FIND Summer 2014 Fellow Suheyla Takesh explored the practice of perfuming in the Emirates prior to federal unification, and how this practice evolved and changed over time. As a part of her project, she met and documented the collection of Fatima Ahmead Obaid Zayed Almogani Alnaqbi, or as she is otherwise known, Umm Bassim (the mother of Bassim). This glimpse into Suheyla's project features her story of meeting Umm Bassim and one of 4 sections of her collection: the Scented Beauty Products. To view additional items from Umm Bassim's collection, as well as to view the other related stories from Suheyla's research, view the entire project at www.f-in-d.com/stories/objects-designed-used-studied.
Early on in my search I met Fatima Ahmead Obaid Zayed Almogani Alnaqbi, or as she is otherwise known, Umm Bassim (the mother of Bassim). She was born in Khorfakkan in the late 1950s, and has been devoted to collecting and preserving objects from her immediate surroundings since the age of twelve. Umm Bassim still lives in Khorfakkan despite having a home in Sharjah, saying that traditions are still alive in her eastern coastal town, and communal relations stand strong. She says that until today she knows all her neighbors, and they exchange food and sweets amongst each other with and without occasion. She says that often a neighbor would call out to her, asking what that delicious smell coming from her kitchen window was. She would then of course proceed with sharing whatever dish she was cooking.
Despite being passionate about preserving traditions and maintaining links to her heritage, Fatima Almogani Alnaqbi also recognized the importance of widening one’s horizons early on and was one of the first Emirati women to graduate from the United Arab Emirates University, established in Al Ain in 1976, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Admissions to the university had opened only a year before Umm Bassim’s planned wedding, and as a result she could not enroll along with its first batch of students. However, she proceeded with signing up for a psychology program a few years later, while already being married and having had children. She later went on and enrolled in a master’s program at the same university while already being a grandmother of three, formulating her graduate thesis around the notion of divorce in the emirate of Sharjah.
Umm Bassim’s fascination with collecting domestic objects began with a gift from her grandfather when she was still a young girl. Like most men at the time, her grandfather owned a rifle that he carried with him at all times, and used for hunting and protection. When Fatima was twelve years old, he gave it to her, asking her to keep the rifle safe for him. Shortly after this exchange, her grandfather had passed away, leaving young Fatima feeling like she had been asked not only to preserve the rifle, but to safeguard all heritage and culture of her people. She says she felt that way because out of the fifty people that their household comprised of, her grandfather had chosen precisely her to dedicate the task to.
“There must have been a reason,” she says.
Today, her home is a cluster of pre-1970s material culture, and Fatima is a keen story-teller. She knows every object she owns intimately, and can speak of each one at length. She has dedicated an entire room in her Khorfakkan house to accommodate her collection, and objects are only roughly separated into categories. The very rifle that triggered the emergence of Fatima’s entire collection still hangs on her wall, along with eight others acquired by her throughout later years. As objects from Fatima’s collection were photographed for this project, she conversed with me about the use and significance of each. When it came to objects related to scents and fragrances, I have discovered that items in Fatima’s collection were not all produced before 1971, with some of them being acquired as late as this year. This chronological span allowed me to roughly trace the development and evolution of these products over time.
During one of my visits, Fatima has described to me some aspects of the perfuming tradition in the Emirates, which were already mentioned by Aida Sami Kanafani in her book Aesthetics & Ritual in the United Arab Emirates. Below is a transcribed version of Fatima’s oral account, detailing various ways in which perfuming the self was as much a social activity as it was an act of adornment. The participation of a group was often part of it, and the act of perfuming had communal significance.
Fatima Ahmead Obaid Zayed Almogani Alnaqbi (transcribed and translated from Arabic):
"When we receive guests, for example during a wedding, and especially in a female only setting, bokhour is always part of it and is already present when the guests arrive. As the guests walk in, there are women that have been positioned, holding mabakher (plural of mabkhar) in their hands, which contain coal and oud, so that the guests can perfume themselves. Women can perfume themselves in a number of ways. For example, the mabkhar can be placed under a woman’s sheila (headscarf) on both sides. She could also waft the perfumed smoke onto herself with her hands, or place the mabkhar under her dress. But men only have one way of perfuming themselves in a social setting, which is by placing the mabkhar under their gutra (male headdress) and allowing their clothes to become scented.
