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retread| Fragrance 3 March 2007


Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This guest piece by Baraka was originally posted on 13 August 2006.

What is most amazing is not how our senses span distance or cultures, but how they span time. Our senses connect us intimately with the past, connect us in ways that most of our cherished ideas never could.

Diane Ackerman, “A Natural History of the Senses”

When I first read Ackerman’s book in the early 90s it swept me away with its evocative descriptions & quirky facts. She opened the door to a world in which the five senses came voluptuously to life and spoke of the need to nurture the sensate creature within each of us.

To do so is simple. It doesn’t require a luxurious or expensive lifestyle but it does require a quiet commitment to inviting beauty & nature in on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s as simple as opening the window to let the drenched breeze in, lighting a candle for no occasion but your own solitary delight, or just taking a delicious, deep breath. Some of my favorite memories are of days or nights when each of my senses was fully engaged & I felt completely alive.

Smell is intriguing – the faintest whiff can bring a person or place back in vivid detail. I have small boxes & vials in which fragrant memories reside. In one, crushed roses from a long-ago bouquet. A hand-painted box from Kashmir holds cedar. A glass vial holds musk ‘itr (attar) and another amber. In one carved box, lies a precious sandalwood subha (rosary) which grows more deeply scented the more it is handled in dhikr, in remembrance & praise of God. Each fragrance, strong or faint, is saturated with memory, accessible simply by breathing in.

To this day, the perfume L’air du Temps or spring flowers will bring my grandmother, dead for 23 years, back to me. For a sweet minute she is here, so close that I can hear her dress rustling next to me, feel her wrinkled soft skin, so close my heart might burst with longing. When I open my eyes she is gone, for now.

These days, as images & news from Hajj pour in, one of my favorite memories is brought close. I was performing umrah with my family when we were caught in a rainstorm during tawaf. Subhan-Allah! A rainstorm in the desert like blessings pouring down upon us in tangible form. In any other place in the world people would have ducked for cover, but here they ran out joyously to be drenched, to pray, rain intermingled with tears of gratitude…even the guards succumbed to the seeds of smiles growing & splitting open their stern faces that day.

Any number of things might trigger that memory again: the smell of raindrops hitting the dusty earth in Islamabad; the feel of damp heavy cloth fleetingly like the kiswa beneath my hand; the sight of a pale, washed sky…even a Middle Eastern restaurant brings back the delight of the sidewalk shawarma we feasted on after the rain that day.

Fragrance makes me think of legacies. The Prophet Muhammad (saws) loved cleanliness & fragrance and in a hadith he spoke of the importance of choosing your companions well, for a good companion is like a muskseller from whom you either purchase musk or are imbued with fragrance by due to your proximity.

My grandmother is still with me today because of the extraordinary person she was. She was no armchair Christian, but a devout believer who reached out to those in need, even when she had little to give beyond her smile & presence. She left sheer joy in her wake & in spite of the many years that have passed I miss her wisdom deeply & often. When I rub a few drops of her perfume across my wrist, she is with me as a reminder of how to live with great love and compassion.

I also think about Dr. Zehra Attari, who devoted her life to tending those most despised citizens of this country, the poor, the sick, & the uninsured. She was one of the few physicians to willingly establish a private practice in an impoverished neighborhood where she served almost 800 patients. On the day of her funeral the heavy rain could not drown out the fragrance of her commitment, nor the light in the eyes of the many who loved her & were gathered there.

What a wonderful legacy it is to leave a deep & abiding fragrance in the hearts & memories of those left behind, as a reminder of good times, intentions, and deeds. How beautiful to recall someone with gentle thoughts, to try harder because of their example, & to maintain a scented link to their life well-lived.



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