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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Oriental Dreams

By Alyssa

Scent, so famously linked to memory, brings us back to the scenes of our past, but it can do something stranger: it can take us just beyond the edge of our experience to places and people we have never known, yet claim beyond reason as our own. It doesn’t really matter whether our affinities are nostalgic, aspirational, or ancestral. The powerful experience of smelling something for the first time and knowing that we’ve come home cannot be denied.

Though my perfume loves continue to grow and expand, for me most of these coming-home scents fall into the category of orientals. I’ve grown to appreciate and even to adore many florals, and I aspire to the elegance of chypres, but it’s abundantly clear from my collection that resins, woods and spices, often touched by dark roses and the occasional judicious (and, OK, sometimes not so judicious) measure of dark fruit or honey, are what I reach for most often. They are the scents that feel like the most expansive, luxurious, confident, sensual version of myself.

Outside of perfumanity, the word “oriental”—unless applied to carpets—stinks of out-of-date ignorance and self-entitled sloppiness. But the “oriental” of perfume is a term so fantastically antique that it by-passes contemporary racism and proceeds straight to the bloody, knotty histories and dreams of Empire. Setting aside for a moment, the messiness of the category itself (What exactly is an oriental perfume these days? And what is not?), we could say that The Orient of perfume is not the Far East—China and Japan—but the Near or Middle East, a region located more or less in North Africa and the Southern Mediterranean.

But even this vague outline begins to dissolve as soon as it is drawn, for perfume’s Orient is truly a collection of journeys. It is comprised of the ancient spice and incense routes, over land and sea, where the raw materials for spiritual and sensual life were (and in many cases continue to be) gathered and traded, and of the journeying borders, peoples, and armies that accompanied the quest for precious aromatics and the wealth they represented. This Orient sends its tendrils through space and time across Egypt and Arabia to India, the “spice islands” of Northern Indonesia and the Southern Phillipines, and then up into China, throughout the old Roman Empire and even into the New World where Columbus was, after all, looking for a new spice route.

Of course, the peoples of the Orient didn’t view themselves as such – it’s a Western state of mind, from belly dancers and dreams of Genies, to Lawrence of Arabia. It is the Dutch girl who became Mata Hari, and the inscrutable, perfect face of the Swede who played her in the movies (and that nightmar African/Arab idol/monster she dances with on the movie poster). It is the Orient of 19th-century Romantic poet Coleridge and his opium-fuelled dreams of Kubla Kahn:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

It is, in short, Orientalism, the late, great scholar Edward Said’s stinging rejoinder to the myopic Western stereotyping and exoticization of (primarily) Muslim Arab worlds, extended by others into a similar critique of the West’s exoticization of Asia.

The blend of empire and dream is clear in the scent portrait of oriental perfumes. There are the ancient, amazing resins—frankincense and myrrh, sandalwood, and the complex resin produced by the heartwood of the mold-infected aquilaria tree known in its various homes and forms as agarwood, gaharu, jinko, aloeswood, or oud—and the spices—cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, black pepper, clove, coriander, nutmeg and saffron. And there are the citruses, roses and jasmine beloved so throughout the Middle East and South Asia. But what would Shalimar, that ur-oriental, be without vanilla, of which the Old World knew nothing until Columbus’ fateful journey? The trade of other crucial ingredients, in particular ambergris and its plant material substitutes, have their own, intersecting stories.

And, in the way of dreams, other travesties of empire get smoothed over and mixed in/up with the oriental story—witness Lubin’s Idole, with it’s African mask bottle, and its hefty dose of rum mixed with all those spices. Tribute to the enslaved Africans traded for rum and spices? Co-optation of exoticism for profit? Cluelessness? Certainly, it’s dream logic.

I don’t think oriental dreams are going anywhere. I found it impossible to do so much as list the spices and resins above without falling into a kind of reverie. Perfume lives, in part, through fantasy, and fantasy (as we feminists have had to learn) is never politically correct. Indeed, there’s too much rich history and mythology keeping time alongside the Western silliness to want to leave it entirely behind. But Orientalism is so rampant in the perfume world that as I swoon over my oriental perfumes I can’t help but wonder about the things they both point towards and cover over.

