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Marriage of Opposites in a Rosewood Perfume:
Swiss Arabian Nouf
I’m not sure I could adequately describe the perfume Nouf, by Swiss Arabian Perfumes, if I didn’t do so by taking some artistic license. In this case (as is often the case), by taking a literary approach rather than a literal one. If this perfume smelled like the desert after the rain, or the inside of a vintage leather handbag, it would be an easier perfume to describe, but Nouf is both as straight-forward and as quirky as the act of writing about perfumes is in itself. Come to think of it, it’s as linear and neat, and as fuzzy and hard-to-pin-down, as the two characters in the story I’m about to introduce you to as a means of analogizing it. And as such, before I say more about Nouf—other than to let you know that it’s a perfume that smells mostly of rosewood (and that “mostly” does not equate with “simply”)—let me tell you about this couple.
They are the young, just-married Indian couple of Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, “This Blessed House” (from her Interpreter of Maladies book of stories, published in 1999), who have just settled into their first home in Connecticut. His name is Sanjeev and hers is Twinkle, and by name alone you can predict which of them takes a Type A approach to life and which one doesn’t. When we meet them, they are sprucing-up their home and getting ready for a housewarming party, an event important to Sanjeev, who has invited some co-workers from his office. Not long after moving into their home, religious relics left behind by the previous owners began turning up in otherwise empty shelves and other odd places, and because these items are also rather kitschy and symbols of a religion they don’t belong to, Sanjeev wants to toss them. Twinkle, however, won’t let him. She views them as found treasures—they are not only amusing to her, but somewhat meaningful—and every time a new one turns up she insists on displaying it on their fireplace mantel, where by this time there is a menagerie of things, including a framed paint-by-number scene of the three wise men on black velvet, a 3-D postcard of Saint Francis, and a kitchen trivet with a picture of Jesus delivering his famous sermon on the mount. Sanjeev finds her display irritating, almost to the point of distressing, and wonders aloud what their guests will think of it. Luckily for him, a period of time passes when no more items turn up—until a week or so before the party, when they find a larger-than-life-sized poster of Jesus rolled up behind a radiator in the guest bedroom. Twinkle won’t let it be thrown out—she promises to keep it in her study where it won’t be seen—and that’s when tension begins to build:
He stood watching her as she left the room, with her poster and her cigarette; a few ashes had fallen to the floor where she’d been standing. He bent down, pinched them between his fingers, and deposited them in his cupped palm.
Sanjeev went to the bathroom to throw away the ashes. The cigarette butt still bobbed in the toilet bowl, but the tank was refilling, so he had to wait a moment before he could flush it again. In the mirror of the medicine cabinet he inspected his long eyelashes – like a girl’s, Twinkle liked to tease. Though he was of average build, his cheeks had a plumpness to them; this, along with the eyelashes, detracted, he feared, from what he hoped was a distinguished profile. He was of average height as well, and had wished ever since he had stopped growing that he were just one inch taller. For this reason it irritated him when Twinkle insisted on wearing high heels, as she had done the other night when they ate dinner in Manhattan. This was the first weekend after they’d moved into the house; by then the mantel had already filled up considerably, and they had bickered about it in the car on the way down. But then Twinkle had drunk four glasses of whiskey in a nameless bar in Alphabet City, and forgot all about it. She dragged him to a tiny bookshop on St. Mark’s Place, where she browsed for nearly an hour, and when they left she insisted that they dance a tango on the sidewalk in front of strangers.†
My sincere thanks to Sigrun (whose ingenious blog I love!!). She purchased Nouf while vacationing in Dubai and kindly decanted some for me.
As is typical of the stories in Lahiri’s book, “This Blessed House” explores the meeting place where alienation and the enticing siren song of the new rub up against one another; the place where Indian expat characters “arrive at a cultural divide” (to borrow a quote from the book’s dust jacket). That’s the pull of these stories, for while I imagine them to be exceptionally poignant for anyone who has embarked on a new life in another country, almost all of us have passed over similar crossroads. In this story Sanjeev is the expat; he’s an engineer who has done well in the States and who could have married any of the potential brides prescreened for him by his mother in India. Instead he has married American-born Twinkle (her real name is Tanima), who is his equal in caste and education but whose spirit reflects her California upbringing. Twinkle’s boho nature is evident in everything she does, from the way she takes a bubble bath—with her blue beauty mask on while holding a cigarette, a glass of bourbon and a thick paperback book of sonnets—to her master’s thesis, “a study of an Irish poet whom Sanjeev had never heard of.” Theirs is a love marriage (albeit one partially arranged by their parents), but is love enough? The story leaves the reader wondering just how certain their future is with its age-old question, Can two whose natures are so different manage to live under the same roof?
