“Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”
- Edward Said
One needn’t share Edward Said’s overstated view of Orientalism, as developed in his eponymous classic study, to acknowledge that there frequently has been a strong European (and by extension American) tendency to see the ”East” – whether “near” “middle” or “far” in starkly binary terms. The Christian, prim, rational, enlightened, democratic, egalitarian, progressive, technological West has often defined this significant other in terms of heathenism, superstition, despotism, decadence, backwardness and inscrutability. Such stereotypes were used to stabilize one’s own fragile self-image and to assert a supposed general superiority which, in the military realm, became a reality beginning in the late 18th century, when the conquest of
Needless to say that the “oriental” is a defining category in European perfumery and fragrance history, from the spices and balms brought to the infant Jesus and craved by the medieval nobility, to Guerlain’s exotistic Shalimar or the recent Idole de Lubin. But what do Westerners expect of actual “oriental”, i.e. Arabian or Indian perfumes? When I placed my order for 5 perfume oils at a
So my expectations were tempered and I deliberately avoided going for the popular recreations of Western designer scents or anything that sounded like just another Calone-aquatic. Besides four typical blends at roughly 5 Euros for 3ml I decided to buy the shop’s top offering, an undefined Attar for 7.50 Euros per ml – still light-years from the outrageous cost of high quality ouds, which can sell at hundreds of dollars for one millilitre. And you thought investing in gold was clever. We’ll leave those treasures to the Sultan of Oman and see what the postman, rather than three kings, brought your financially strained perfume blogger. A caveat. I have smelled lenty of Western-sytle perfumes but only a few real ouds and attars, so my frame of reference is highly Eurocentric. But inspired by the Enlightenment, I do entertain the vague hope that quality can be universally recognized.
Bakhoor al Madni: Patchouli, indian Agarwood (Oud), Jasmine, Sandalwood, Saffron, Rose.
Bakhoor is actually the term for woodchips soaked in fragrant oils for burning as a form of incense. The ingredients sounded perfectly oriental. Unfortunately it smelled exactly like good ole American 100% artificially flavoured grape soda – a strong childhood memory of mine. The floral oils must either be cheap synthetics or really inferior naturals. The supposed woods and spices didn’t even get a chance here. Ghastly.
Mukhallat (=Blend) El Emirates by Al Haramain (a low to mid-price producer). No notes given. Rose and Oud, a Montale on the cheap. The rose is rather candied-sweet and the oud is probably synthetic – it is extremely mild and nearly more woody than typically pungent. It proceeds to move into a slightly soapy direction. Not bad at all considering the price – Montale’s rose is often similarly sweet, e.g. in Black & Royal Oud, but there is not enough oud power here to check that. To make a fairer comparison price-wise, this is way better than the awful Opium pour homme with its wretchedly synthetic vanilla-bomb orientalness worthy of
Misk Hindi: Patchouli, Castoreum, Rose, Indian Agarwood (Oud). This one spontaneously reminded me of Creed’s Royal English Leather, as well as of the typical smell in Indian convenience stores that sell spices, cosmetics, soaps and incense. Sweet leathery notes of castoreum, patchouli, balanced florals, no explicit oudh note. In direct comparison, REL is brighter, drier in the top, more leathery, and generally fuller, while there’s more herbal patchouli and muskiness to Hindi. Hippie associqations are inevitable, but I liked this a lot and it’s the winner among this selection.
Mukhallat al Oud by Al Haramain: Indian Oud, Musk: a boring synthetic oud on a synthetic skin-scent musk base. Next, please.
Attar: no details on anything. The only one with a distinct oud note – pungent freshly chopped wood in a saw-mill, dry leather notes like in a cramped shoestore, drying lacquer paint on a boat in drydock with faint whiffs of smoky-petroleum lubricant. Very solvent/chemical like. No obvious sweetness of florals, just some resinous balsamic note tucked way at the bottom somewhere. This may be natural or not, it certainly reminds me more of the natural ouds I have tried – which often smell so decidedly unnatural to a Western nose. Interesting rather than beautiful and requires more exploration. An interesting conclusion to a pleasant trip into a different and yet not-so-different perfume world that yielded at least two keepers.
So much for the Christmas edition of state of the [car]nation. Happy holidays to everyone out there and may good smells be yours in 2009.
Illustration:Fabio Fabbi, Harem Dancers (1885)