As I said in my last posting, my good friend and brother in Christ, “Sergius-Bob” (who is linked on my blog roll and all of you should visit him and read his stuff) sent me some beautiful bahkhoors that he had picked up on his travels. He sent these to me, as a fellow incense lover, because he knew I would very much love to see them and try them. What a glorious gift!!!!
True, desert bahkhoors, are the original scents of the desert: amber, frankicense, myrrh, and oppoponax, blended with pure floral oils. But in the middle east today, these scents have been forgotten, for the most part, by Islamic perfumers who have wanted to keep up with the west. You have to search the bazaar very hard, to find true desert bahkhoor.
Now, to set you up for this, you should know that in Islamic countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt, the bahkhoor ceremony is a very deep gift of friendship. Leaving aside all arguments about religion and theology, let us appreciate the deep reverence that Islamic people have for others they consider a true friend.
When I was a little girl, I lived in Behshahr, Iran. This is the far north of Persia, in the mountains, about an hour from the Caspian Sea. I wanted to go every weekend to the Caspian in hopes I would see the wild Caspian ponies because i loved horses. In my mind, they were the same thing as the going to Isfahan, and seeing the horse races. And if my parents took me to the horse races, I could go to the bazaar where I was sure to go into the gold souk which was filled with magical smells.
So for me, the smell of wild ponies is mixed with bahkhoor — there is no separating them in my mind.
When you approach the souk, you have to get through the crowds of people and the merchants crying out for a bargain on silk. Then come the tailors and the smell of preserved cottons, and knits. These are laid out on tables all in a row, piled high, and you cannot tell one color from another because you are dizzy from looking at them. Moving through the fabric merchants, you come to the luxury sellers, (yes, there is order in chaos), and they sell all the goods for the home, and “jelly shoes” and net bags that smell like garlic, and noone bread. Someone presses a piece of noon into your hand, and it’s still warm from the “oven” and has a layer of dirt on it. Someone’s grandmother cooked it in her backyard where her son dug a hole, and lit a fire. The fire is lit by cedar and pine pitch, flavoring the bread and maybe your eyes burn a bit, but it’s a small thing to deal with.
A man in rags brings his horse and cart into the souk and starts selling bolts of fabric off the back. You think it must be stolen but you don’t care, and mind your own business. The horse is covered in stiff leather—it’s so stiff you think it might break from age. This same horse, in the same old leather, will “compete” in the horse race later in the week.
Now you are suddenly recognized as a westerner and you are escorted (against your will) to the doorway that no one else is allowed to pass. Outside this doorway is a leper, with open sores, and you want to die and shrink in his place. But your escort throws coins at him and he is silent so you pass through the door into a world that is made entirely of gold.
Someone in white robes comes to you and begins swirling a smoking mubhkahr around you, above you and just below the hem of your dress (because you wouldn’t wear anything else in a Muslim country) and you feel a bit “high” not because of what the mubhkahr contains but because you are overwhelmed by this ritual. And it is a ritual, because all the time this person is bowing before you with this mysterious smoking bowl, they are praying over you, to “Allah” to have a long life, and many children to comfort you, and all the good things that only “Allah” can bestow upon you. It never occurs to you to tell them they are “wrong” and that Islam isn’t the real faith, because at that time, in that moment, it doesn’t matter- they are being very kind to you in the best way they know how.
John 12: Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said,”Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial.
Your mother walks confidently over to the counter and the jeweler bows very low because the depth of his bow is the depth of his respect for you. You watch and listen as your mother describes to the jeweler what she wants and every time she finishes a sentence he bows deeply again. You smell the horse and merchant in the street, and when someone sees your nose wrinkling from that experiment, they bring the mubhkhar over again to “cover” the scent. You wish they wouldn’t, but it’s so pleasant and you allow yourself to get a little carried away on the scent that you know is a copy of a French perfume, but you would never say so.
Your mother settles the bargain on a clear topaz, the clearest that has ever been found by a human being, and it will be set in a 22 karat gold setting, swirled, to “cradle” the gem. It is not an expensive bargain, and your mother is very pleased with herself. She will have her “diamond” and only she and the jeweler will know the difference at a glance. As you leave the souk, you are censed again, with the mubhkhar, and the jeweler b0ws so long his forehead touches the floor.
During the ride home, your mother decides to stop off at your maid’s house, to give her a paycheck and to drop off some food and other items. You arrive at a mud covered house, about the size of a “studio apartment”. 12 people live there, all together with no bathroom. Your mother is shocked at the conditions and later hires a contractor to build a proper 3 bedroom house. But here and now, your nose is assaulted by the smell of human poverty and yet, they too, bring a mubhkahr filled with the same mysterious scent, copied from the grand house of Yves St. Laurent. You recognize the scent. It’s Rive Gauche and you know that because your mother wears it all the time.
Aldehydes, mettalic and heavy oakmoss, sprinkled with notes of rose geranium and jarring notes of amber. An aluminum can spray, banded in black and blue, and Rive Gauche, Yves St. Laurent in long-hand script on the side. The scent came out in 1970 so actually your mother is a bit behind in the fashionable department.
An old woman, older than you have ever imagined a person could be, comes shuffling to you with the mubhkhar and suddenly you are covered in smoke: Rive Gauche. Yves St. Laurent. In the poorest home in all of Behshahr.Your chador (yes, you wear one. When in Behshahr, do as the Behsharans do and do your best to be polite about it.) is scented for days with the bahkhoor of Rive Gauche. And you think that everyone lives this way.
And you begin to take the Islamic hospitality ritual for granted. Until some dear friend sends you a gift of bahkhoor in the mail. And then, you are transported back…back to being a little girl in Behshahr. An hour from he Caspian. An hour from freedom.