Maybe or maybe not—that’s for the reader to ponder. I’d like to believe they can, and that’s probably why I like perfumes such as Nouf, for it seems to beg the same question. Nouf is as yin-yang as the coupling of Sanjeev and Twinkle (not to mention as yin-yang sounding as the perfume house it comes from—Swiss Arabian—which struck me as odd until I read its history at this link). It is a beautiful perfume that needs some sorting out, because there’s not much information on the Internet about it, and what is there is misleading. The company describes it as an aquatic perfume, and if that’s true, all I can say is (thankfully) it does not smell like one. Reading the list of fragrance notes for it, one might then assume it's an amber perfume, as amber is listed in it twice:
Top notes: lemon, grapefruit, bergamot
Middle notes: amber, pepper
Base notes: palisander rosewood, amber, cedar
To my nose, Nouf is not at all ambery, either. It smells predominantly yet complexly like its base note of rosewood—a wood traditionally used to make guitars and, in India, furniture; a wood so-named because it has a sweetly floral nuance to its aroma. From what I’ve read, rosewood is rich in aromatic oils, and what is interesting is that Nouf, too, smells oily: it has a scent that is reminiscent of the spice-infused cooking oils of Indian cuisine, though not enough to render this perfume a gourmand. The predominant smell of this perfume is woody, and the oily-spicy facet imparts a sense of liveliness and energy to the rosewood, such that it vibrates like a sitar. In terms of character, this aspect of Nouf is very much like Twinkle: it pulsates and swirls and makes me feel as if the scent is lifting me up, yet in a dreamy and self-contained way. In other words, the effect is not that of the champagne-like burst of aldehydes, but there is something effervescently feminine about it. I’m not a nose, but I’ll credit this effect to Nouf’s citric top notes, so well integrated they don’t come off as citrusy. Instead, they assume the sweetly uplifting scent of a Meyer lemon gliding over the olfactory surface of the woody fragrance like a furniture polish.
I love perfumes that have a sense of private intoxication about them, and to some degree, Nouf’s self-contained character can be attributed to the note that reminds me of Sanjeev—the rosewood note itself. Not the spicy-lemony-oily component described above, but the sturdier wood smell. Linear, constant and resistant to change, it is masculine leaning (in the way that wood notes typically register to my nose as masculine) without going too far in that direction, but it definitely has an air of the authoritative about it and balances out the feminine aspects of the perfume. If it weren’t attached to everything I listed in the paragraph above, I don’t think I’d care for the perfume, because it would be too stationery, and already when I wear Nouf I have to be in the mood for a perfume that is not going to develop much on the skin. There are days, though, when olfactory constancy is what I seek, and Nouf delivers that beautifully and uniquely, thanks to the way it is attached to its aforementioned element of Twinkle. Also, for as linear as I make this perfume sound, there is actually a surprise that happens in the first few minutes after application: I get a phantom note that smells like spearmint—not a stand-alone spearmint note, but a very pretty drift of it, cool and green and sweetly camphorous—couched in the smell of the rosewood. It lasts only a few minutes, but it never fails to delight me.
In fact, it’s this phantom note that reminds me of “This Blessed House”—firstly, because it’s like a little treasure that shows up, and, secondly, because it reminds me of both Twinkle (her delight in the offbeat and unexpected) and of Sanjeev (who by nature and upbringing is too traditional to appreciate such treasures, but who is wise and grounded enough to accommodate them).
March 20, 2015:
… In truth, Sanjeev did not know what love was, only what he thought it was not. It was not, he had decided, returning to an empty carpeted condominium each night, and using only the top fork in his cutlery drawer, and turning away politely at those weekend dinner parties when the other men eventually put their arms around the waists of their wives and girlfriends, leaning over every now and again to kiss their shoulders or necks. It was not sending away for classical music CDs by mail, working his way methodically through the major composers that the catalogue recommended, and always sending his payments in on time.†
Swiss Arabian Nouf can be purchased at Amazon.com, where a 50-ml bottle is currently sale priced at $37.92. The company has stores in various countries in the Middle East, though not in the US. (By the way, even though I took an Indian theme for my review of this perfume, Nouf is actually an Arabian name that means “the highest point on a mountain,” if my understanding is correct.)
†Excerpted from Interpreter of Maladies, stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, copyright © 1999 by Jhumpa Lahiri, published by Houghton Mifflin Company (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY, 1999, pp. 140 & 147)
Photo titled "Holding Hands" is by Jaci Clark for Kimberly Reed Photography.
Photo of Swiss Arabian Nouf perfume is from Swiss Arabian's merchant page on Amazon.com.
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