Thursday, December 25, 2008

...of Orient Are

“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 India commenced in earnest, while the power of the Osmanic empire slowly began to wane. In cultural terms, the mystical East – always also the geographical location of Paradise and Jerusalem for Christians and thus far from being a negative - has served from the earliest times as an imaginary space on which to project fantasies of immeasurable wealth, the luxuries of what really was a superior civilization – silk, spices, precious essential oils and balms - and unlimited sexual indulgences of dominant men and submissive women sequestered in harems - perhaps the locus classicus of the orientalist imagination. The harem as we know it from the semipornographic kitsch of 19th century Western novels and painting is simply the return of the Victorian repressed. Smell Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet even in its declawed modern form and you know it signified the other oriental H-word to contemporaries with its dirty floral prowess and musky sexuality.

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 Berlin purveyor of everything from Islamic fashion to religious artefacts, incense and fragrance, could I possibly escape the cliché of being initiated into some sort of “secret of the orient,” of luxurious fantasies of Attar, oud and jasmine-rose excesses, of “authentic” Shalimar decadence? And wasn’t there, in the back of my head, the inevitable imperially-tinged hope that I could score the rarest of essences from a "naïve peddler" at a fraction of the price that firms such as Montale or Amouage charge for their Eastern delights? Well, I had had a few previous brushes with Arabian perfume products which brought home very clearly the messages of a globalized economy: good oud (agarwood) or sandalwood will cost a fortune anywhere, and you will always get cheap synthetics in a $4 perfume oil. No less a perfume scion than Jean Paul Guerlain recalls, in his My Journeys in the World of Perfume, a laborious trip to highly recommended Indian sandalwood producers in the town of Kannauj, as he was seeking a source of good raw material for his new oriental Samsara. What he discovered were “neatly-lined up drums bearing the labels of companies well-known in the perfume industry.”

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 Disneyland.

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)


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post duke, as always.

I did not know that story from JP Guerlain.

It is indeed odd that the imperial term "oriental" has persisited in perfumery. Less suprisisng though, that with respect to the attars and ouds one would have to search for the good stuff rather hard and pay rather a high cost if they are found and still exist.

I take comfort in the theory that the true quality stuff has probably always been very hard to come by and it is likely a myth that there was a golden age when oud oil flowed from a tapped tree on every street corner and santalum album was sold in litre cups.

I do like that montale attar though.


Angela Cox said...

I was once asked by a librarian on asking for an Edward Said book " I suppose you know he is anti-semitic?". I just stayed calm and mentioned that it was not his business what I read .