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.
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.
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.