Fragrance in Travel Literature-Tunisia




Tunisia A Personal View Of A Timeless Land
John Anthony



If I were to choose a single image to represent Tunisia like
those figures of popular iconography, John Bull, Uncle Sam,
or Marianne I would choose one of the veiled women of
Tunis. Morocco is a land of harsh, castellated mountains
guarded by a race of warriors. Algeria is a no-nonsense country
of farms, mines, and banks ; your average Algerian is a business-
man or farmer who can become a guerilla when pressed.
Tunisia by contrast is feminine : the landscape horizontal with
gradual transitions and soft, swelling shores, the climate mild
and slightly enervating, the blue-green sea, the pervasive scent
of jasmine and orange blossoms, the husky plaintive voice of
an Andalusian song. The temperament of the people is gay,
evanescent, tender not fierce like that of Moroccans, nor
stolid like Algerians. Tunisians have what the Arabs call
'light blood' and the French have termed 'la douceur arabe.'
But Tunisia can also be dangerous : magic and witchcraft are
prevalent, precautions must be taken against the evil eye,
murders are committed for enigmatic reasons of jealousy,
honour, or revenge.

There are people who charge everything they touch with
excitement: nothing to them is neutral, everything loved or
hated, prized or rejected, for or against, enchanting or mon-
strous. Vee and Jay had this power. They placed a high value
on every ingredient of their lives, and because of this, every-
thing became uniquely valuable. I had visited their house once
or twice before. The shell was as simple and satisfactory as an
egg's : two hollow squares set side by side with an open court
in the centre of each. The walls were bare and undecorated,
the ceilings vaulted, the whole whitewashed inside and out.
Against this plain and lovely background, English walnut
furniture, Venetian gilt mirrors, marble tables, a T'ang horse,
Victorian knicknacks, lamps and vases by Giacometti, African
shields and masks, and everywhere fragments of Greece and
Rome lived together in perfect harmony. The white walls and
high ceilings allowed every object its own value and modu-
lated their contrasts and discrepancies into a quiet discourse,
spiked with occasional epigrams, on the vagaries of taste.
Dominating everything in profusion were flowers and leaves,
grown in the garden and brought lovingly indoors to be dis-
played like precious jewels, in blazing fountains of spray, cor-
nucopias of colour, basins of heady or subtle scent, or some-
times just a rare and perfect bloom.

The gardens of Hammamet are known on both sides of the
Mediterranean, and Vee and Jay's was one of the finest. French
visitors used to exclaim, "C'est le paradis terrestre I * ' and searchers
for an English phrase usually came up with " a garden of Eden."
It was the only image that sufficed. After the sunstruck land-
scape and metallic road from Tunis, the green shadows, the
scent of lemon blossoms, jasmine, and broom, the blessed sight
and sound of water all struck with the poignancy of some-
thing refound.

First of all, it is a working garden : there are chickens among
the peacocks and beehives near the roses. Strawberries, salads,
and Jerusalem artichokes come out of the kitchen garden. At
harvest time, families of bedouin perch in the branches picking
fruit, and crates of yellow-green lemons or purple-green olives
block the paths. Against this utilitarian background, nature
has been encouraged to compose her rarest poetry. Cypress
trees stand stiff as black-suited grandees wreathed in jasmine or
trumpet flowers. A grove of bamboo trails green feather across
a path. Hibiscus blow red trumpets in the shade, and poin-
settias brandish handfuls of red or pink stars. Lotus and water
lilies rise, pink as sunrise over the Ganges, blue as twilight on
the Nile, from still pools. The air at day is scented with ver-
bena, pinks, sweet geraniums, and mint ; at night the creamy
horns of datura, limp in the sunlight, rise and impregnate the
dark with rapturous perfume. The garden blossoms in metal
and stone : a twisted black column veiled in clematis, a marble
sarcophagus holding a resurrection of bulbs, freesias drooping
from a pair of bronze urns, and some battered heads and limbs
that do nothing, but simply are, like the flowers and leaves.

