Bakhoor!

smalllocomotivebreath.jpg  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 Saudi Arabia
 
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 Saudi Arabia. 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 Saudi Arabia, 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.
 

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About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions of narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my sense of identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
This entry was posted in Family, Memoir, Saudi Arabia and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Bakhoor!

  1. Borkan says:

    Hi Marahm!

    I’m glad that I stumbled upon your very interesting blog. I would just like to say that I tried to describe Bakhoor (or Bukhoor) and how to use it on my http://www.bakhoor.INFO site and I have an eBay store selling the magnificent scent of Bakhoor, Oudh and Oriental perfumes to all over the world at http://www.Yemen-Shop.com or http://www.BakhoorShop.com
    I appreciate your visiting my sites and let me know how you like it.

    Have a Wonderful day!

  2. Marahm says:

    Thank you, Borkan! I am pleased that my blog has reached you, and I thank you for the link to your store. I have made a small purchase of bakhoor, and also the e-book for vegetable gardening. My daughter and I want to try growing veggies this season. I’ve also signed up for your newsletter.

    Your site is quite nice, with good explanations, and ease of use. I like your clear information and instructions on how to use the bakhoor.

  3. Aafke says:

    What a haunting feeling of homesickness this post gives me!
    Very well written! I love burning incense, I’d love to smell bakhoor!
    I use an antique silver bowl half filled with sand on stand for burning my incense. 🙂

  4. What a lovely storyteller you are, Marahm! Thanks – I really enjoyed it.
    I also wanted to tell you that I love your little colorful graphic art with each story – do you do them yourself? I have recently gotten into Photoshop and I was just wondering.

  5. Marahm says:

    Thanks, Aafke and Susie. Sand in a lovely bowl is a good idea for incense. I suppose you could use pebbles, too. Aafke, you are such an artist, I can almost see the silver bowl– shapely, ornate, or least decorated, no?

    My colorful, little designs are called fractals, and no, I do not make them myself, unfortunately, but I love looking at them. I merely do a search for “fractal galleries” and I can entertain myself for hours looking at all the beautiful designs.

    I wrote to several of the artists asking their permission to use their work on my blog, but none of them have responded, so I assume that persmission has been granted.

  6. Masha’Allah I weep for you and your memories and wish you could be walking the stalls today. It’s a beautiful way you describe things and I love how I’m drawn directly into your memories. I’m happy you have the chance to buy it where you are. The internet really makes the world smaller! 🙂
    I hope your daughter wasn’t upset you weren’t really admiring her furniture…..

  7. Aafke says:

    I’ll show my sliver bowl.tazza thing on my blog one of these days. And yes, it’s quite ornate. But that’s not because I’m an artist: it’s because I have a very kitschy taste.

    I find fractals fascinating too!

  8. Marahm says:

    No, AmericanMuslimahWriter, my daughter was not upset with me. She knows I’m a romantic dreamer, and I did admire the furniture after I woke up from the reverie.

    Aafke, I think “kitschy taste” is most often found in artists!

  9. Borkan says:

    Hello!
    Thank you Marahm for buying from me. I hope the Bakhoor will reach you soon.

    I’m also interested in fractals and use them in my listing on the store (http://stores.ebay.com/yemen-shop?refid=store)

    Here is some great fractals:
    http://www.sgeier.net/fractals/

    Have a wonderful day!

    Borkan
    http://www.bakhoor.info
    http://www.BakhoorShop.com
    http://www.Yemen-Shop.com

  10. Marahm says:

    Thank you, Borkan, for the link to those magnificent fractals! The author has already posted permission on his web site, so I will definately use some of them on this blog.

    I think fractals would make excellent wall decorations. I can visualize a whole house with large and small fractals hanging on every wall!

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