Abishag by Ayala Moriel
Abishag, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
Can perfume change your life? And if it does - how?

I can only tell my story, and re-telling it so many years after is a strange way to see how much happened to me since then.

Once upon a time, I was a teenage girl in 11th grade, facing my upcoming mandatory military service and searching for a meaningful and non-violent way to spend those 18 months. I was interviewed for a program in which I would be serving by working with the Archeology Authorities as a tour guide, educator and help with digging in archeological sites around Israel. Practically the whole country is one big archeological site...

My interview with the Archeological Authorities took place in the Museum of Israel in Jerusalem. A wonderful museum that has both ancient artifacts from the never ending archeological digs around the country; as well as contemporary Israeli art, and temporary exhibits of the finest classical and contemporary paintings and sculpture collections that won't embarrass the Louvre and MOMA.
The museums' most cherished collection though is the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are exhibited in a dark cellar beneath a peculiarly shaped architectural sculptures of black-and-white - which I later returned to study as part of the program I was accepted into.

However, on the very day of my interview, there was an exhibit about the cosmetics of ancient times. Flasks of roman glass for treatment oils and fragrant yet primitive perfumes of the time were exhibited alongside jewelry pieces, and little pots for cosmetic unguents were displayed next to tiny metal vessels and wants for kohl.

I wandered the exhibit with Orna, a girl I met at the interviewers' waiting room. Even though we were complete strangers, we became instant BFF and were able to talk about the most intimate stuff that we'd probably never talk to our mothers about, maybe not even our best friends. Weird stuff that only teenagers that only just met would talk about, I suppose. Including that very weird boy that I was head-over-heels in love with, and didn't know what to do about that, because for all I could tell we were "just friends".

We talked and talked and looked at the art and antiques, and suddenly found ourselves in the Muesum's gift shop, where a little vial of perfume caught my eye. I was never quite smitten with perfume, they all smelled very grown-up and foreign to me. And I never worn any, except for a strange camphoreous bottle my aunt gave me and which smelled like an old geisha's perfume (she thought it was eucalyptus oil, but I dabbed it like perfume all through highschool), and a solid perfume pot my grandmother brought me from Greece (filled with imitation AnaisAnais perfume, which smelled better than the original...). I opened the vial and it was intense, strange, and compelling. Not like any "perfumey" perfume I've ever smelled on overdressed ladies in weddings and Bar Mitzvahs... This was something else. It was peculiar. It was revolting yet hauntingly beautiful to my very untrained nose. It reminded me of a certain black bug that flocked the lamps in our village home in the summertime - insect pheromone that smelled like green apple but in a very non-edible, grotesque way. I was not sure I was going to like this perfume, but something about it called me...

Orna was surprisingly encouraging: "Try some on! You have to see how it interacts with your skin". How did a 17 year old girl from Yavne know so much about perfume?! I was not sure I wanted to know... We kept our museum tour, and now I was losing myself in a primitive masks exhibit. The African masks cast a spell on me... And surrounded by the fumes of Abishag, the whole experience was nothing short of mystical. Staring at the masks, and looking through their slanted empty eyes, a portal to another dimension of consciousness....  I was in another place and another time altogether. And I remember exactly what she said: "You're afraid to wear it because that will make you a woman". So I bought that perfume. Not so much because I wanted to be a woman. I probably would have much rather-ed not having to bother with girly puberty, training bras and all the other icky stuff and just play with my four brothers. But it's not like I had a choice in the matter. So I might as well move along with this growing up thing, because by now I already did look like a grown-up woman for 3 years now.