Near the city you pass through a smaller semi-circular belt of
almonds, pomegranates, aromatic plants and flowers, which
Sfax puts to commercial use too. But still the olive is king:
storehouses and presses crowd the road, and the air is lubricated
with the heavy, sour smell of olive oil. Some of the oil of
Sfax is pure and delicious, but the industry does not rely on the
table alone. The stones are pressed again and again to obtain
the thick, evil-smelling stuff that goes into soap, lubricants, and
God knows what other miracles of science. The roads near the
city are animated with bicycles, camels, trucks, donkeys, and
people. At the presses, camels and trucks jostle anachronistically
to deliver their loads. The fruit is placed in flat, beret-shaped
mats woven in the villages, and then into imported machinery
of dazzling modernity.

Travels in Tunisia; with a glossary, a map, a bibliography, and fifty illustrations (1887)
Graham, Alexander, F.R.I.B.A; Ashbee, Henry Spencer


The perfumers of Tunis are altogether a superior
class ; they are richer, better educated (they may fre-
quently be found reading), more richly dressed than their
compeers ; and their shops, if smaller, are better appointed,
and arranged with more care, taste, and luxury. Each
perfumery shop is a picture in itself. The merchant
squats in the centre of his small aperture, framed, as it
were, by his wares ; his bottles and packets to right and
left, festoons of coloured candles assuming the shape of a
Fatima hand above his head, and bowls of henna and
native spices on each side of his little counter. This is
known as the Souk-el-Attarin, and is perhaps more
picturesque than the others, owing partly to the cross
perspective of a line of arches with painted shafts of red,
and green, and white, and to the scenic effect produced
by the accidental position of a series of small apertures in
the roughly constructed roof. Many of the shopkeepers
in this bazaar can trace their descent from the great
Moorish families of Seville and Granada. It is a pretty
legend that the keys of their Spanish homes are still pre-
served, and are handed down from father to son, in the
hope that the dwellings of their great ancestors may one
day be restored to them.

Coffee-houses are to be found everywhere, and are
much frequented in Tunis, as in Paris. They are gene-
rally large, square chambers, whitewashed and unde-
corated, around which are constructed rough stone or
earthen benches, covered with matting ; on these the
customers sit, or He, sipping their coffee and lemonade,
and playing cards or dominoes. In one corner is a small
stove, where the coffee is made, and its preparation is in
this wise : The attendant takes several small tin pots
with long handles, and puts into each pot a portion of
sugar and fresh -roasted coffee, upon which he pours
water almost boiling. Then, pushing the pots into live
wood embers in an earthen bowl, and holding them there
till the contents are on the point of boiling, he removes
them simultaneously with his right hand. Then, with-
out putting any of them down, and with a turn of the
hand, he pours the coffee into as many cups, which he
holds in his left hand, and without spilling a single drop.
The cups are without handles, and are served inside
other cups to prevent burning the fingers. The dexterity
with which the pouring out is performed is worthy of note.
The coffee, delicious in flavour and retaining the full aroma
of the berry, is apt to be thick. One has to wait until it is
almost cold before it can be drunk.

After passing through a forest of magnificent cork
trees and oaks the track skirted the Guerra el-Hout, or
Lake of Fish, at that time of the year a sheet of water, but
in the summer months converted into a marsh of a pesti-
lential nature. Beyond are some valuable lead mines
worked by an English company, and near here a lower
road branches off to the right by way of the Col de
Babouch to Ain-Draham ; an upper one that we followed
proceeding in a north-easterly direction through a
mountainous country, embracing some of the finest
scenery in Tunisia. Hill and dale here succeed each
other, clothed with wild luxuriance of vegetation ; a
jungle of brushwood and myrtle, rose-laurels and heath,
narcissus and daffodil, and wild herbs, sweet to the smell
and agreeable to the eye. After passing the frontier
some ten miles from La Calle the road turned north-
ward and approached the coast line. A few miles
further a white speck near the long stretch of indented
shore marked the little island of Tabarca, rising some
400 feet above the sea-level and crowned by its weird
castle, outlined sharply against the clear sky. After
nearly eight hours in the saddle, the heat of midday
preventing rapid locomotion, the small military station
at Tabarca, on rising ground above the town, was
reached by a zigzag path, and then, descending the hill
on the other side, we drew up at an isolated cottage,
dignified by the name of the Hotel Tiret.

