine who is also a consumate perfume lover. June 19, 2013 at 12:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Mazlifa, what a beautiful tradition and rich in so much symbolism. Thank you very much for sharing. In the West today we leave such a small role for perfume (adornment, seduction maybe), but it only takes a look at other cultures and back at our own history to realize how much more important scents can be.

      (And I just wanted to say that as someone who has lost a parent too, I can very much empathize with your loss.) June 20, 2013 at 4:34am Reply

  • Annikky: I really need to re-read 1001 Nights, I was so little when I read the books. Thank you for reminding me!

    Isn’t it refreshing to read something that treats not only scent, but also clothing and food as a legitimate object of attention? June 19, 2013 at 2:27am Reply

  • Andrea: I ADORE this posting. I’m excited to read the rest of the story, but wanted to say that I was thinking that the fruits she chose would have made a wonderful perfume even before she went to the perfumer’s shop. I wonder if anyone has ever tried it?

    Off to enjoy the rest of the story… Thank you for the wonderful “armchair vacation” in your post today! June 19, 2013 at 5:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Your idea of a perfume based on those scents really made me dream. Can you just imagine it!

      Enjoy the story! It’s really one of the classical “story with a story” tales for which the compilation is famous. June 20, 2013 at 12:28pm Reply

  • MontrealGirl: A marvellous story and a wonderful tradition. Thank you. I love the beautiful smells of the Magreb honey-sweetened, almond-based pastries that are scented with orange-blossom water. Or the Moroccan rice-pudding with pistachios and scented with rose-water. And then there is their tea which is a mix of mint and green tea. Ahhh…..Just visiting one of the pastry cafes here in Montreal feels like taking an exotic trip. I had always hoped to visit Damascus just for the chance to smell the fragrances and spices there in the bazaars. Closer to home I’ve been hunting for perfumes that evoke these marvellous places and dishes. So far Serge Luten’s Fleurs d’Oranger comes pretty close, Montale’s Jasmine Full is heaven and Atelier Cologne’s Rose Anonyme smells like roses and incense in Morocco. I’m still on the hunt for the almond smell and the mint/green tea. Any suggestions? June 19, 2013 at 6:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: I was wearing Serge Lutens Louve yesterday, and if you would like an interesting almond fragrance, please try it. Rahat Loukoum is his other almond, but I really don’t like it. Louve, on another hand, is smooth, addictive and a little mysterious.

      Someone definitely needs to do an orange blossom and almond perfume that captures the idea of Moroccan sweets. Dior’s Escale a Portofino blends orange blossom with almond, but it’s fresh and bright.

      As for minty tea, Un Zest de Rose by Rosine comes to mind. And Herba Fresca by Guerlain, although it’s more grass and mint than tea. June 20, 2013 at 12:45pm Reply

      • MontrealGirl: Thanks for the suggestions, Victoria! I shall check them out. June 20, 2013 at 9:14pm Reply

        • Victoria: And please let us know which perfume hits the spot for you.

          I also just remembered that the best mint tea rendition I’ve tried was found not in a perfume, but in a candle: Cire Trudon Abd el Kader. June 21, 2013 at 7:33am Reply

  • Maja: Such a lovely post and beautiful, touching comments. There was a recent episode on BBC Food Programme where 13 strangers from different countries and cultures cooked for each other for one night telling their life stories with one dish. It was amazing to see how food and smells from childhood could bring people together. Sharing makes really all the difference in the world. June 20, 2013 at 8:34am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m going to see if I can find a recording of this program somewhere. It sounds fascinating. Sharing food together is important in many cultures, and by contrast, refusing to can qualify as an offense.

      My grandmother recently gave me some of her recipes, but before doing so, she described where most of them came from, who gave them to her, etc. These little stories gave more meaning to the dishes. I’ve enjoyed making cakes that she learned as a young woman, when she shared a kitchen with three other ladies. June 20, 2013 at 12:55pm Reply

      • Maja: Here it is:

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s7vzz

        I forgot, it’s a radio programme, one of the most interesting podcasts ever :) June 20, 2013 at 3:37pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thanks so much! Off to have a cup of tea and listen to it in peace. :) June 20, 2013 at 4:01pm Reply

          • Maja: I really hope you like it. It is such an intelligent programme. There were fantastic episodes about spices, too:

            http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnx3/broadcasts/2012/08

            ps. My mother’s notebook with recipes is full of funny titles such as: “Walnut Cookies (Jelena from administration dept.)” She used to work in an office full of women :) June 20, 2013 at 5:09pm Reply

