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by Malaka Gharib

On a recent afternoon at Tysons Corner Mall in Virginia, I detected — above the waft of Auntie Anne’s pretzels and the affront of vanilla and eucalyptus from Bath and Body Works — the warm, musky scent of oud. 

I followed it to a shop called Arabian Oud, a retailer I recognized from spending time in the Middle East. I had only ever seen the boutique in high class places: City Stars, a fancy shopping plaza in Cairo, and on Champs-Élysées in Paris. But here it was nestled in a sleepy block of no-name shops, far away from the bustle of J.Crew and Abercrombie.

I asked the salesclerk, who wore a silk kerchief in the pocket of his black suit, for samples. A mist from one green glass bottle smelled like evergreen and sap, a mist from a brown one smelled like chocolate and Turkish coffee, but always, there was that stubborn smell of wood.

Here at this fluorescent-lit mall, in the presence of this sublimated bark, I felt close to my Arab roots. I considered, briefly, whether I should buy the vial of Miss Arabian, not for its fragrance — which was of flowers and musk and not oud — but for its name.

A woman should always have a scent, my mom told me when I was old enough to know. She herself wore Dior’s Diorissimo, highly redolent of jasmine, the name of her sister and the name of my sister. And what, at age 14, would I choose to wear?

I flipped through Seventeen and YM and sniffed the perfume samples tucked between the pages. I settled on Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Gio. I didn’t understand why I needed to have a scent at all until I spritzed it on before school — I felt as cool and fresh as the lady on the beach in the ad. I asked my classmates, who still wore Victoria’s Secret Pear Glace and Axe Body Spray, to smell me. Could they smell my perfume? Did it smell good? Did I look like that lady?

In my 20s, I visited my father in Doha, Qatar, where the trend for khaleeji women that year was to sew velvet epaulets onto the shoulders of their black crepe abayas and rhinestones in a thick stripe down its sleeves. The women favored Jimmy Choo, had pristine French manicures and wore heavy eyeliner to accentuate their glittering eyes. 

In my H&M A-line dress and a denim jacket from the thrift store — an outfit that was considered put-together in Washington, D.C., where I moved to after college — I couldn’t look away. They were noble, majestic, otherworldly. I was ordinary. 

Around the city I would discretely observe them. Groups of sisters and cousins and mothers sashayed past in billowing black clouds, leaving in their trail a heavy, bewitching scent I couldn’t quite place, but felt I had known before.

One day, I followed one of those groups around the mall. They entered Jo Malone, a British perfumery, drifted past the light and floral fragrances of gardenia and freesia and stopped in front of a wall of rectangular black vials. Here were combinations far spicier and wilder than the others, and more popular among the abaya’d women: velvet rose and oud, myrrh and tonka, amber and patchouli. 

A few years later, when my younger sister asked me what I wanted for a wedding present, I said I wanted one of the perfumes I saw the women buy at that shop: a cologne with the scent of oud and bergamot. I marveled at the product description: “precious oud, reframed. The mysterious, smoky character of this revered wood, central to Middle Eastern fragrance traditions, radiates with the clarity of the crisp bergamot and an orange granite accord. Hypnotic. Alluring.” 

It was $250 for one bottle and far too expensive for my sister, who worked as a cashier for Forever 21 at the time. But it was my wedding present, after all, and I felt that it conveyed perfectly to me the kind of woman I aspired to be, just as the description said: mysterious. Middle Eastern. Hypnotic. Alluring. A magical elixir, I thought, that would make me less ordinary. 

To procure oud, also called agarwood, you must go to South Asia, to countries such as Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand, and find the Aquilaria tree. Here, you are looking for wounded parts of the tree, parts that have been bitten by animals or insects, or slashed and gashed by storms and wind, that are then infected with mold and bacteria.

To heal itself, the tree will produce a dark resin, heavier in weight and density and darker in color than the rest of the wood. Workers will cut down the tree and laboriously carve out this resin from the bark. It can take up to two months to extract a few fist-size pieces from a single trunk. 

The most fragrant and potent agarwood is found in the heart of older trees — age 50 or more — in the wild. But only 7 to 10 percent of all Aquilaria trees produce agarwood resin. 

Its rarity is what makes oud so expensive. A kilogram of the wood, at $34,000, is worth more than the cost of gold. For those who choose to wear oud today, it is quite literally a symbol of luxury. 

Sometimes when I look into the mirror, I catch myself closely examining my face. I start with my long, thick eyebrows. Then my nose. My lips. My neck. The mole on my collarbone. My round cheeks. My big eyes. I am searching for the answer to one of my deepest insecurities: Do I look like the half-Arab that I am? 

Growing up, I only spent a few months in the summer with my Egyptian father. It was never enough time, and I longed to boost the presence of his culture in my everyday life, even with something as superficial as my own appearance. In my teens I began accentuating my Arabic features. I darkened my eyebrows with pencil; angled my cheekbones with bronzer. 

And now, I had a smell. Every morning when I spray that $250 oud cologne on my wrists, my chest, my clothes, I feel the personal satisfaction that I might exude something that could convey my Arab heritage just a little bit. In the five years I’ve worn this fragrance, no one has ever commented on it except for one person. He leaned close into my neck as I held my breath, and after a beat, breathed out words I would never forget. I smelled, he said, “intoxicating.” 