Chips from Tunis : a glimpse of Arab life
Patteson, Barbe


On New Year's Day I carried them little pre-
sents, which pleased them very much, and they
greatly appreciated some Christmas cards which
Mr. Dick and I had received. I went regularly
two or three times a week for my lesson, and at last
mastered the difficulty. On one occasion I saw on
the landing-place of the first storey a pretty young
creature dressed very like a columbine, who made
signs to Mrs. Dick and me to go upstairs. This
was Fatima, the wife of the eldest son ; she is very
lively and pleasant, and has three sweet little girls.
Before leaving, she took out some strong perfume
and rubbed it over our hair and faces ; the scent
remained quite strong for weeks on my veil, which
I carried to the perfumery Souk, where it was pro-
nounced by a grave Moor to be Schnooda, a per-
fume to be found in all Arabian houses. Lalla
Fatima showed us her smart clothes for fete days,
as Lalla Raschid had also kindly done, and most
lovely they were, velvet jackets embroidered heavily
in gold, with trousers to match, and the usual
pointed cone-like cap with long streamers, also
worked in gold and silver. The Arab ladies de-
light in going to the baths, and this is their prin-
cipal recreation, as they meet their friends there,
but they are always accompanied by an old woman «
who acts as duenna.

Our visits to the Souk for perfumery were
frequent, and I made friends with one of the
Moors, who sold attar of roses, Schnooda, and
other delightful perfumes. Whenever I passed he
called loudly, " Viens, madame, viens," as they
always speak in the second person ; and even if I
did not buy any thing, he always asked for my
handkerchief, and perfumed it with attar of roses.

Among the different branches of commerce at
Tunis is that of perfumery, and especially the attar
of rose so highly appreciated in Europe. It is
commonly supposed that the purest quality comes
from Tunis, but much of this precious essence is
sent here from Constantinople and other parts of
Turkey, and is prepared for exportation. The word
" attar " has often puzzled me, but it seems that its
literal meaning is " druggist," " rottr attary " mean-
ing u pound of the druggist," therefore, essence of
roses seems the more correct term in speaking of
this delicious scent.

It is always more or less falsified, for otherwise
few persons could buy it, as it costs from £120 to
^"140 sterling for a pint, and it takes 4,000 lbs. of
rose leaves to make this quantity. After the
distillation quantities of good rose water are made
with the same leaves. In order to judge of its
purity, amateurs can employ the following test.
Place a drop of the essence on a piece of white
paper, and put it near the fire : if the liquid
evaporates quickly, leaving no mark on the paper,
the essence may be considered perfectly pure ; but
if a spot remains, it has been mixed with some
other essence, probably geranium, which is often
used with it. It is more expensive at Tunis than
at Constantinople. The red rose is most generally
used, but there is a species of white rose, called
"nessery," which produces a still more precious
essence ; it is very rare, and costs double the price
of the former ; but it would be impossible for
lovers of perfumes to procure a more exquisite
scent than that of nessery, and some of the rich
Moors have it distilled in their houses for their
own use.

Large quantities of orange-flower water are
also made, which can be bought at a very reason-
able price, varying from year to year, according to
the orange-flower harvest.

The pure essence of jessamine is as expensive
as that of nessery, as it takes so many flowers to
furnish a very small quantity of essential oil. It is
a favourite flower with the Arabs, who mount the
blossoms on little reeds, and put them behind their
ears, so as to fall upon the cheek ; they also make
curious little bouquets of them mixed with pieces
of gold paper.