It was through this perfume that I discovered who I was - my skin, my identity, my femininity, my hidden dreams... It gave me the courage to tell that boy that I love him. Although I've never tried to recreate Abishag (and probably never will) - I won't deny that this "Biblical Bouquet" had a profound influence on my aesthetics. Not every 17 years old girl (and especially not in the 90's) would be drawn to a bombshell oriental (which is what Abishag is). And it has influenced my early creations especially, as well as my enthusiastic exploration of vintage Chypres and orientals and turn of the century formulas; as well as researching the fragrances of antiquity and exploring in depth what can be done with these resinous and spicy treasures - frankincense, myrrh, labdanum, galbanum, nard and oudh (one such exploration is fully expressed in my Song of Songs). 

And grow up I did, and fast. I was mature for my age in many ways, and being in the pre-army course, away from home, on some remote field-school on Mt. Giloh sucked. I missed my high-school sweetheart, which was just a clueless genius musician kid who wanted to play grown ups. He proposed to me on that mountain when he came to visit me - and although I did try to talk him out of it, I made the very silly decision to skip the army, move to Tel Aviv, work and go to university and be a grown-up. And we did get married about a year or so later. It was the greatest mistake I have ever made in my life, by the way. Not because I missed the archeological army service (this was only the second year of this program, and all the girls who participated ended up moving to other army roles, because the program was very problematic). It was a mistake because it's really a bad idea to get merge your life with someone else's before you have the slightest clue who you are - and even more so when your husband is even worse-off than you in that area. But in that vial of perfume, which I have worn all throughout my 11th and 12th grade (and till my 2nd miniature bottle ran out - by which time the perfume was discontinued) - lay the clues to many of the poignant emotions of coming of age: first love, discovery of one's own sense of self, and the hidden seed of potential - all the things you might have become if you chose to go by the rules of what most Israeli 18-year-olds do or don't.

For years I was wondering what it would mean to me to meet it again. I've had a special alert set up for it for many years so I can find it (hopefully) on the internet. I knew it won't be the same to meet it again. Would it be like meeting an old lover - stirring some distant memories, but just not feeling the love anymore? Would I be embarrassed about how could I have ever dated such a loser (or worn such a trashy perfume, to refine my analogy)?

Abishag arrived in my mailbox only 2 weeks ago. And although I can only speak from my very personal view of it, tinged only slightly by my current profession - I can tell you that this little vial is a treasure to me. Not because it is some kind of a perfume masterpiece (it really isn't). But because of what it means to me, and it being the key to a lot of information about myself, that only I can access when I smell it.

Its top notes diminished significantly - so the green apple bug pheromone is quite tame now. It's not as similar to the opening of Private Collection as I remember it (I got a hit of the same note when I first smelled that one). The oily, unwashed-scalp aldehyde C-13 is peeking out less subtley than it did when it was fresh. But underneath it is all the resinous musky goodness that I always loved so much about it. And yes, the dry down is just like Parfum Sacre! I guess my olfactory memory is quite reliable - because the similarities and connections I drew to other perfumes I've "met" along my professional (and personal) journey and quest were accurate.

At the same time, it does not surprise me that only very few people are searching for it (and most of them end up talking to me, because I have mentioned it in several interviews and on my blog). I would not say that you have to smell it. I'm only sharing with you the insights and thoughts of a lady re-uniting with he coming-of-age perfume, which just so happened to be a very obscure, limited edition one that can't be found anywhere (it took me 15 years to find this little vial). But you can definitely find a very similar and far easier to find beauty in Parfum Sacre (if you love the spice and musk) or Private Collection (if you want a more green experience of what the top notes used to be). And if you layer them on top of each other, it comes pretty close. And if you want to be even closer (and pay even less) - get a bottle of Softcare baby soapless soap body wash - it's boils down to pretty much the same scent and I've been religiously using it for years exactly for that reason.

So no, don't go searching for it because it would take you many years to find and by then it will be even more "off" than it is now. This was MY quest, because of all the things it meant to me. You should find your own holly grail to look for, your own story, your own dream.

