“The Clove’s Fragrance from an Evening’s Breath”
From A Drib of your Nectar, by Mohammad El-Makki Ibrahim, translated by Adil Babikir in Modern Sudanese Poetry
Scent, The Food of the Soul
Above, Sudanese scented and perfume-infused woods.
Used to scent and cense, these woods are intimately associated with Sudanese marriage rituals. Sandalwood, talih (acacia seyal) and shaaf (combretaceae) are the most commonly used. See Talih – Sudanow for other medicinal and cosmetic uses.
Sudanese proverb – Scent / Incense (“bakhur”) is the Food of the Soul.
“Bakhur” in Arabic can refer to incense, frankincense (also known as liban) and scented woods used for perfumed incense.
Above, selling home blended “khumra”and branded perfumes and aromatic oils in Burri Botanical Gardens, Khartoum.
Communal perfume preparation or dag-al-rihah with its rituals are a central part of wedding celebrations in Sudan.
…”swallowed in utter darkness ; / climbing the rocky nights with a blind lantern; / longing for the deep massage of dilka, / the scent of karkaar, / and the silky garmasis gown; / watching the caravans of palm trees,
/ and the Nile as their escort and singers; / my water jar is full, / Treating myself to cold sips of Nile water, / from an engraved gourd utensil.”
From Wedding Parade by Muhammad El-Mahdi El-Magzoub, translated by Adil Babikir, Modern Sudanese Poetry, An Anthology.
Above, a Nubian bride, swathed in her red and gold garmasis. See The River of Life for more on the role of the Nile in Nubian wedding customs.
Coming posts will feature the karkaar, khumrat, el zeit, dilka and dukhan aromatics of dag -al rihah (wedding perfumes preparations)
Above, a Sudanese tobe seen through a Khartoum tailor’s window. Sudanese scents are often infused with orange, jasmine and amber notes.
Below thirty-year old bakhur, still fragnant.
“A child who builds dream castles in sands, / then tears down his dreams. / Like an aromatic wood, / burning itself to fragrance.”
From A Poet, by Idris Jamma’, translated by Adil Babikir.
Scent, the Food of the Soul
Setting the Scene Bakhur Bint el-Sudan Khumra
Setting the Scene
Airports around the world, they say, blur into an anodyne sameness. Khartoum is different. There is an unmistakable scent as you make your way, bleary-eyed and stiff, into the arrivals hall at three in the morning. Aromatic and dense, it welcomes you home. It is the scent of Sudanese suitcases opened in exile, crammed with fragrant woods and oils. The scent of Sudanese weddings and honeymoons – sandalwood and cinnamon, frankincense and musk.
Twenty years after returning from Sudan, while clearing out a cupboard at home on a damp Sunday afternoon, I came across a tight bundle of cloth wedged between old shoes and books. In its resin-steeped folds were shards of bakhur that a dear friend, now long dead, had given me on my departure from Sudan decades before. As I unrolled the bundle, particles of fragrance filled the room, like dust illuminated in shafts of sunlight, freighted with memory. A tomb disturbed, an annointing and a blessing,
The last remaining shards in the mabkhara or incense burner
Sudanese life is rounded by scent and incense. Wreathes of incense anoint both births and deaths, circumcisions, marriages, periods of illness and great joy. Bakhur is believed to be cleansing, propitious, healing and protective against the evil eye. Infusing aromatic pastes with talih and sandalwood bakhur smoke is central – and perhaps unique in perfume culture – to Sudan’s homemade perfume, khumra.
This blogpost is dedicated to just three iconic elements of Sudan’s rich aromatic culture; wood bakhur, Bint el-Sudan and khumra. I will cover more in coming posts.
See Sudan’s Aromatic Culture for a detailed and well researched review of Sudanese perfumes and aromatics.
Photograph Michael Freeman, Sudanese Woman in Omdurman Market, showing shop door mural of a wooden huqq jar, used for storing perfumed and oil-infused pastes and powders. The huqq, ever present at northern Sudanese weddings, is proudly displayed on dressing tables and shelves in Sudanese homes.
Above, screenshot from Best Sydney Sudanese Wedding The bride and groom look on while perfume is added to the ornamental tray of scented powders and pastes. Next to the tall wooden huqq jars is the traditional red and black incense burner or mabkhara.
If you are interested in Sudanese wedding customs, you might enjoy Anointing in Robes of Red and Gold.
Bakhur – Incense
Above, examples of wood and perfume-based incense or bakhur, together with frankincense and ambergris, also used in perfume making and as ingredients for the mostly widely used takhiga incense, bakhur el-taiman. More on the spiritual and cleansing symbolism of takhiga and bakhra incense amongst Sudanese Muslims in coming posts.