The fog of fantasy obscures a truly fascinating history of Western perfumery’s debt to the East, and of it’s greedy absorption and re-interpretation and of these scents. It is simply impossible to imagine perfumery—far beyond “orientals”—without the raw materials of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Literally and figurally, the region provides perfumes basenotes and heartnotes (and a few topnotes, too). But how was the basis of classical perfumery shaped by the ancient ways of blending those woods and spices? And how many of our contemporary perfumers find their sensual or actual homes there?

Perhaps some of what feels like innovation is actually a more conscious connection to ancient ways. The work of the much-praised Serge Lutens, for example, can be seen as an extended meditation on the Middle East. From Anya, on Smelly Blog, I learn that another innovator, Linda Pilkington of Ormonde Jayne, spent several years at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Like Lutens, Pilkington’s perfumes are clearly connected to the scents and flavors of the Middle East (consider, especially, Ta’if). What are her emotional connections to that world? These are only the crudest and most direct of connections—there are many others, more subtle, to be traced. If you know more, please do comment.

In this time of war, when fantasy so quickly turns to nightmare and monster-making, I think it’s worth searching out human stories to stand alongside our dreams. My own Orientalism takes the form of nostalgia for the great vibrant, cosmopolitan cities of old, where West and East, Jew, Christian, and Muslim truly lived and worked (if not always happily) together. And I wonder what we—what I—could learn about my yearning for the scents of the Orient if I knew what they meant to people for whom they smell, quite simply, of home.

(As if home were ever simple. But that is a story for another day.)

Photo credits:,,


Blogger carmencanada said...

Alyssa, this is a beautiful meditation on what "oriental" means -- really a Western take on the Muslim world, in the wake of the British and French Romantic writers -- in all its complex, ambiguous facets. As you say, fantasies are never very politically correct!
Despite my French-Canadian roots, I've always felt most at home in the Southern Mediterranean. And I concur: Serge Lutens captures this vibe better than anyone else, much more so than the "classic" French Oriental perfume family. Less sure about Ormonde Jayne: to me, Linda's scents are more like "world" cuisine, in the best possible sense -- Far East, Near East and West.

11:07 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alyssa, there is so much going on in your article, I barely no where to start! Perhaps this would help.

12:52 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully, eloquently written. I also feel most sensual, comforted, inspired & content in oriental scents. I've been educated about Orientalism in the West by a dear friend who gives a lecture on that topic as it relates to Western fetishization of Japanese eroticism. I will send her a link to this - as a fellow hedonist & sensualist, I think she'll appreciate it. And no, our id ruled dreams are illogical & fantasy is almost never pc. Our work is to understand the difference & mediate those thoughts & desires as they apply to waking life.

7:53 AM EST  
Blogger Pia said...

What a fascinating post! I do think 'Orientalism' captures in some ways the meeting of the West with the East, and as such created a fantasy hybrid, composed perhaps of deep hidden dreams of the West projected onto the canvas of the East, newly re-discovered in an era of Empire.....

I love your description of the cities where all religions lived together....Spain also came to mind...what did those communities understand about living together that we could learn?

One seems to me that in much of the East, perfume and scents in general have often been linked to worship....incense, garlands, devotional offerings....and in my own love of Oriental perfumes, I wonder how much of that sub-conscious linkage still exists and provides a reassuring connection to ancient traditions that grounded man in the context of something larger than just him/herself.

7:58 AM EST  
Blogger elle said...

Wonderful piece! I spent much of my childhood living in the Middle East (Pakistan and Iran) and have traveled back frequently since. Am never sure if my intense addiction to Oriental perfumes is a consequence of that or if I'd just have adored those notes period.

8:11 AM EST  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

lcrukezHow brilliant, and insightful !
I share your enthusiasm for 'orientals'...they are intensely comforting to me, and echo my own nature.

Around the time of the first millenium, there was a great deal more harmony among Jews, Muslims, and Christians- more inter-marriage, working together as partners, etc.

I love to ponder on all the intertwining tendrils of perspective.

9:17 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Alyssa, for your swirlingly lovely prose. I never thought that I would read about perfume and Ed Said in the same essay. I will print and reread at a calmer moment.

9:31 AM EST  
Blogger priscilla said...

