DRAFT: On Attar of Roses


There is nothing wrong with the shopkeeper’s attar of roses, except that it is not from Oman. The counter is crowded with Yemeni frankincense and bags of Irani saffron. A clay bukhoor in the corner wafts sandalwood smoke; the shopkeeper’s assistant sloughs ash from coals with a spoon. The shop is half the size of my bedroom and packed floor to ceiling: boxes of perfume, green coffee beans, Quran bumper stickers, silver eyeliner wands.  Tarnished daggers with short thick blades hang like Christmas lights along the wall. They are the antithesis of the tiny glass vials which teeter emptily before me, each no bigger than my thumb. Bubbly swirls of colorful smoke decorate their lips. Angled sunlight drifts through their stems, illuminating dust.

Embroidered topis, black charcoal, square necklaces strung with obsolete coins:  like every other stand in the Muttrah souk, this one aims to fulfill all of one’s souvenir needs. We might as well be in Omani Disneyland.

The problem is that the vial of perfume now up for discussion was produced in the UAE. It is Swiss Arabian, a popular brand, and it smells fantastic: like roses and celery, green tea and sea water, blossoms and sunshine and dirt. I have the urge to bring my wrist to my nose again and again. When I get back to Dubai, I think to myself, I will have to get some.

In Oman, though, I want Omani. I want roses grown on Jabal Akhdar, high in the Hajar mountains. I want to peek through to the mountain’s gardens, to hear its splashing falaj.  I want the bottle I buy to remind me, yes, of dates picked in the sun, of blue throated lizards, of women, crouched over, working. “This is from the UAE, right?” I ask. “I was hoping for something from here.”

The shopkeeper does not find my indecision amusing.  A few minutes later, we are back out the door, armed with a box of tiny empty bottles. Each has been sealed in bubble wrap, so as to survive the voyage.  “They’ll make good gifts,” I say to Abdur-Rahman. He does not say anything. “It is probably better to let the sisters pick out their own perfumes anyway.” We wind our way back through the souk’s passages, until we have reached the entrance to the sea. I steal glances at the shops here, lining the opening. Kashmiri kurtas and pashmina shawls; boxes of Chinese jewelry. Laughter sounds from above; a British couple sits on a terrace drinking lemonade. A sign hanging on their balcony’s rail advertises biryani.

Is anyone here from Oman? I wait peevishly on the curb while Abdur-Rahman buys Vimto over ice. “We loved it when we were kids,” he offers me some. It is dark and sweet but not refreshing. I let my wrist linger near my nose. It is almost time to be going. We retrace our steps along the cornice, past mannequins wearing niqab.

Back in the car, Yahya is waiting. Abdur-Rahman slides into the front seat beside him; Isra is buckled beside me. The men begin chatting in soft Arabic; phrases drift into the backseat. Osama Bin Laden, the United States, Pakistan, the army. Half-understanding does nothing to improve my mood so I look out the window. Where have all the cars come from?  To where is everyone rushing?

I remember a Bob Marley poster printed in sepia, once hung in Jinevra’s dorm room. In it the singer is smiling. His head is tilted happily, his collar unbuttoned, his teeth are bright. The lyrics from Exodus are printed below: We know where we’re going,  we know where we’re from.  Is that so, I want to ask my fellow passengers along the Seeb highway.


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