Barbary : the romance of the nearest East 1921
Scott, A. Maccallum (Alexander Maccallum), 1874-1925


THE Souk-el-Attarin, the Souk of Per-
fumes. No need to be told its name.
The very air whispers it. Here are
attar of roses, jasmine, amber, and many other
concentrated essences which might make sweet
all the vileness of earth. Before some of the
shops sta,nd sacks and baskets of dried leaves from
aromatic shrubs and herbs, whole leaves and
leaves ground to powder, incense for worshippers
in the Mosque opposite, or henna with which the
native beauties redden their hair and the palms
of their hands and the soles of their feet. There
is a profuse display of seven-branched candles
and of the familiar long, stick-shaped bottles in
which the perfumes of the East come West.

The perfume-seller is the aristocrat of the
Tunis Souks. The Souk-el-Attarin commands
the approach to all the other Souks. Its little
cave-like shops are on an ampler scale, and have
a more lavish display. They alone are furnished
with cushioned divans on which customers may
sit while selecting their purchases. There is a
tradition that in the old days rich Arabs who
wished to conceal their wealth from extortionate
Beys used to hire a shop in this Souk in order
to make a pretence of being poor tradesmen.

An air of spacious leisure and condescending
ease still pervades the place. Each little den is
more like a shrine than a shop, and the pro-
prietor is the officiating priest.

An Arab friend whom I met at Batna had
recommended me to seek out Hadji Mohammed
Tabet in his shop at No. 37, Souk-el- Attarin.
He is a famous man in his craft, and he bears the
title of Hadji by virtue of having made the
pilgrimage to Mecca. He welcomes us with
urbanity. He is fat and jolly and his smile is
a cure for the doldrums. We sit round on
cushions while he takes his place behind a little
table like a magician about to begin his incan-
tations. Coffee is ordered, thick, sweet, and
fragrant. There is a touch of incense in the
air. We are surrounded by bottles of exquisitely
coloured liquids, and by glass jars full of rare
gums, resins, aromatic woods and leaves, and
tiny pastilles for burning. It recalls the chapter
in Flaubert's great epic of the senses wherein
Salambo ascends to the roof-terrace of her
father's palace at Carthage to invoke the moon
goddess, and long perfuming pans filled with
nard, incense, cinnamomum, and myrrh are
kindled by slaves.

And now the Perfume Wizard begins to
practise his art upon the olfactory nerves and
to run through the gamut of the sense of smell.
His wares are not the ordinary scents dissolved
in volatile spirit with which we are familiar, but
concentrated quintessences the most delicate
touch of which is sufficient to confer a lasting
perfume. To use a drop is to squander with
prodigality. Hadji Tabet withdraws a stopper
from a crystal phial and gently passes it across
a fur collar, or a muff, or the back of a glove,
and the fragrance lasts for days.

First amber, sweet, ambrosial, exciting, the
lure of the adventurer, the song of the endless
quest, the double-distilled spirit of pine forests
a geological epoch ago. Try it on a cigarette
just touch the paper with the stopper and inhale.
Ah ! Dizzy ! Dizzy ! A moment of vertigo. Did
the room swim ? A memory, swift and evan-
escent, of summer seas in the North, and golden
sand, and birch trees like fountains of green
spray. Did it last a moment or a million years ?
For this the Phoenicians, and their unknown
precursors who have left their megalithic monu-
ments on the shores of the Baltic, ventured forth
in their frail boats beyond the pillars of Melcarth,
whom the Greeks called Hercules. A wild-
looking scarecrow, a holy beggar from the gates
of the mosque, with uncombed hair and tattered
rags, is whining at the door of the shop. Hadji
Tabet gives him a coin.