“Whenever I ran a fever, my parents would fumigate me with bakhur al-taiman. This was the first measure they performed to detect and banish the evildoer.” Traditional Sudanese Medicine by Dr. Ahmed Al Safi
“The mention of Satans seemed to have sparked something in my mother’s memory. She suddenly took a break from the laundry and started to light a coal fire. She placed the live coal on a small ceramic incense burner and asked my brother to take it around the entire house to dispel away all the satans. ‘It’s the last day of Ramadan,’ she said. ‘We should have started incensing the house right at sunset.’”
Satan and the Plastic Soldier, by Ahmed Al-Malik, Literacy Sudans, p 95
See too Gems from Traditional North-African Medicine: medicinal and aromatic plants from Sudan; Hassan Khalid at core.ac.uk
Above, a young girl bathes her face in the aromatic cloud of incense offered during Sufi dhikir rituals in Omdurman. Learn more about the weekly Friday dhikir in Hamed El Nil cemetery in The Eternal Dance
Above, incense burners for sale and huqq jars being made. Below Khartoum tea and coffee stall with its charcoal incense burner to cleanse the air, repel flies and much more –
“The censer is placed in the middle of the coffee utensils, making a pleasant chat. Fortune winner, customer attractor, women sellers of coffee and tea on streets in Khartoum believe that incense attracts customers, males in particular. Awadhiyah Mahjoub, a coffee seller in Omdurman market, is of the view-point that Indonesian incense, in particular, brings about fortune and that releasing it ahead of coffee and tea-making is the most important activity she does before starting her work. This incense is imported from Ethiopia and is bought for 5 to 10 SDG a pound.”
Below, screenshot from video recipe for a homemade version of bakhur. I summarize the recipe below. It involves generous, if not extravagant quantities of perfume.
In the video version, fine shards of shaaf wood are steeped in branded perfumes – any you have to hand, the narrator tells us, together with eau de cologne, sandalwood and other aromatic oils, and sprinkled with powdered mastic gum. She also adds Bint el-Sudan but advises against adding too much as it tends of overwhelm other scents. She then douses the wood with eau de colognes, turning it repeatedly to ensure it is mablula – soaked through.
The fragrant, moist shards are then tossed in caramelized sugar and lemon juice and heated over a strong flame until they take on a glossy sheen. Traditional Sudanese blended perfumes, known as khumra (see below), perfumed oils and dufra (Onycha; roasted seashell lids)* are also added as the wood takes on its sticky, oil -infused coating. The process is finished by adding more mastic, sandalwood oil, sandalwood oil-infused fat and suratiyyah (Indian perfumed oil). The incense retains its heady, dense scent for many years if kept sealed.
Incense – Charm, Ritual, Brisk Trade describes a similar recipe, though this time using sandalwood:
“A powdered mixture of aromatic bark and musk is sprayed while the iron sheet is still on the fire and, with the rising vapor, the scent diffuses throughout the neighbourhood announcing the wedding”
“Ruqayah Sheikh Ahmed, a famous incense seller in Omdurman, said she began making the incense after the women stopped the aroma preparation sessions in wedding houses and preferred buying the ready-made incense due to various circumstances such the small space of time, ignorance of how to prepare it or the high prices of the components as the a kilogram of sandalwood is sold for 70 to 80 SDG and the perfume that is extracted from the sandalwood for 100 to 200 an ounce.”
Bint el Sudan – Iconic Power
“It is the unmistakable smell of Africa – a blend of floral odours, with the emphasis of jasmine, lilac and lily of the valley, with under-tones of woody notes supported by musk, amber and moss:”
Nicholas Evans, IFF, quoted in Alison Bate, Memories of Bint el Sudan
Above, Salah Elmur’s Bint El-Sudan (2017) – reworking an emblem redolent with cultural meanings. Learn more about the remarkable work of this young Sudanese artist in Inscriptions on Rosewater
Bint el-Sudan, with its “femininity, power and allure”** and at one time the top selling perfume by bottle in the world, has changed little since it was first produced in the 1920s. It is claimed that its base of mineral oil, rather than alcohol, makes it long lasting, and smoothes, softens and seals moisture into the skin in a scorching climate. Its distinctive scent, sprinkled on talih wood permeates Sudanese homes. Bath oil, hair dressings and soaps are infused with it; tobes and bedclothes imbued with it. (Alison Bate, Memories of Bint el Sudan)
A bar of soap bought by Geoff Holden, Sudan English Teacher, who says the soap “was hauled back from Sudan when I finally left in 1986. It it lives inside a nomad basket bought in Genaina so was probably purchased in El Fasher souq sometime in 1986.”
Alan Johnston, another Sudan English Teacher, recalled seeing pirated Bint el Sudan talcum powder for sale in the 1980s.
