There was a time in Arabia, when frankincense (Arabic: liban ) was more expensive than gold. Until today, the price of agarwood (Arabic: oud ) used in incense burners of the region can go up to AED 20,000 for 100 grams.
It is believed that plant-derived smoke started being used by humans over 1.6 million years ago, shortly after our ancestors acquired the skill of making and controlling fire. Such smoke was used for medicinal purposes, magico-religious ceremonies, food flavoring, and as a hallucinogen. It was also used as perfume for scenting one’s body, clothes and surroundings (Pennacchio, Jefferson, Haven, 2010). In many cultures perfuming the self was as much a social activity as it was an act of adornment. The participation of a group was essential, and the act of perfuming had communal significance.
My research led me to come across objects like incense burners, metal fragrance containers, scented water dispensers and aromatic gums and powders that existed in the Emirates prior to the states’ federal unification. Some components necessary for a perfuming ritual were produced locally, such as clay censers crafted in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah. Others, like metalwork, scented oils and fragrant spices were imported from India, Oman, Burma and Persia. India was famous for its saffron, as well as its silver and brass rose-water sprinklers. Oman gained the name ‘Land of the Frankincense’ (Arabic: Ardh Al-liban ) for its extensive production of the aromatic resin. Burma was a source of premium quality agarwood.
These objects sparked my interest in the practice of scenting one’s body and clothes that pertained specifically to the Emirates. Last week I had a chat with Fatima Almogani Alnaqbi about bokhour and traditional ways of incense burning within the Emirati society. Below is a transcribed version of her oral account, as well as definitions of a few distinctive words she used in her speech.
oud - agarwood, which often is an ingredient of bokhour/dokhoun
bokhour - wood-chips soaked in fragrant oils, that are burnt in a mabkhar
dokhoun - a fragrant mixture or incense that is burnt in a mabkhar
mabkhar - an incense burner typically made of clay, resembling a cup
Fatima Ahmead Obaid Zayed Almogani Alnaqbi speaks of the Emirati perfuming tradition (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.
The hostess also cannot present the mabkhar to her guests with her left hand. The Emirati society, being an Islamic society, does not favor the left hand for interacting with others. For instance, you cannot greet people with your left hand, you cannot eat with your left hand, you cannot introduce people to one another with your left hand. Greeting should be done with the right hand, as should holding a mabkhar , or serving a guest some coffee. We Muslims are a society that favors the right. So we hold a mabkhar with our right hand, and place the oud or bokhour within it with our left.
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 will have lunch with me, it would be bad mannered of me to offer her perfume. Why? 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.
And 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 is that you should not turn the mabkhar upside down, especially a wooden one, 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 ‘tola’. So when you go to a shop, you don’t just ask them for oud , you ask them to weigh a tola for you.”