Qatar smells great. I knew my first journey to the Middle East was going to be full of delights, and this was one of the first I experienced. Doha’s Hamad International Airport has its own signature scent that greets me as I walk through its terminals. It’s fresh and invigorating—just what I need after a 14-hour flight. I can tell that Qatar knows the value of a first impression.
Fragrance in Qatar is more than just an accessory—it is an essential facet of cultural heritage and identity. Classic European perfumes are coveted here like many luxuries of the Western world. Their influence is clear, but Arab culture has its own inventions and innovations that have shaped the world of fragrance for hundreds of years.
The Middle East is renowned for its generosity. Every action is guided by karam, the ancient art of hospitality. I ask the concierge at The Ned Hotel Doha why the lobby smells so good. He says that it’s to create a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere for guests. He adds that it’s not just luxury hotels making this gesture. Qataris take great care to make their homes smell beautiful for their guests—just as much an act of generosity as a home-cooked meal. This is traditionally done with bokhoor, wood chips soaked in perfume oil and burned. Especially magnanimous hosts will even offer a tray of perfumes just for guests.
Locals take their own personal fragrance especially seriously. A daily ritual includes scented balms and lotions, oils dabbed on the neck and wrists, and finishing sprays to envelop the hair and clothes. Both men and women practice this with pride, and many scent profiles are considered unisex.
Traditional Qatari dress is not meant to express individuality, but you can certainly make a statement with your own fragrance story. Different scents are layered with intention to create unique aromatic profiles. Rarely will someone stick to the same scent combination. Each day is a blank canvas.
Oud is by far the most prolific scent in the region. I know an interpretation of it well from Tom Ford’s famous Oud Wood cologne, so I’m excited to set out and experience the real thing. My first stop is Qatar’s best-known market, Souq Waqif. Roaming these winding streets is a fragrant journey itself as I pass spice vendors and walk through clouds of fruity tobacco from hookah pipes. I lose count at 10 perfume shops before I take the leap and walk into a boutique called Al Awsaj.
The shopkeeper, Jawhar, knows how to guide his customers as hundreds of nearly indistinguishable bottles and jars line the shelves. He’s delighted to show me a treasured piece of agarwood, the origin of oud in its purest form. It’s also the most expensive perfume ingredient in the world, gram-for-gram more expensive than gold. The odor is overwhelming—musky, earthy, and smoky. Its raw form of course smells much stronger than the elegantly finished product.
Jawhar has plenty more to show me. The signature scents from this region are deep and complex: spicy sandalwood, sweet amber, pungent rosewood, earthy myrrh. There is an art to transforming these with contemporary Western scents—something today’s Qatari market craves. Jawhar shows me how grapefruit livens up amber’s musk. And even with its deep complexity, oud has been reimagined with passionfruit by the French perfume house Maison Crivelli. This is an art that feels as nuanced as winemaking. I know I need to trust the experts.
Al Jazeera Perfumes is Qatar’s largest producer and brand. They are not affiliated with the news network of the same name, although they have a substantial presence with almost 20 stores in Doha. Their stores are luxe and so are the products—some
They say scent is the sense most closely tied to memory. My time in Qatar was a beautiful collection of moments defined by the aromas that surrounded them. At home in Canada, I’ll catch a hint of oud in the air and get instantly transported back to the Souq Waqif. Qatar was always going to be a memorable trip, but my exploration into their world of fragrance has made it truly unforgettable.
This article was originally published in No. 31 of Globetrotting Magazine.
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