At the Arabian Oud shop, the salesclerk demonstrated how the wood is used as incense. With tweezers he took a fingernail-size sliver of oud bark from a glass bowl and placed it atop a lit coal in a golden chalice. At first, the wood produced the pungent smell of smoke, as if we were inside a hookah lounge. That gave way to a clear, regal smell that transformed the shop and surrounding environs into the grand interior of a cathedral.

You burn oud, he said, when you have a guest of honor coming to your house, the kind of guest who would warrant a whole goat or lamb to be served. You put the chalice in the living room and make sure the guest sees it is real oud, not an incense stick. The smell will waft down the hallway and out through the entrance of the house and everyone will know that something special is happening there that day. 

To wear the incense as a perfume, he said, you hover the chalice, burning coals and all, under your veil or robe or inside your jacket — and let the smoke dissolve into the fibers of your clothing. Let it become, he said, a part of you.  

They say that the sense of smell elicits the strongest emotional response. But the truth is, the scent of oud evokes no powerful memories of my time in the Middle East. This is what I feared the most. 

I strained to find the links. In Egypt, we call oud bokhour. I remember smelling it during my childhood summers there, while killing time at the neighborhood mall. Emanating from incense and perfume shops, I never knew what it was. 

At our home in Cairo, we never burned oud, not for any special occasion. And no one in my family wore it as a perfume. Dad smelled like Drakkar Noir, the French cologne popular in the 80s and 90s. Nana and Amito Mona smelled like Fa soap and Ariel laundry powder. 

In fact, if I had to identify what Egypt smelled like, it was exactly this: blackened corn roasting in embers, sold by a street woman for 50 piasters each; uncollected trash and fruit rotting in the desert heat; dust and gasoline pushed upwards by car exhaust fumes; cigarette smoke and cheap perfume; briny cheese and raw beef; and the unbreathable, uninhalable stench of sweat. 

Pollution and humanity, these were the real odors of my father’s country as I knew it. Yet, in an attempt to create an idealized version of our homeland, I had replaced them with oud, something far more superior and refined. It had to be this way, I reasoned, because the scent was representing whatever little connection I had to my Arabic heritage, the thing that was supposed to make me more exotic, more beautiful, more extraordinary. I now understood why I insisted on wearing oud: to place upon me what should be there, yet was not. 

Over the past few decades, the agarwood industry has boomed. It is now worth an estimated $8 billion. Rising demand has fueled the illegal trade of agarwood. Poachers, armed with guns and weapons, are cutting down wild Aquilaria trees across South Asia, even in protected national parks, regardless of whether the precious resin is growing inside. Because so few trees grow agarwood, it is more efficient to cut them all than search for oud-bearing trees one by one. 

Commercial agarwood plantations are now helping to meet some of the demand. Here, Aquilaria trees are purposefully nicked, then artificially infected with bacteria to induce the growth of agarwood, which after five to 10 years, is harvested. But customers say the smell isn’t as intense as what’s in the older trees. So they push the industry to find oud in the wild — regardless if it is illegal. Loggers, seeking huge profits, will do anything to get it — even if it means killing forest rangers who stand in their way.  

Weeks after I visited the Arabian Oud shop at Tysons Corner Mall, the oud samples I had sprayed so enthusiastically on myself had become — as the salesclerk promised — a part of me. I couldn’t get the smell out of the green parka I wore that day. Even when I took the parka off, the scent persisted, as if it somehow embedded into my skin. To make matters worse, the scent had warped. All the layers of depth had vanished — and what was left was both too sweet and too sour. I dreaded wearing my parka that winter. 

The salesclerk had boasted that Arabian Oud was one of the largest manufacturers of oud products in the world. He was right. The Saudi Arabian company has over 900 retailers globally. Its parent company is so rich that in 2019, it bought the luxury department store Barneys for an undisclosed price. (To give you an idea, the previous owners, over a decade before, bought the store for nearly $1 billion.) These details — along with some of the criminal practices that drive the agarwood industry — compelled me to arrive at the conclusion that I could not, in good conscience, continue to wear the fragrance. 

I thought about my sister and her luxurious gift. In my bedroom, I still have half a vial of my oud and bergamot cologne left. It sits on the vanity, on a vintage tray next to my jewelry box, my wedding portrait and other prized things. I braced myself to accept that the oud in the cologne might have been illegally smuggled from South Asia. 

But to my relief, and somewhat to my humiliation, the oud in Jo Malone’s fragrances are not likely from anywhere at all. Most commercially produced oud perfumes are formulated with ingredients that are synthetic — as synthetic as the promise a perfume could transform me into someone who I wasn’t, but desperately longed to be.

Malaka Gharib is an artist and a journalist based in Washington, D.C. She is the author of “I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir,” about being first-generation Filipino Egyptian American. She is a writer and editor on NPR’s science desk. Her artwork — including a comic on the history of pimiento cheese in the Philippines and her mini zines — has been published in The Believer Magazine, Catapult, The Nib, Saveur Magazine, NPR, The Washington City Paper, The Washington Post and The New York Times. She is the founder of the D.C. Art Book Fair and The Runcible Spoon, a zine about food and fantasy. She graduated from Syracuse University with a dual major in magazine journalism and marketing. 

Featured photo courtesy of Malaka Gharib. Author portrait by Ben de la Cruz.