            • Victoria: Oh, this one I’m saving for this weekend. It’s exactly the topic I love. Thanks so much, Maja! I enjoyed the other podcast very much thanks to your recommendation. June 21, 2013 at 7:29am Reply

  • Andy: I loved reading about the role of perfume and fragrant objects in Middle Eastern culture. Thank you for sharing this post! June 20, 2013 at 3:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure, Andy. IMO, the comments others left here were the best part! June 20, 2013 at 4:01pm Reply

  • Sarah: It was a pleasure reading this beautiful post, Victoria. I have been reading your fascinating blog for a while and i couldn’t resist commenting on this particular post being a Middle Eastern myself.

    For many people, perfumes are either a grooming essential or a personal statement that expresses one’s mood.

    Our scented mementos as you delicately called them signify how we regard perfumes or fragrant gifts as a token of intimate loyal love. The way perfumes infuse and blend in one’s skin, clothes and environment symbolizes close intimacy; and how they linger for long symbolizes long lasting loyalty.

    Therefore, it is not surprising in the Middle East to greet people or bid them goodbye with scented rose water, warm incense or rich oud to wish that our relationship with them remains intimate and loyal just like a rich exotic perfume.

    As i was reading through your post, i remembered a beautiful Arabic romantic song sung by an Iraqi singer with lyrics that literally mean: Forget your world and I’ll forget mine, blend in me and become my fragrance. June 21, 2013 at 6:10pm Reply

    • Austenfan: Thank you for this wonderful insight into how you perceive perfume! June 22, 2013 at 7:31am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Sarah! Reading the lines of that song send a little shiver down my spine, so beautiful. When you read in the medieval Middle Eastern texts about the importance scents were given (and that a civilized person had to know how to perfume themselves properly), you begin to realize what a rich and sophisticated tradition it is.

      Another tidbit I picked up during my visits is to wear perfume on fabric. It seems obvious, but it was amazing to discover how well perfume lasts this way. Plus, rich incense and amber fragrances can be dosed more easily. Tonight I’ll wear one of my Omani attars this way. June 22, 2013 at 10:51am Reply

      • Sarah: Thank you Austenfan and Victoria for your warm replies.
        Beautiful scents are highly celebrated in the Middle East that we have a wide selections of perfumes/fragrances with different textures used for body, hair, furniture (beds in particular), homes and clothes. Perfuming ourselves is an enjoyable beauty ritual that involves several steps to create a long lasting scent that delights self and others.

        Victoria, a great tip to ensure that your perfume lasts even longer in your fabric is to spray the insides of your clothes with your favourite perfume, then expose them immediately to the smoke of incense. If you don’t have incense, a nice trick i use regularly is to iron your clothes immediately after you spray the insides with perfume. The steam coming from the iron will ensure that your perfume lasts in fabric for days or until you wash your clothes.
        This way, your perfume would seem like to linger from within that people feel like they are surrounded by a fragrant rose in bloom. June 22, 2013 at 12:59pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much for this interesting idea, Sarah! I can imagine how it creates a rich, complex veil of scent, and I will definitely try it. June 24, 2013 at 12:25pm Reply

  • E.Lime: I have learned so much from the comments to this post! I especially like solanace’s idea that the beauty and levity of hospitality with something “frivolous” like scents could counterbalance the aggression that starts wars. It made me start imagining a world where researchers could develop “chemical warfare” that was designed to use pheromones and positive scents to ease tensions and create good feelings. Signing peace treaties surrounded by clouds of aldehydes and jasmine fumes… June 22, 2013 at 2:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: Ah, if only! These days I find the news so depressing that I try not to start my day by reading the paper (I do that later in the day). June 24, 2013 at 12:27pm Reply

  • Annette Reynolds: Forgive me if I’m repeating anyone else’s comment, but wanted to let you know that Orange Blossom Water is also available online at ParthenonFoods.com It’s a great (mostly) Greek-American foodie online store and they ship everything, just about anywhere. This is where I go to get all things Greek for cooking. It brings back many lovely memories of my mother and grandmother. They were wonderful Greek cooks and I don’t even come close, but I keep trying… There’s nothing like scent and food to bring memories. July 2, 2013 at 8:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Annette, thank you very much! I’ll add it to the sources.

      The flavors of Greek food are inspiring for me too. The wild oregano alone could be a perfume. July 3, 2013 at 11:54am Reply

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