Bakhoor —its scented smoke hadn’t entered my nostrils in eight years, yet I recognized it instantly. There it was, on the coffee table, in the mabkhara –the four legged incense burner from .
My daughter welcomed me into her new home, a modest bungalow in our modest, Mid-Western neighborhood. “Do you like it?” she asked, with a sweeping gesture over the new furniture.
“It’s wonderful!” I said, focusing on the fragrance. I missed my life in . I didn’t know how much I missed it until the smoky incense set sweet memories in motion.
How many times had I entered other rooms— the homes of Saudi friends, the halls of Arab weddings, and the salons of women’s gatherings? In the Arab world, bakhoor is used for all celebrations, ceremonies, and social occasions. Its rituals are delightfully repeated, with few variations on the theme.
“Ahalan Wa Sahlan! Ahlan, Ahlan!” Welcome! Welcome!
“Ahlan beeki!” Welcome to you! We admire each other’s colorful dresses, gold bangles, and sparkling necklaces. We turn the kaleidoscope of conversation that interweaves timeless topics —families, religion, and work —into the context of intercultural conflict and misunderstanding. We laugh often.
The hostess serves a staple of Saudi hospitality –fresh dates and pale Saudi coffee in tiny cups. The dates are still soft, having been picked recently; they melt in the mouth like a pat of butter and brown sugar. The coffee, so bitter that one must acquire a taste for it, reflects the golden green of unroasted beans heavily mixed with cardamom. Later, the hostess holds the mabkhara in front of each guest. The guest raises her arms to the shoulder as the hostess wafts smoke around her torso, into her hair, down her dress and
even under the hem, while both of them chuckle and wink. The men are elsewhere, doing the same thing. The next day, a pungent reminder of the night’s festivities rises up from the dress then flung over the chair.
No one can describe the scent of bakhoor, though it’s classically composed of sandalwood, amber, musk, frankincense, and myrrh. Combinations with flower oils such as Turkish rose and jasmine are rolled into sticky little balls to be used alone, or mixed with the most distinctive and expensive substance in the world— oudh, a resin with a history as unique as its aroma.
I remember walking through market places of, seeing the mounds of reddish wood chips, with dark, pungent sap clinging tenaciously, emitting scent even before being burned. I remember seeing bins of various blends in the perfume shops between the fabric and housewares shops. I remember the handsome Saudi proprietors, with their dark hair against their red and white ghutras , their cinnamon skin against white teeth and whiter thobes.
I used to love walking down the rows of small stalls selling bakhoor, prayer rugs, long dresses, spices, foodstuffs, children’s clothing, sandals, more perfume, more and more of everything up and down the dirt aisles of the traditional suqs —the Kuwaiti suq, the Women’s suq, the Battha suq —and the newer suqs, constructed with concrete aisles and shops with forty-five degree corners, adjoined in perfect rows.
We couldn’t afford pure oudh, so we used to buy the bakhoor using oudh as its base. We brought a small stash to the States, but used it within the first year.
“Where did you find it?” I asked, still mesmerized.
“At the furniture store!” my daughter said. She thought I was admiring her furniture.