Another stopper. It is jasmine, sweet with
the sweetness of wild honey, the spirit of the
woods, of the dryad among the reeds, and of the
cool shadows and the noontide rest. Happy
girlhood. Then orange blossom, tender, inno-
cent, virginal the breath of brides' adorning.
Try this attar roses, roses, rapture and languor,
a call from the land of the lotus-eaters. No
longer the sweet freshness of the woods, but the
closeness of the alcove. And here are others,
the scents of the harem, narcissus and lily of
the valley, seductive and alluring, drugging the
mind like a love-philtre, and musk for intrigue,
and the secret perfume that steals away men's
senses.

The ragged fanatic has not departed with his
coin. He has crept into the outer shop and is
sitting on the floor, his eyes staring fiercely
through his matted hair. He sniffs the air and
his nostrils twitch. What can these delicate
odours signify to such as he ? " Do not mind
him," says Hadji Tabet. " He is quite harm-
less," tapping his head. " Allah has visited him
and he is sacred. He loves some of my perfumes
not these, but incense and such like."

Another stopper. It is like an organ-player
pulling out another stop in an oratorio of perfume.
He releases the scents of the open air, the balsams
which the sun distils from the forests of pine,
and cypress, and cedar, and myrtle, and throws
broadcast on the wind. It is the air the hunter
breathes in Spring in the passes of the Aures
Mountains, from which one can look out over
the Desert far below, as over a sea of sand, or
from the slopes of the Djurdjura, whence one
can survey the broad blue expanse of the Mediter-
ranean. When the Roman legionaries bivou'
a,cked after a day's march on the frontier, and
stretched themselves at ease beside the fire, the
spurting tendrils of smoke from the cedar-logs
scented the night. It is the call of the wild, the
lure of adventure. Women do not love these
scents. They draw a man away from the soft
delights of domesticity.

The sense of smell is the sense most closely
associated with memory. It can recreate a
vanished vision in the mind's eye. Its seat is
nearest to the brain, and at the vibration of the
olfactory nerves emotions glow again among the
embers of the past and thoughts long buried
come to the surface. Just as we may con-
struct a drama of music or pictures, so we may
construct a drama of perfumes, a drama of
memories. The Perfume Wizard, like the Witch
of Endor, can make a man read his own heart by
calling up the past before him.

Hadji Tabet discourses on the qualities of his
perfumes and the preferences of his clients.
The ladies of the harem prefer rose, jasmine,
narcissus, muguet (lily of the valley), and
musk musk especially, " because it makes itself
felt a long way off." Amber is the scent for a
man, a bold, adventurous man who fears nothing.
The soldier is content with geranium, " because
it is cheap." Parfum du Bey, a composite
essence, is the royal scent, the perquisite of
kings, the privilege of the wise, the rich, and
the great, who are honoured by the Bey. For
the priest, for the holy man, there is incense.
And here is something in a buffalo horn, a black
oily paste. A loathly odour of musk, so con-
centrated and powerful that it is nauseous, fills
the little room. It is civet the unguent exuded
from the skin of the wild cat under torture, the
perfume for Black Magic, a potent essence much
sought after by the tribes of the Desert and the
negresses of the South.

The holy beggar displays a most unholy in-
terest in this horn of Satanic pomatum. He is
whining and stretching out his talon-like hands
for it. The Wizard speaks sharply to him in
Arabic and he subsides again on the floor,
muttering what sounds like imprecations,


" What is he saying ? " we ask, looking at him
askance. " I do not know. It is not Arabic.
He understands Arabic and he can recite long
passages from the Koran. But he speaks some
obscure native dialect. There are ancient
tongues, older than the Roman, still spoken by
tribes in the mountains and in the Desert beyond."

Again Hadji Tabet removes a stopper. Ah,
it is not a perfume, it is a drug. It excites, it
maddens, it compels. It is the voice of the
Sirens. The beggar on the floor is telling his
beads. No wonder Ulysses had his sailors bind
him with ropes to the mast till he was past that
danger.