Arabian Perfumery in Al-Kuds (Jerusalem)

Sometimes, our dreams become fulfilled without us knowing it. It happened to me last Saturday, in the ancient city of Jerusalem. I haven’t been to the Muslim quarter of the ancient city since I was a very little girl. In those days, my parents were particularly adventurous and their longings for nature lead us to long trips every Saturday in the mountains, villages and orchards surrounding Jerusalem. They also tried to lead a life style as close as possible to that of the local population, namely the Arab, Druze and Bedwin of the country, who lived there for many years before the Zionist jews re-surfaced from their prolonged exiles. This meant buying in the souk in the Muslim quarters. I remember our expeditions there very clearly, and in particular, the one time when we went there to buy hand-made mattresses, one small one with a yellow cover for me, and a beet coloured double size for my parents. The mattress merchants carried them on their shoulders through the streets, and so did many merchants: the souk was a lively, dynamic scene. You can still see some of this happening now in the ancient city, as well as in Jerusalem’s Shuk Mahane Yehuda (the less ancient souk in the newer part of the city, in Nahlaot – one of the first neighbourhoods that was built out of the walls of Jerusalem when the city became over populated in the late….. DATE!!!). Delivery boys from the many bakeries carry rectangular trays full of pitta, challah and fresh bread, and other goods in the Ancient city. It seems as if they will stop at nothing with what they can carry on their heads, maybe even a live goat!

The souk was always humming and buzzing with activity, crowded with curious and busy people, or those who just got lost in the colourful jungle of abundance. Loud cries of the merchants offering their goods – baklavas, caramelized nuts, nougats and other sweets carted on large round trays (you can see these large-wheeled carts to this day); cold beverages back-packed in a large brass container with little taps – lemonade, tamarind or sous (licorice root drink).

I started my short-lived visit to Ancient Jerusalem this year with two of my brothers and one sister in law. It started innocently and only later on I found myself fulfilling not only one dream, but two, with no intentions or expectations.

First, we had an Harissa/Tishpishti that I managed to acquire using my non-existent Arabic. This Harissa was of a quality that I’ve never tasted before: consisting as always of melt-in-your-mouth semolina crumbs soaked in honey syrup, yet with a raw, animalic aroma of goat dairy. I suspect the butter and buttermilk or milk used in this recipe were indeed from goat’s milk, and it made all the difference. It reminded me ever so slightly efeof knahfeh, but not as violently sheepish in flavour. These ones were decoarated with peanuts rather than the traditional almonds, and this was also an interesting surprise.

We sat at a teahouse in the Christian quarter, and fingered the honey-soaked harissa while smoking apple-scented narguilla (hooka) and sipped the sweet black tea scented with fresh sprigs of spearmint. After a watching the passers by, breaking one hooka and exhausting the capacity of the tobacco to steam and release pleasant aroma – our party split, and only those with any energy left after the long walk and the long relaxing smoke continued on.

We kept walking down the paved and roofed streets, which suddenly became crowded, at the “modern” part of the market. Amongst fabricated brand-name goods, green almonds, fava beans and sour plums in season, piously long women’s kaftans, Fulla dolls (the Muslim culture’s rival of Barbie, which were what I was searching for in that part of the market to begin with) in every colour and costume, I found a little shop that stopped me on my tracks. It was a dark, tiny space, filled with bottles from corner to corner, floor to ceiling. They all had labels with Arabic writing on them, and were designed in more or less the same fashion – like large lab flasks. Some were fuller than others, and the colours of the shimmering juice within them varied in colour from clear to dark, dark brown. Empty bottles were stacked next to each other on another shelf – some were fancy crystal bottles, some were small and some were larer, some roll on and some spray and some were even a fill-it-yourself replicas of Flower by Kenzo...