“It is also the custom that oud and bokhour are circulated among everyone present in a social gathering from the right to the left. It is considered bad manners to pass it in a circle from left to right. The only exception for a fragrance to be passed to the right first, is if the woman sitting to the right of the hostess is the oldest or the most honored among all other guests. Then, the incense is passed to her first, and after she has finished perfuming herself, the mabkhar makes its way back to the left and is passed from one guest to the next in the customary way.”
"When saying goodbye to the guests after a visit is over, we also pass a mabkhar around. There is a saying, 'Ma ba’ad el-’ūd gu’ūd' - 'After oud, there is no more sitting.' Firing up a mabkhar is a sign that the visit has come to an end. So for example, if Suheyla is visiting me at my home, and I know that Suheyla is planning to have lunch with me, it would be rude of me to offer her perfume. Because if she is offered perfume, it is as though I am cutting her visit short. So if a person is expected to stay for a longer time, bringing out of the oud is pushed until the end of their visit. This is one of our customs.
"Alongside a mabkhar, the hostess also brings out liquid perfumes, so that the ladies can scent their bodies. In the past, only one bottle of perfume would be brought out. Then, in the 70s and 80s of the past century, the idea of a tray was introduced. The perfume tray was very simple and carried four or five bottles of perfume. The tray would be offered to the guests, and each guest would choose which scent they liked. Another way was for the hostess to open all the bottles one by one, and pass them around the circle, while the tray was positioned in the centre.
"One important thing about bokhour is that you don’t give your guest a mabkhar that has already started smelling of burnt wood. After each guest, or after 2 - 3 guests that have perfumed themselves, you should put some new oud into the incense burner. You should not leave the same dokhoun that you have placed in the mabkhar from the beginning and serve it to twenty people. That is because once the incense burns out, it starts smelling like scorched wood. So every once in a while, the bokhour that has been placed in the incense burner should be changed, and new one should be added and added. Sometimes a guest would tell you, 'No, no, this is enough. There is a lot, don’t add anymore.' You should say, 'No, that won’t do,' and proceed with adding more. There is a belief that a burnt-out bokhour can cause disagreements and arguments, for instance within a family, where a husband and wife would quarrel with one another. This is of course only a superstition, and not the truth, but it is a reason for saying to an objecting guest, 'No, no, that won’t do. Let me add some new oud, so that your husband doesn’t get upset with you.' This is how women joke and tease each other.
“Another superstition states that you should not turn the mabkhar upside down, especially if it is made out of wood, because it represents your life being turned upside down from happiness to sorrow.
Men don’t get perfumed with dokhoun (a fragrant mixture). They are perfumed with pure oud (agarwood). This is because they wear white clothes, and the smoke that is released by dokhoun/bokhour is quite dark and can stain their clothes. The fragrant substances that are used to add scent to oud can be yellow or brown in colour, so men only use oud which is pure and has no oils added to it. This oud is imported from Burma or India and it is very very expensive. It is weighed using a unit called 'toll.' So when you go to a shop, you don’t just ask them for oud, you ask them to weigh a tola for you.”
Note: a “tola” is equivalent to an ounce.
All objects in this section are in the private collection of Fatima Ahmead Obaid Zayed Almogani Alnaqbi.
(For the sake of convenience, in all future texts in this section of the project, Fatima Ahmead Obaid Zayed Almogani Alnaqbi will be referred to as F.A.A.)
All dates of production and places of origin of these objects are based on Fatima’s oral recollections.
Photography — Suheyla Takesh (Umm Bassim) and Clint McLean for Suheyla Takesh (Scented Beauty Products)
Text — Suheyla Takesh