Smells can be instrumental in creating a sense of place – and if the UAE had an official scent, it would surely be oud. Its heady, earthy notes engulf you as you walk through malls; its accents linger tantalisingly in lifts long after the wearer has gone; and entire homes become infused with it after the ritual burning of bukhoor.
“As soon as I stepped off the plane, I could tell I was in the Middle East – the smells were so powerful; ambery, dry, and there was all that oud,” is how master perfumer Francis Kurkdjian summed it up when I interviewed him.
Many of the world's best "noses" are infatuated with oud. It can be tricky to work with and is still relatively under-used in western perfumery, so harnessing its potent properties is the ultimate challenge. "It is an incredible smell; something very fascinating, very sensual, very deep and very beautiful," Mathilde Laurent, Cartier's in-house perfumer, once told me.
Nonetheless, I had always been fairly ambivalent about oud. For a long time, I found it overwhelming and overpowering. It is a smell that is at once completely foreign and fundamentally familiar – “animalic” is the term that the professionals use to describe it, on account of its intense, almost primal earthiness.
In truth, for the best part of my adult life, I have taken a very safe approach to scent, wearing one of two perfumes – Dune by Christian Dior or Eau des Merveilles by Hermes. Both are classic and complex, but unassuming (I’d love to say they match my personality, but that probably wouldn’t be true).
However, living in the UAE encourages a more experimental approach to aromas. As every nose I have ever spoken to will attest, there is a long tradition of perfumery in this part of the world, and GCC customers are among the most progressive when it comes to fragrances. They have a natural, almost instinctual, knack for blending scents to create something entirely unique, building unexpected harmony from seemingly incongruous elements.
Perfumery has been elevated to something of a national sport. Notably, there is no gender bias when it comes to fragrances in this part of the world, with absolutely no differentiation between what men and women wear. All ingredients, from rose to oud, are treated as entirely unisex.
So I am now attempting to dabble with new perfumes – an endeavour that has seen me spend indeterminable amounts of time in the duty-free sections of airports, dousing myself in testers, only to sit on a flight afterwards feeling slightly headachy and smelling like a bouquet of schizophrenic blooms. I have developed a fairly clear idea of what I like (sharper, more citrus-based smells, as well as smoother, muskier smells) and what I don't (anything too floral or too sweet).
Nonetheless, a true appreciation of oud remained elusive until only a few weeks ago, when I embarked on my summer holiday armed with a sample of Louis Vuitton’s latest offering, Ombre Nomade. The scent is undeniably oud-heavy, with hints of raspberry, rose and geranium, but I love it. When I was checking in for my flight, the Emirates attendant asked me to write down the name of my fragrance so she could buy it. The owner of the guesthouse where I was staying in Greece demanded the same, as did the taxi driver who was ferrying us around.
The scent you wear is a highly personal statement – about who you are and what you like, but also, on some level, about how you want to be perceived by the outside world. Smells also trigger feelings – the olfactory system is linked to parts of the brain that are closely associated with emotion and memory. No wonder then that smells can generate such intense feelings of deja vu – whether it's the coconut-infused scent of sunscreen that takes you straight back to your first beach holiday; the perfume worn by a beloved grandmother that brings instant comfort; or the smell of a certain dish that evokes memories of your mum's home-cooked meals.
So perhaps my newfound acceptance of oud is a sign that my olfactory senses have fully adapted to my surroundings. Oud, once foreign, is now a part of my everyday experience and is fundamental to the memories that I have created since moving to the UAE. It triggers its own set of emotions and, no doubt, always will.
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