Perfume Sellers and Shops in Literature


So, when the eager Mozabite merchants called to her she did not heed them, and even the busy patter of the informing Batouch fell upon rather listless ears.
"I sha'n't stay here," she said to him. "But I'll buy some perfumes. Where can I get them?"
A thin youth, brooding above a wooden tray close by, held up in his delicate fingers a long bottle, sealed and furnished with a tiny label, but Batouch shook his head.
"For perfumes you must go to Ahmeda, under the arcade."
They crossed a sunlit space and stood before a dark room, sunk lightly below the level of the pathway in a deserted corner. Shadows congregated here, and in the gloom Domini saw a bent white figure hunched against the blackened wall, and heard an old voice murmuring like a drowsy bee. The perfume-seller was immersed in the Koran, his back to the buying world. Batouch was about to call upon him, when Domini checked the exclamation with a quick gesture. For the first time the mystery that coils like a great black serpent in the shining heart of the East startled and fascinated her, a mystery in which indifference and devotion mingle. The white figure swayed slowly to and fro, carrying the dull, humming voice with it, and now she seemed to hear a far-away fanaticism, the bourdon of a fatalism which she longed to understand. "Ahmeda!"
Batouch shouted. His voice came like a stone from a catapult. The merchant turned calmly and without haste, showing an aquiline face covered with wrinkles, tufted with white hairs, lit by eyes that shone with the cruel expressiveness of a falcon's. After a short colloquy in Arabic he raised himself from his haunches, and came to the front of the room, where there was a small wooden counter. He was smiling now with a grace that was almost feminine.
"What perfume does Madame desire?" he said in French.
Domini gazed at him as at a deep mystery, but with the searching directness characteristic of her, a fearlessness so absolute that it embarrassed many people.
"Please give me something that is of the East—not violets, not lilac."
"Amber," said Batouch.
The merchant, still smiling, reached up to a shelf, showing an arm like a brown twig, and took down a glass bottle covered with red and green lines. He removed the stopper, made Domini take off her glove, touched her bare hand with the stopper, then with his forefinger gently rubbed the drop of perfume which had settled on her skin till it was slightly red.
"Now, smell it," he commanded.
Domini obeyed. The perfume was faintly medicinal, but it filled her brain with exotic visions. She shut her eyes. Yes, that was a voice of Africa too. Oh! how far away she was from her old life and hollow days. The magic carpet had been spread indeed, and she had been wafted into a strange land where she had all to learn.
"Please give me some of that," she said.
The merchant poured the amber into a phial, where it lay like a thread in the glass, weighed it in a scales and demanded a price. Batouch began at once to argue with vehemence, but Domini stopped him.
"Pay him," she said, giving Batouch her purse.
The perfume-seller took the money with dignity, turned away, squatted upon his haunches against the blackened wall, and picked up the broad-leaved volume which lay upon the floor. He swayed gently and rhythmically to and fro. Then once more the voice of the drowsy bee hummed in the shadows. The worshipper and the Prophet stood before the feet of Allah.
The Garden of Allah
 By Robert Smythe Hichens-1905

THE Souk-el-Attarin, the Souk of Perfumes. 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 stand sacks and baskets of dried leaves from aromatio 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 proprietor 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 incantations. 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 evanescent, 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 monuments on the shores of the Baltic, ventured forth in their frail boats beyond the pillars of Melcarth, whom the Greeks called Hercules. A wildlooking 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, innocent, 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 harmless," 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 Mediterranean. When the Roman legionaries bivouacked 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 construct 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 blaok oily paste. A loathly odour of musk, so concentrated 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 interest 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 Moloeh, 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 reciting 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 purchases and go. The holy one's hand is outstretched. 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.
Barbary: The Romance of the Nearest East--1921