Thanks to Sudan Teachers FB page Group
See too The Scented Salamander
“Lemon, bergamot, orange, geranium, lavandin, patchouli, petit grain, clary sage, clove, cedar wood and peppermint oils, tree moss, labdanum and mimosa extracts”- The 2000 formula of Bint el Sudan
Yet Bint el-Sudan also enjoys incredibly powerful cultural and sometimes even magical significance. It has been advertised as “good for purification and meditation” It is said the dead are sometimes anointed with Bint-el Sudan. Sudan’s Aromatic Culture
“The shaman has communicated with the spirit world since his youth; after years of consecration he became a healer. His jinn or spirit he is possessed by expects offerings for him to appear: Bint El Sudan perfume and a packet of cigarettes will be used during the healing ritual.”
Quotation; Sand in My Eyes. Sketch above based on photograph from Sand in my Eyes.
During recent years, the original 1920s label (above), based on photographs taken by E.E.Burgess showing a young Sudanese girl wearing the traditional rahad leather skirt and riverain jewelry was replaced by the more modest images.
See A Necklace of Shells” for more on Sudanese jewelry.
Below, a 1920s colonial photograph of a young Sudanese girl wearing a rahad.
“After squatting on the floor and drinking several cups of thick strong coffee, as was the custom, they produced a large number of exotic essences, including jasmine, lilac, lily of the valley, musk and amber.” Alison Bate, describing how Bint el Sudan was born and E.E. Burgess, her grandfather’s role in Surprise in Omdurman Souk
Above, a modern example, manufactured in Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps it was during the events of 2019 that Bint el-Sudan came into its own as a cultural totem. Read The Scent of Revolution: The Story behind Sudan’s legendary perfume label remix for a fascinating account of how Bint el-Sudan’s iconic brand imagery is both subverted and reclaimed by artist, Amado Alfadni.
See too Amado Alfadni – Bint el-Sudan
“Bint El Sudan was my mother’s perfume and so [it] was a part of the identity I made for myself as a Sudanese person.” Amado Alfadni
“That the Kano (Nigeria) production continues is quite a feat, given the devastation Boko Haram has bought to the region. Over 80% of Bint el-Sudan is produced in Kano for shipment to local markets across the region.”
“A lazy noon / stirs me from your memory to this glass of tea / and a wondering embrace / In a mood busy with inquisitiveness / I smell the lees of the scent / that lingers / behind you .
From Only, by Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, 2008, translated by Sarah Maguire.
Above, a screenshot from Humra al Mahleb, traditional Sudanese blended perfume often made by families, friends and neighbors in communal gatherings, using recipes handed down through the generations. Learn how it is made below. The making of khumra is one of many perfume preparation rituals,“dag al-rihah, associated with marriage celebrations, together with karkar, al-zeit, dilka and dukhan.
Thoraya Ahmed el-Khalifa holding up the mature khumra she has made, with its base of smoke-infused fragrant paste.
The word “khumra” may come from the same Arabic root as “ikhtamara”, “ hammara”; to ferment.
Top left, mahlab cherry kernels. Sudan is believed to be unique in using mahlab for perfumes. Top right, cloves and sticks of sandalwood, left, mastic gum, pounded to release its scent. Right, a selection of branded perfumes poplar in Sudan and the Middle East and bottom sandalia – sandalwood oil.
Photos: screenshots from Humra al Mahleb
First several scoops of ground mahlab, together with a splash of lemon juice are added to a metal bowl and mixed to form a rough paste. This is pressed and kneaded into the sides of the bowl so it will stick firmly while being smoke infused with bakhur. She adds incense wood as described above to the burning charcoal in the burner, which she covers with the paste-lined bowl for the contents to infuse.
The process takes around three hours and every now and again she lifts the bowl and kneads the paste again and checks the colour of the paste as it gently takes on a yellow hue.
After three hours, she removes the bowl again to reveal that the paste has taken on a pale golden colour. She returns the bowl to the incense just a little longer until the paste looks like this:
It is now ready for the addition of a pinch or two of ground cloves, which she kneads carefully into the paste. She returns it briefly to the burner.
She then decants the paste into a jar, adding ground mastic, ground sandalwood and generous quantities of branded perfumes, together with sandalwood oil and other perfumes. She seals and shakes the jar vigorously to mix the contents and start the maturation process and after a few days, as the perfume matures, it darkens to a deep, rich brown.
The khumra, which can last a year or more, can be topped up with branded perfumes as it is used up. Its scent intensifies as it matures.
Sudan’s Aromatic Culture notes that nutmeg, dufr, musk and even dried apples “studded with cloves and orange peel” can also be added to the base paste. “After smoking the paste, frankincense, myrrh and various liquid oils are added and the smoked paste is then infused in oil.”
Above, making khumra in Dongola in the early ‘80s. See more in Scenes from Sudan’s Northern Province
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* Abdullah el-Tayib in Changing Customs of the Sudan, written in 1955, describes the process of making dufra:
Changing Customs of the Sudan, Second Edition, 2017, p 110, ISBN: 14903/2012
Sudan’s Aromatic Culture also provides historical context to this ingredient.