A brasier of charcoal is produced and a small
portion of dark-coloured resinous wood is placed
upon the glowing ash. A column of smoke rises
and spreads out from the roof, gradually filling
the room. It is incantation a magic rite.
Through the reek the ample form of Hadji
Tabet looms larger, like a Djinn rising from the
earth. We are oppressed by a sense of danger,
a terror of the unknown. The blood rushes to
the head and sings in the ears. What is that ?
The beggar squatting on the floor is swaying his
body violently to and fro, beating a weird
rhythm on some instrument like a tom-tom.
Was that a jangling of cymbals and a shrill
screeching of stringed and wind instruments ?
The buzzing in our ears increases. It is like a
telephone which has been cut off and in which
the wire is still alive. Strange sounds can be
heard coming out of limbo. Hark ! The ecstatic
cries of the priests gashing themselves with
knives before the image of Moloch, heated red-
hot by the furnace within, the shrieks of the
children as they pass into the flames, the wailing
of the mothers, the murmur of the crowd.
" Hear us, O Baal." We have had a glimpse
into the dark places of the earth.

Another stick is flung upon the brasier and a
different smoke arises. It is incense. It clears
the mind. It calms and reassures. This is the
perfume of adoration, supplication, aspiration.
Let the world be shut out, and let us sink slowly
into Nirvana. The holy one on the floor is recit-
ing monotonously long passages from the Koran,
or perhaps it is only the same sentence repeated
over and over again. " There is no God but
Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet."

Hadji Tabet sits smiling placidly behind his
table spraying something into the air. It is
verbena, a clean scent, sharp, slightly acid,
fresh, pungent, and reviving. It clears the
brain of vapours and mists and mad fancies, and
braces the nerves like a call to action. Have we
been dreaming ? It is time to make our pur-
chases and go. The holy one's hand is out-
stretched. We pass him some small coins. He
conceals them hurriedly in his rags without a
word of thanks. Hadji Tabet offers him some
morsels of incense. He grasps them eagerly,
kisses the hand of the donor, and shambles off
in the direction of the mosque.

It was a warm day in February when we
made the ascent. The afternoon sun beat
strongly upon us until we had rounded Eastwards
into the shadow of the peak itself, and we were
glad of the shade of the Aleppo pines with
which the lower slopes were clad. Beyond the
pines there is a thick growth of dwarf cypress,
with occasional bushes of myrtle, reaching to
the summit. The warm air was fragrant with
their aromatic essences. The mountain, en-
veloped by the sun in this aura of incense, well
deserves the name of " The Scented Mountain."
A profusion of wild flowers decked the sides of
the path, white and pink and mauve begonias,
daisies nearly as large as marguerites, large
heath bells, wild clematis with pale greenish
white blossoms, and unknown little flowers of
turquoise and cornflower blue. Bees were hum-
ming, richly coloured butterflies were flitting
about, and here and there a stray dragon-fly.
In the orchards at the foot of the mountain the
almonds were in full blossom, and the bursting
leaf-buds of trees that shed their foliage in winter
had begun to clothe the naked branches in sprays
of delicate and tender green. The scents, the
colours, the warmth of spring, were in the air.

The road from Algiers to Tipasa lies along the
coast, at first amid market gardens, and then
amid vineyards, and through numerous prosper-
ous little coastal villages, an ideal motor run of
fifty miles. The sun in January beats hot and
strong, and there are golden oranges and lemons
hanging on the garden trees, but the air has a
tang in it. It is a tonic air, like the strong clear
wine of the country. The approach to Tipasa
is picturesque. The low hills running down
close to the shore are clad in eucalyptus, pine,
and scrub cedar, scenting the air with their
aromatic essences. The Mediterranean, a sheet
of vivid green and blue in the distance, laps the
shore in clear shining ripples without a stain in
them. The purple profile of Chenoua in the
background forms a classic background that
suggests the epic age of Greece, and the youth
of the world. There on the shore is a solitary
pillar ; there in a field are some massive hewn
stones. In a flash we are through the trim street
of the modern village, laid out with French
mathematical exactitude, past some enormous
shattered walls and vaults of Roman brick, and
pull up at the excellent little Hotel du Rivage.