Monday, June 29, 2015

A Curator's Memoir, Al Nabha

Amnesia would make a pretty girl's name, wouldn't it? A girl with pretty ringlets and an embarrassing tic—she keeps shaking her head to unrattle her brains. Years have gone by in just this way; a lifetime of searching and shrugging, hot on the trail of nothing. Our girl's outward appearance ages (the graying curls, heavy breasts, and stiff gait) while inside she remains intact: exactly as dumb and wondering as ever. Because she doesn't really know what the fuck she's looking for—a secret truth? a secret self?—she overlooks every single clue.

          Unless maybe everything under that spotlit, addled, gaze of hers is of equal importance. 

          I'd forgotten that, she pouts. Anything at all can be a clue, a means to expressing who I am or how I feel. This is the way: the secret life of objects.

          Above the laptop's self-contained, luminous screen, it's the same, sprawling view as ever.
Blue star, yellow orchid, the radiator's vertical lines beneath the wide window frame, the French door with its grid of black panes, all the repetitive patterns, unrelated, except for the white horizontal lines of the shelves underlining their contents again and again.
The shelf of books; a little canvas with red shoes; that gaudy bottle of perfume. The square bottle of frosted glass is encased in ornate metal, depicting a silver fountain with mother-of-pearl splashes.
          Al Nabha, meaning The Fountain of Colors, is an Oriental perfume manufactured in the United Arab Emirates. Imbued with taif rose, sandalwood, adarwood, amber, saffron, musk, patchouli, and myrrh, Al Nabha has an exceptionally long sillage. The sillage (a beautiful French word pronounced see-yazh) is how a scent trails behind the wearer, the same way a boat leaves a trail in water.

          My ex-husband picked that bottle up off the shelf the other day and told me it was special. His voice was hushed, and accusing. He asked if I knew where it came from. (Whenever our daughter visits him she admires its scent, so a few days ago he gave her the bottle and it landed here in my dining room.) Of course I know where it's from.

          "It comes from Mecca," he said. "They only make this perfume in Mecca."

          He thinks it's holy perfume, that my house is a befoulment. He makes it clear he parted with this prize reluctantly, and only because he's such a loving father. He insinuates that the perfume doesn't belong in the house of a heathen.

          My story is different from his. A few days after we married in Cairo, 19 years ago, his sister came from Kuwait bearing wedding gifts for me: a sexy nightgown, a modest galabaya, a filigreed golden ring studded with seed pearls, an amber hunk of wax for removing body hair, and the bottle of perfume. She also made us a big pot of what she called heavy soup, a greasy meat broth revered as a powerful aphrodisiac.

          About the perfume, she said, "This perfume they only wear in the Gulf region. You'll never find it anywhere else in the world." She said it in Arabic, which I don't understand, so my ex had to translate for me, just like he translated heavy soup.

          For 11 years, I kept the bottle with other perfumes by a mirror on my bedroom table, and every once in a while my ex-husband would pause to douse himself as he walked by. I have a distinct memory of him dragging the drenched stopper over the vein in his neck and across both his wrists, and then rubbing it into his skin with open palms. 

           Sometimes, like my ex, I would pause to unscrew the cap, bowing my head to sniff the stopper. But it never smelled the way I expected. Instead, a rotting sweetness burns the throat and nostrils. I don't remember exactly what the scent conjured, but the effect was a subtle shock with every breath. When I left the house we had shared, which was many years ago, he took the perfume.

          "Keep it safe," he told me the other day, replacing the bottle on the shelf,  as if I'd disappointed him already.

1. Al Nabha, the whiff of disappointment.


  1. My goodness, Charlotte, you are such a powerful writer. ( no disappointment here...)

    1. Martha, my dear! Thank you so much for weighing in <3 I feel like my blog is getting less and less appealing, so it's wonderful to hear encouraging words. xxx