Oouuud, That Smell

Me, eight months ago: “OMG, that overpowering smell is making me sick to my stomach!!”

A newbie to the UAE, I knew nothing about oud at the time. My, how I’ve grown. Now, not only do I know what it is and where it comes from, the scent can be comforting- except when the hall monitors at school occasionally burn it in enclosed spaces (please don’t cause a fire; have you seen us try to execute a fire drill? Not sure how we’d get out of an actual burning building). Fighting my way down the hall while waving the smoke out of my face, I can’t contain myself and mutter, “Thank God I’m not pregnant or this stuff would make me heave.” And yes, I know I’m a bit old to be making pregnancy comments but I was so sick with the girls that I haven’t quite recovered from the mental damage that resulted. Luckily for you, dear daughters, I happily admit you were both well worth it.

But back to today’s subject. Certain distinct smells permeate the Middle Eastern air. There is the basic body odor (not everyone, but those who choose to flaunt it certainly possess an abundance, especially with the rising temps). There are the myriad scents of shisha, which can range from fruity varieties such as apple and grape to mint and cappuccino; I’ll definitely take this over body odor any day. But the most prevalent scent is a perfume known as oud. There are essentially two types, oud and bakhoor. Oud is basically wood chips (agarwood from certain Asian trees) that have a distinct smell and are used as a kind of perfume for both men and women.
Oud Chips
Pure oud is burned by Arabs; the aroma from the smoke emanates and becomes ingrained in their clothes, skin, and hair- kind of like when you return home from camping and realize everything you own exudes a pungent campfire odor. There is also bakhoor, which looks like small, round coals and is actually a mixture of scents.
Bakhoor coals
I tried to get a lesson at a shop in the mall last week but if you understand that there can still be a language barrier even when two people are speaking English, then you’ll know that I still had questions after my conversation with the salesperson. Where to turn? My two best students. I can at least understand most of what they say.

I asked the girls to describe the smell. Answers ranged from “Best smell in the world,” “Kind of like wood but with perfume,” and “It has different smells depending on what you buy.” Thanks for the clarification on that! First, I’d say it’s a heavier, darker smell, certainly not light, airy, or fruity. It’s smoky, musky, and/or woody. Once you get used to it, the smell is fine unless you’re trapped in a space where it’s burning or in a classroom where girls are constantly spritzing themselves. The girls said they can buy oud in a lotion form, add water to it, and spray it on like perfume; I’ll take their word on that. There is also perfume itself, which I’m sure is pricey. In addition, the girls said they can run the wood through their wet hair to make the scent last several days. I don’t think my students actually do this or I would notice, but I guess it’s not an uncommon practice.

Both oud and bakhoor, in coal or wood chip form, require the use of a medhan, the vessel in which it burns.
Just like shisha, essential accessories include charcoal, tongs and a lighter/small torch. This country’s big on lighting things up.

As I usually try to equate the unknown here with something back home, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the closest thing this reminds me of is patchouli- except this is a widespread regional love whereas patchouli is most revered by Deadheads, a small group compared to Arabs as a whole.

As it’s so difficult to describe, I’m contemplating bringing some home, though after being overwhelmed by it in the malls over Christmas break my daughters will kill me if I burn it in the house. I have another year to decide, so I’ll revisit the idea next spring. Right now, I’m convinced if I ever get a whiff of this smell once I’m home for good, it will bring back happy memories. Especially if I block out the one where I die in a hallway fire at school.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Patrice from LdM
    May 31, 2015 @ 20:39:23

    Finally caught up with this post….. there are some modern perfumes that use oud, probably in amounts that westerners can take…. if you are up for a fun read, look at “Perfumes: The A-Z Guide” by Luca Turin. My favorite funky scent from faraway places is nagarmotha (cypriol) from India…. isn’t it amazing to have the experience of new things, even if they are not always your favorite?



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