Keynote talk given at the Misk Art Institute Conference, December 2021
Smell, they say, develops and triggers memories like no other sense. A whiff of fresh zaatar bread can take you back to your childhood friend’s Friday morning breakfast table while the aroma of cardamom can transport you to your favorite aunt’s house. The sense of smell is intimately tied to memory-formation; our memory stores not only the odor but also the emotional and sensory context around it. This is called involuntary memory or the Proust syndrome, after the French writer Marcel Proust.
In my research in the field of heritage and crafts in the Middle East, I’ve come to realize the importance of smell, not simply as a source of pleasure, but as a source of knowledge and a definer of culture. Since ancient times, when frankincense and myrrh stimulated an entire trade route from South Arabia to the Mediterranean and beyond, this region of the world has been shaped by aromatics and the ritual practice of scent. “All of arabia exudes a most delicate fragrance” wrote the historian Diodorus Siculus. “Even the seamen passing by Arabia can smell the strong fragrance that gives health and rigor.”
When I asked my friend Reem what was her earliest olfactory memory, she answered: "my earliest memory of smell is also one of my earliest memories - following my grandmother to her basement pantry where she stored all of the dates and spices. I would follow her down because I knew she would give me a date. I was so young I am not sure I had the words to describe the smell. But if I tap into my memory I imagine it smelled of flour, sugar, cardamon and dates”. Olfactory rituals not only build our personal memory bank, but also that of the community.
The smell of the first heavy rain of the season evokes a deep sense of nostalgia for my friend Fareed who grew up in Kuwait in the 1960s. “At the sight of the first drop of rain and the first whiff of the rich earthy scent, we danced the dance, jumped the jump and sang the song - طق يا مطر طق مرزامنا حديد وبيتنا جديد. That smell is a celebration of life,” he said. “It is a very special, very pleasant smell.” It turns out that there is actually a word for the smell of rain: petrichor. When rain falls on dry land, some plants release oils [secreted during dry periods] inducing a pleasant earthy scent. Much like the smell of smoke alerts you to danger or the smell of bread to meal-time, the smell of the first rain announces the new season. And of course, scent always evokes the rites of Arab hospitality, legendary in its generosity, but regulated by olfactory rituals: the guest is greeted with scent, showered with endless attentions until the bukhoor is burned: ما بعد العود قعود, the smell of incense signals that it is time for the guest to leave.
Despite this richness - and these are just a few examples - I have found little documentation of this rich, living heritage. Part of this can be attributed to the low status of smell in the hierarchy of the senses. During the Enlightenment, European philosophers insisted that the rational man no longer needed to depend on his or her sense of smell; that smell was a primitive sense useful to animals but that sight and sound were the primary senses by which to read and take in the world. This was a time when cities in Europe were rife with disease and putrid smells. Social class was determined by who did and did not smell; it became a social divider. Patrick Suskind’s book Perfume speaks of this historic moment.
As science developed eye-centric technologies- such as the camera the telescope, the computer, and now the smartphone - the eye gained almost absolute hegemony over all other senses. Today, we live in a primarily visual world - we get most of our knowledge, data and inputs - through our eyes, and often time one step removed, through a screen. From reading newspapers to visiting museums, the eye is the principal sense by which we absorb information. Add to this the digital dimension through which we shop, date, or exercise and you realize the extent to which our lives are visually-driven. Scouring thousands of visual stimuli a day, we are subjected — in the words of Italo Calvino — to a ‘rainfall of images’.
This predicament has pervaded our understanding of heritage and what we consider recordable or archivable. In 2015, Arabic coffee was added to the intangible heritage list as a symbol of generosity. But nowhere does it mention the smell of coffee. Given that the ritual of coffee-making stimulates all of five senses, it seems odd - unfair even - to neglect that rich and intoxicating aroma that invites one to sit down and partake in the ritual. In 2018, the first scent-related entry was accepted by UNESCO, namely the perfume-making tradition of the city of Grasse in France.
