Here’s something I can’t capture in the blog: People around here smell WONDERFUL. Fragrance is a big deal in Arabian culture, and there’s a smell about the place that hits you the instant you step off the plane. (Or maybe when you get on the plane, depending on the ethnic makeup of your fellow travelers.) Most of the time, that’s oud, which comes from a resinous hardwood known as agarwood, which is burnt in incense burners that look like this:
In general. That’s a fancy-pants presidential gift in the Nixon library, but the shape and style are pretty common. They come in all sizes, from little tabletop ones to freestanding models that reach your ribs. The burned oud gives off a sweet-smelling smoke that men use to scent their clothes and beards so that it just sort of floats around them, or that scents the room. Sometimes overwhelmingly, to Western tastes, but I do like it.
Perfume is also big. There are perfume stands everywhere, up to and including the entrance to one of the supermarkets where I go, with custom blends you choose and have bottled for you. I keep meaning to go home with pretty perfumes for gifts, but…you know. Choosing perfume for somebody else is always a crap shoot.
Buying perfume at a store principally devoted to food or household goods is not unheard-of in the U.S. I have long held a spot on my list of Saddest Places on Earth for the Walgreen’s fragrance counter on Christmas Eve. I had to stop into a Walgreen’s for aspirin or some darn thing once on the 24th and couldn’t find a subtle way to get a picture of the DESPERATE crowd of men choosing between Chaps and White Diamonds and something by Brittney Spears. (Note to dudes: If you show up on Christmas with nothing for your wife but Walgreen’s perfume, you might as well just skip it.)
But after a visit to the 5-SAR stores at my favorite Diriyah souk, I’ve had my perfume-shopping mind blown open. To help you get the setting, SAR (also “sr”) is the English shorthand for Saudi Arabian riyals. The riyal is pegged to the dollar, and is fixed at $.27, so a 5-SAR store is roughly comparable to a dollar store. This is one of them:
Very tidy, fairly small, strong on sundries. Most things are, in fact, 5 SAR. But not all–some more, some less. Think of it as more of an average. Otherwise it’s pretty comparable to a dollar store. UNTIL you hit the perfume section.
I’ve certainly been known to get my share of delight from the English translations I see in signs and packaging around here, but I had a realization the other night that what I’m seeing is often not an Arabic-to-English snafu but a Chinese-to-English one. Here’s what clued me in:
That’s a mattress I just took delivery of in our spare bedroom. Check the spelling on Riyadh. That’s right–Rivadh. That’s not a switch I have ever seen on a translation from Arabic to English. No, that’s a guy in a factory in China not noticing the tail on the y. Suddenly “comfortable mattress comfort” and “sleep five star” sound like good old-fashioned Chinglish. Doubt me? Here’s a screenshot of a Google image search (scrolled to avoid profanity) to give you a point of comparison:
Did Sleep Five Star and 5 Star cologne come from the same place? Hmm. Well, if they didn’t come from the same company, I can assure you they came from the same country. A Chinese idea of a sexy-sounding English name, sold to customers for whom English is also a second language and will never know if it’s weird! What a setup! It’s foolproof!
And so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you today’s Greatest Hits from the 5-SAR Perfume Counter. We’ll start with colors, which seem to be important to fragrance because…? First, the reds:
Oops! Forgot one:
I made that one extra big because it’s hard to read. But yes, that’s Final Grey. Not the grey you have when you’re really, really sick, because that’s not final, you know. Final would be the grey you get after the last breath. The final grey. When you just can’t get any greyer.
Okay, enough with the colors. From the department of redundancy department:
Which is ironic, you see, because the whole point of wearing fragrance is to communicate, whether to yourself or to others. Animals understand what their noses tell them. Perhaps we’ve just forgotten. So let’s line up the little bottles and see what they have to say.
“Look, I’m a
kinda gal, so I was just wondering if you might… WHAT? NO! What on earth made you think I would EVER ask a girl anything so– No! I was just wondering whether you wanted to go to the existentialist free verse poetry slam with me. What ever made you think I would ever ask you to experiment with–
Okay. I’m sorry–I forgot what I was wearing. That is pretty forward. Here–let me prove my honor. At least, if I was in your shoes I’d be really glad if somebody told me. You, uh, have a little thing, right there, between your two front teeth. And if you don’t have a toothpick, I can do you a solid and give you my