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  • A Family of Fragrance: Scents and Memory in Arab Perfume

    Close-up on clear class bottles filled with clear and dark brown liquids. Some are labeled: oud wood, roses, amber.

    In Mona Haddad’s perfume making workshops, Folklife Festival visitors can chose from various traditional scents.

    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    A gentle mixture of musk and rose always reminds Mona Haddad, traditional Emirati perfumer, of her mom. But her grandmother’s aroma is more piquant: the peppery smell of cinnamon lays atop woody base notes. Haddad’s handmade perfumes are redolent of joyous times with family and friends. According to Haddad, scents act as portals, transporting her back to her childhood home, arousing flashes of memories, and surrounding her with the warmth of familiarity.

    For Haddad, scents sear memories in place. Over years of making perfumes and teaching workshops, she has some advice: “Always make perfume with a person in mind. To mix a really good fragrance, think of someone you really love.”

    Haddad’s journey as a perfumer started unexpectedly. When she was seventeen, she attended the United Arab Emirates Young Entrepreneurship Competition.

    “The competition was a big deal in the UAE. I planned to sell accessories, but the shipment didn’t arrive on time.” Stumped, she called her mother, who was studying in Germany at the time. Her mom suggested making incense instead, “just like how your ancestors did it.” Over the phone, Haddad’s mom taught her the basics of bakhoor, a type of scented wood chips soaked in perfume oils. For three days and nights, Haddad made bakhoor. During the competition, she sold it all, earning her $2,000.

    Haddad couldn’t have achieved this success had the UAE not had such a strong perfume culture. Fragrances, including perfume, incense, frankincense, and other essential oils, are necessities in the Middle East.

    A woman in a black head covering leads a workshop around a table, with bottles and jars of various liquids and flowers on the table. A crowd of people watch.
    Mona Haddad (left) leads a perfume making workshops at the 2022 Folklife Festival.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “Everyone wears perfume,” she explains. “And we wear a lot. Our grandmas would dump perfume onto each other!”

    Besides spraying perfume, people also layer fragrances. “I first burn incense and let the smoke waft around my clothes, and then perfume my clothes so that the smell could last many days. I personally like two layers. Some people do three or four layers, adding essence oils on the body and clothes too.”

    Fragrance in Arab culture is not a simple matter of immersing oneself with the aroma of pleasure. It also carries meaningful spiritual and social information.

    “In the beginning, before a prayer, you need to burn incense to smell nice,” Haddad says. “It’s similar to East Asia. You burn incense to your ancestors.” The body should be washed clean so that one can present the best image when interfacing with God, she explains. Bad odors are also believed to attract evil spirits. Maintaining a pleasing odor is a matter of sanctity.

    Fragrance permeates everyday society, binding families, friendships, and romance. When guests visit for a meal, the host will provide perfume or cense the guests at the end since the kitchen and cooking are considered to deal with bad smells. Guests arrive smelling different from each other, but leave rescented with a similar smell. The perfume-sharing ritual establishes social ties and essential group unity. In romance, instead of love at first sight, there’s love at first sniff.

    “Guys here tend to flirt in an obvious way,” she says of her home in the Emirates. “When they think you’re charming, they will pass by you while reciting a poem. But if he compliments something about your smell, the girls would be extra flattered."

    After the competition, Haddad explored fragrance-making in earnest, studying family formulas. “My mom is knowledgeable in some of the recipes. My grandma, however, was more knowledgeable. She used to do bridal incense in Saudi Arabia. Incense is a necessity as well as an important ritual for the wedding.”

    A person wearing blue surgical gloves and a gold bracelet touches a pale mixture in a small silver pot. Only their hands are visible.
    Haddad’s student makes a bridal scrub from musk.
    Photo by Mona Haddad

    There’s a mix of cultures in the recipes, incorporating both Saudi Arabian and Emirati traditions. “My grandmother likes to make incense in the Saudi Arabian way, even though she taught me Emirati tradition as well. She cooks the incense, adds sugar, and flattens it.” The sugar makes the incense more solid—“it could be hard as a rock.” Her grandma would then bury the incense under the sand, like storing wine in an underground cellar, to keep it cool.

    Haddad prefers Emirati incense, which has a softer texture. She deftly described her favorite recipe: “you put amber on the fire, and then spray liquid perfume on the amber, wait for it to melt. As it melts, you put in the powder of oud (agarwood) or sandalwood, mixing everything. Finally, when it cools down, you rub them into balls, like rice balls but black.”

    Haddad’s family is not an exception. In fact, it was common for UAE households to have their own family fragrance recipe. “Our country was established about fifty years ago. Before that, we had limited access and resources for buying perfume. So most women, especially the older generation, know how to do their own incense and perfume.”

    Right now, many luxury brands, from Chanel to Tom Ford, have produced “Arab-inspired” perfume, highlighting the musk, oud, or amber tone and neglecting the diversity of recipes across different areas. This colonial perception and narrative is still pervasive, as the West tends to “other” and fetishize Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.

    Many brands continue to use “Oriental” as a perfume category, and fragrances are characterized as mysterious, exotic, and filled with often inaccurate Western imaginations of the East. When asked what she thinks about the phenomenon, Haddad responds with a proverb in Arabic, which translates to “No one knows the recipe of the bread except the baker.”

    A person with henna-tipped fingers holds a small glass vial with a white funnel. Only their hands are visible.
    Haddad demonstrates perfume oil note-mixing.
    Photo courtesy of Mona Haddad

    While inheriting and preserving the old ways of making perfume, Haddad is also aware of the pitfalls of cultural stagnation. She adds twists to invigorate the tradition. Over the years, Haddad has taught people at home and abroad to customize generations-old scents to better fit their noses. “Western people tend to have sensitive noses to Arabian perfume. So I always recommend them starting with musk. It’s gentle and powdery. Then you can put some other floral or woody tones into it.”

    Another major shift is the ingredients. “Many old ingredients are not animal-friendly. Amber comes from whales. Musk comes from the scent glands of deers.” Haddad often goes to Old Souk, a traditional market in Dubai, to purchase her ingredients, but they’re vegan now. “For example, I use white musk now, which is synthesized, instead of black musk, which comes from animals.”

    As a perfumer from the younger generation, Haddad balances the boundaries between tradition and modernity while retaining her cultural identity. “I’m so grateful that I learned how to make perfume. It makes me feel I’m a bit more special.”

    Fragrances thread memories, helping Haddad establish links with her past, family, and ancestors. Unlike heirlooms that are tangible, scents are amorphous and ephemeral. For Haddad, preserving this intangible heritage requires extra learning, practice, adaptation, and care.

    During this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Haddad will hold Hand-Blended Fragrance workshops on making bakhoor, scented sachets, and bridal perfumes. Find her and Hiba Haddad in The Workshop.

    Yuer Liu is a writing intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, an  aspiring anthropologist, a traditional Asian puppetry performer, and an undergraduate at Stanford University. Her research interests include material culture, sound art, and multi-species ethnography.

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