I stepped in, eager to smell Arabian ouds and musks first and foremost. A similar shop I’ve visited in the Druze village of Yarka just a week before had lots of interesting smells, but oud was not one of them. My bluntness about the oudh and Arabic perfumes surprised the merchant, who expected me to search for a popular dupe of a famous French perfume and even tried to sell me an Angel dupe at certain point. Just as I pocketed my 3 new olfactory acquisitions (which will tell you about at a later time), and was getting ready to take some pictures of Muhammad Qabbani in his shop, a few more customers stepped in and I was trying to get better shots so I stayed longer than I meant to stay. We talked a bit about perfumes and Mr. Qabbani shared some interesting anecdotes about the tradition use of natural musk in Arabic medicine, told us about his studies of ancient Arabic medicine and herbalism, and peaked our curiousity by telling us about perfumes that he is not allowed to sell to single women from fear of making men mad. Before long, our conversation turned into a diagnosis session of traditional mystical Arabian medicine as Mr. Qabbani attempted to read my eyes and suggested an explanation to my daughter’s condition as a possession by a demon (he is a sensitive man, and so he used a delicate language to express his ideas to not scare me completely…). He did so all so innocently and genuine self conviction that it was difficult not to listen to him with an open mind and I must confess my first urge after my conversation with him was to study Arabic ASAP (it’s really high time I do this!) and get acquainted with the Kuran, which by the sound of the CD I heard at his store is a wonderfully long poem that can be soothing to the soul even more than Um Kultum and Billy Holiday put together. And let’s just not forget that some of the Arabs and Muslims, were the greatest alchemists and perfumers, and I believe perfumery today owes quite a bit to them.

Next on SmellyBlog: reviews of the Arabian Perfumes I got in Israel/Palestine.

P.s. I just got back a couple of hours ago from my travels finally, but wasn't able to post this earlier. Hopefully the milder weather of Vancouver will allow me to enjoy the two heavier ones in the bunch.

Roses in Jerusalem

While Jerusalem is renowned for its ancient stones and holy history, it is much less known for its beautiful gardens. It is probably the most well gardened city in Israel, with an abundance of fragrant bushes, shrubs and trees and plenty of flower gardens that will not embarrass a British gardener. Here are just some of the gardens I have seen, all in the neighbourhoods of Yemin Moshe and Nahalat Shiva. The jasmine and pissosporum photos in the following post are also taken in the same gardens.

Olibanum at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The fumes of frankincense reached out to the square before the church, and impregnate the walls and the rocks within. My soul is instantly hypnotized by the smoke – thick yet pure. Despite its richness, inhaling olibanum smoke feels like clearing your lungs. It is known for its powerful influence and its ability to assist in reaching a meditative state of mind. It immediately connects to one’s soul, startling at first like a reminder of one’s deeper self and aspiration, yet soothing, deep and powerfully transformative in a strangely balanced way. I almost got lost forever between the chants of the Koptic priests and the Latin hymns of the Catholic monks accompanied by the dramatic multitude of organ.

Although the Jewish people followed the footsteps of the Egyptians in the art of using incense for holy rituals and communions with God, ever since the ruin of the second temple, most incense burning practices were abandoned. Qetoret, the holy incense of the temple was composed of resins and spices, including olibanum, myrrh, balsam, onycha, cassia, saffron, costus, cinnamon and other aromatic barks. It is strictly forbidden from any other use but inside the temple. Therefore, synagogues are for the most part deprived from the extreme psycho-spiritual satisfaction that results from prolonged inhalation of olibanum fumes or any other incense in most Jewish communities (left for the scent of citron and myrtle in Sukkot and sprigs of fresh herbs that may be used for blessing on Sabbath in some cultures).

Frankincense oil does not have the same powdery, desert-dust-like quality of the resin tears. Rather, it is balsamic, fresh, with some citrus reminiscence. But recently I came across a CO2 extraction of wild frankincense that is rich and intensely similar to the incense. I am very curious to see how much of those qualities will remain after including this oil in a formula. If I am to succeed, I will be lost forever between the chants of the Koptic priests and the Latin hymns of the Catholic monks accompanied by the dramatic multitude of organ.

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