Of Rosewater and Perfume
When I first arrived in the Kingdom in 1986 (as a hospital worker), I was afraid to leave the hospital grounds, for fear of getting into trouble with the local culture and the dreaded mutawah. The first two weeks, I went to work, walked around the campus, and made friends with my roommates. Each of them had lived there several years already, and invited me to go out with them, so they could show me how to do things outside the sanctuary of hospital property. “Maybe later,” I said, feeling very much the foreigner.
The hospital provided shopping buses for women, and I finally got my courage up to get on the bus for Al-Azizia grocery store, dubbed the A&P after a well-known American supermarket chain. The ten minute ride gave me a glimpse of real Saudi houses, called “villas.” Their sleek architecture, sweeping walls, and ornately designed gates fascinated me, and I wondered whether I’d ever get a chance to enter one.
Al-Azizia lived up to its reputation. I found a mid-sized store set up the same way as our American stores, and many of the same products I used to buy at home. Next to those familiar, imported cans and boxes, I discovered local fare, much of which I could not imagine how to use. I was surprised to find large bottles of rosewater in the grocery aisle, next to other ingredients one would use in cooking and baking. “That’s odd,” I thought, as I put a bottle of rosewater in my cart. I loved the scent of roses, and was delighted to find rosewater perfume so cheap and plentiful. Never mind that I found it in the grocery aisle; things were different in this part of the world.
Back in the apartment, I opened the bottle of rosewater, splashed some on my neck, and put it on top of my bureau. I was surprised to find the liquid sticky, unlike the cologne I’d used back in the States. Never mind, I’d have to learn new ways of doing things.
One day, I invited my roommate Lois into my room to show her some books I’d brought from the States. She said, “Why do you have a bottle of rosewater on your dresser?” and I said, “Because I love the scent of rose perfume.”
She laughed. “Do you use that for perfume?”
She laughed even more, but I didn’t know why. Finally, she said, “Don’t you know that they use rosewater for cooking?”
“Cooking!” I exclaimed. “They put that in FOOD?”
“Yes,” she said, still laughing. “They use it for sweets.”
I could only imagine how Lois would go to work the next day and tell all her colleagues about the new roommate who thought rosewater was perfume.
Several years later, I grew to like the taste of rosewater as well as the scent, and I learned how to use it in sweets. I got several chances to enter Saudi villas, and I learned where to buy proper rose oil perfume, which I use to this day, twenty years later.