In the last few years, olfaction as a field of study has received a great deal of attention from anthropologists, historians, and scientists alike. Not only are they taking apart misconceptions but also enriching our understanding of smell. Recently, scientists at the University of Toronto identified loss of smell — anosmia — as an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, confirming yet again the link between memory and olfactory signals. From archiving smells to building scent libraries, researchers have understood that “experiencing what the world smelled like in the past enriches our knowledge of it, and, because of the unique relation between odours and memories, allows us to engage with our history in a more emotional way.” (Cecilia Bembibre* and Matija Strlič). In 2001, in Japan the Ministry for the Environment selected 100 aromas of which ancient woods and a sea breeze to a list of protected scents to be handed down to their children. Likewise France recently passed a law protecting the "sensory heritage" of its rural areas, the sounds and smells of the countryside.
A more odorful, more complex, more meaningful heritage is what these efforts are getting at, a push-back against an artificially deodorized environment. This brings me back to our part of the world, where a living heritage of scent continues to thrive. Indeed, since the days of Arabia Felix, the ancient Egyptians and the Babylonians, olfaction has been at the heart of ritual practices. Burning incense was thought to transport prayers to the gods, to fight diseases and masks bad odors. Religious and imperial processions required the burning of incense. Incense was burned to ward off the evil eye and keep bad spirits away.
With the rise of Islam in the 7th century, our relationship to scent deepened. Trade brought to the scene new aromatics and spices from India and surrounding lands - musk, amber, aloewood (‘oud), and camphor. Compound fragrances emerged. The development of distillation enabled the production of less expensive perfumes such as rose water, allowing people who couldn’t afford oils access to pleasant scents. Islam also brought with it elevated requirements for hygiene, including the building of bathhouses next to mosques. Muslims, starting with the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, identified nice smells with purity and a show of respect for the divine. In one of his sayings, the Prophet said, “There are four traditions of the Messengers: Modesty, wearing fragrance, using the tooth-stick, and marriage.” Likewise, he said “Whoever comes to Friday prayer, let him bathe himself, apply perfume if he has it, and use the tooth-stick.”
It is this cultural continuity that made me dig deeper into the role of scent in the Arabian Peninsula today. Working on modernizing traditions, I became fascinated with the incense burner in particular. Some of the oldest burners date back to the 7th century BC. They come in all shapes and forms. Some are made of limestone while later ones of metal, indicating the materials at hand and the skill of the craftsman. The mubkhar is an object with many stories to tell. How many homes has it scented? How many prayer garbs has its smoke touched? From there, I became interested in people’s personal memories of scent, in the people who create scent, in people’s scent rituals. So I started interviewing and recording some oral histories, and a world of stories opened up to me: Abdullah who spoke to me about his grandmother’s secret perfume recipe, Nada who makes attar like a poet writes verses, and Rabaa whose scent announces her presence.
As I put together these oral histories, I feel a sense of urgency. We have lost generations whose way of life involved scented rituals, around food, hospitality, marriage and even death. The new generation may have learned from the old, but we have adjusted to a new way of life where scent is more commodified than ritualized. There are also costs associated with scent rituals, of course, on the environment, on our time and financially. For instance, the aromatics associated with our rituals come at a high cost to the environment; agarwood (‘oud) has fallen victim to unhealthy commercial practices and over-exploitation. Likewise, land ownership changes in Oman have made frankincense tapping a commercial activity devoid of the rituals - such as singing to the tree - and the connection to nature that existed historically.
The world of scent has also changed, has become more synthetic, more commercial. In the olden days, the gifting of aromatics and spices was a form of gift exchange. When I asked my late aunt where she sourced her ‘oud, she would shush me by saying “it’s my secret.” A few days later, I would be gifted a stash of high quality ‘oud. “You will never find this in the market,” she would say. No doubt, she reached out to her life-long contacts in India; relationships that speak to a history of trade and exchange. Documenting these narratives is about building our historic record, our own awareness of our heritage. It’s about preserving and transmitting memory, about connecting our past with our future.
Scent binds communities together; it creates a language of communication that transcends words; it creates an aesthetic experience; a group feeling; a code of behavior. In essence, although ephemeral, it is deeply meaningful. Beyond their ritual function, smells trigger a reservoir of memories. Viewing an old photograph might enrich you with information, but smells offer an album to the unconscious. In his poem “Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me?,” Nizar Qabbani writes about the smell of tarragon and his mother:
وعندما كانت تشتاق لي ..
كانت ترسل لي باقة طرخون..
فالطرخون عندها، هو المعادل العاطفي
لكلمة يا حبيبي ...
أو لكلمة تقبرني..
The word ephemeral means lasting but one day. Let us make this heritage last much longer.