Wonderful article Alyssa. I've always had a thing for Oriental perfumes myself, but I have wondered at times over the last year or two since I started "sampling"--what am I celebrating? While I love Lubin's Idole as a fragrance, I wonder about the political correctness of the overall idea. And then there are fragrances like L'Artisan's Dzongkha, which is lovely and most likely a tribute...but at what point does tribute cross the line into packaging that fantasy, and at what expense?

This makes me think also about an issue I have with fashion. For example, not a month after the Amish school shooting, I picked up a fashion magazine that had a full spread of models all got up like the Amish. The events weren't connected, and most likely the presses had already run for the magazine when the incident at the school occurred, but it did beg the question: Why are these images being used to sell fashion?

Granted, I don't know too many people who romanticize the Amish way of life, and I've known plenty of people who long to travel through Asia and the Middle East, all because of the romantic image they have of it. The point is, I guess, that is anything sacred in a commercial world? Or will our imaginations and our fantasies of lives and places always trump our...political correctness? Our common sense? Hm.

Thanks again for your post!

10:16 AM EST  
Blogger tmp00 said...


Beautifully expressed- Orientals always seem to be "it" for me as well- something about the spices and fruits; there's a fecundity to them that just feels right to me

11:20 AM EST  
Blogger Ducks said...

Alyssa, that was fascinating. You follow Orientalism back to its social scientific dimensions... the projection of our own dream landscape and the externalization of the "exotic" from within oneself.

I would welcome a series of similarly thoughtful and provocative archaeologies of other perfume classificatory terms. Normally I see very brief mentions ("means 'fern'," "follows the tradition of ground-breaking perfume X," "includes spices"), but I think it's worth dwelling upon a bit.

11:58 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you! That's very interesting about Linda and "world" cuisine--I do see what you mean. And yet, world cuisine is so related to the unquestioned rule of French haute cuisine giving way to local influences, and particularly to Eastern flavors...I'll have to ponder that a bit more.

I too, am Mediterranean at heart, as you'll see in a future post!

I am dying to see what you posted, but alas, the link does not work. Come back and tell us about it!

Thank you for the compliment. I would be very interested to hear your friend's opinion, and am flattered that you feel moved to share the essay. You summarize the work of understanding fantasy very well, but it is often more difficult than it sounds, no? We have to try, though, surrounded as we are by the worst examples of what happens when we do not.

1:27 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pia, you raise a good point--I think a lot about the spiritual traditions of scent and would like to learn more about them. As for Spain -- that history is such a heartbreaking one. A long, long period of "convivencia"--living together--and then 400+ years of religious and ethnic atrocities followed civil war and Franco's tyranny.

1:34 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elle -- these connections are never simple. Did you remember any scent traditions you'd care to share?

Chaya--so much intermarriage! That's part of what makes Spain's history so tragic--like a country trying to eradicate the blood in its own veins.

Therese -- LOL! I have a cultural studies background and can't help but think about perfume that way.

Greeneyes -- so much more to say on this topic. I like divalano's summary.

Tom--thanks! And glad to find a fellow oriental-lover!

2:55 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ducks -- what a great idea. I've seen these histories in bits and pieces as part of specific perfume reviews, and Helg, over on Perfume Shrine has done some of this work.

I'm going to be happily stuck in the Orient for awhile, I think, as I've been doing some research on the Sephardic diaspora and its cuisine as well.

2:58 PM EST  
Blogger heather said...

You have touched on so much that is fascinating about perfumery; the strange license we give perfumes to evoke stereotypes and to comfort us with an often sanitized and sometimes sensationalized version of all that is exotic and mysterious. Like you, my favorite resting place in perfumes is the oriental grouping and I don't imagine that will ever change. They resonate, and I am so grateful for your beautiful essay touching on so many topics that are dear to me.

11:08 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alyssa, that was evocative and educational at the same time! I love the way you tied all those elements together. I wonder how many people think about where perfume really comes from?

Just a beautiful piece, and as one who is finding more to like among Oriental and other non-floral perfumes as I get older, it made me wish for something sultry and spicy as I was reading it. :-)

12:54 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heather and Flora,

Many thanks for your compliments. Flora, I think about where everything comes from--I'm just lucky to have found a tolerant audience for my musings this time round :-) H--I look very much forward to future discussions of this topic with you.

3:58 PM EST  

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