When I started university in Qatar three years ago, I had what I thought was a “signature scent.” It was Daisy by Marc Jacobs and, even though I loved how it smelled, I couldn't make it last much longer than my first lecture. Qataris seemed to walk around in clouds of exquisite and exotic fragrance; warm and musky, but sweetly floral at the same time—everything I wanted to smell like. Clearly they were using something more potent than my bottle of eau de toilette. I asked my classmate and native Qatari, Jury, how everyone managed to smell so good for so long. Was it fragranced steam rooms? Cosmetic procedures replacing sweat glands with perfume glands?
Turns out, it's smoke. More specifically: bukhoor, a wood that, when burned, lets off the fragrance I'd been admiring on passersby. Sold in any Middle Eastern perfume shop, bukhoor varieties range from aged sandalwood and myrrh to younger wood soaked in oud oil. “My family were Bedouins and they would have been using it.” said Jury, noting bukhoor is the Arab equivalent to perfume for the French. It's something done for both personal use and after meals shared with friends. She'll heat up a brick of charcoal in a special burner and add the bukhoor, letting the heat do the rest. “You can do it inside or outside.” she says. “It's not a fire hazard or anything.”
And then, like the smell from sitting next to a campfire (but so, so much better), it just lasts. For two or three days, Jury tells me—her secret is running the smoke through her hair while it's still wet: “I usually do it after I shower. I just take a small piece of wood, and waft the smoke through my wet hair. It lasts so much longer that way.” After that, she'll dab a little of the oud oil or western perfume behind her ears and throughout her hair to customize the scent. “The bukhoor with the oud smells warm, a little smoky, musky, amazing.” she says. “Sometimes I'll use Trish McEvoy No. 3 because it has nice vanilla notes. My mom uses some of the Estée Lauder fragrances mixed with oud to soften it out.”
It's about identity more than anything else. “When you smell it, you know that the person is Arab or has some relation to this area of the world,” she says. “I've noticed that there are all these synthetic ouds on the market now. We have this. It smells so good—why would we use anything else?”
Photo by Tom Newton.