Monday, 7 April 2014


I've been invited to a dinner by my Italian friends. Seconds after the invitation, I'm thinking, 'What the hell am I going to wear?' I'm in Alexandria and have only brought casual wear with me. Somehow, jeans with holes in them, don't seem suitable. Thanks to my flatmates, the wardrobe has been sorted out - Victoria's lovely purple dress and Rasha's shoes.  But something was missing:  perfume.  I needed  to  restock and headed for San Stefano mall, to look for the perfume shop  recommended by a friend. She had rubbed some of her new perfume ( an oil called Wassel) onto my wrists the day previously. I had liked it so much I decided to buy some for myself. It was like an old pharmacy, full of beautiful glass bottles containing perfumed oils from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The shelves were dark carved wood and the display drawers were full of sandalwood and cedar sticks. I had a sugar rush of smells. I asked for Wassel and the owner dabbed some onto my wrists, I nodded. I'll take it. Then I remembered that if you wear a citrus perfume it takes ten years off you, so out came the lemongrass and lemon oils. Beautiful. Wonder what the musk (my favourite) is like?

The nice shop assistant handed me a tiny bowl of crushed coffee beans. I said, 'I dont think I want to smell like coffee.' He said, 'Your nose is confused. The coffee wipes out the scent of other perfumes. We shall start again.' He placed the yellow musk, the white musk, the Saudi musk, the black musk on the counter, uncorked each bottle, and held the  stoppers to my nose one by one. Mmmmm. I  wanted to smell rose, so the Saqat, Medina and Egyptian rose bottles were brought out (Saqat is very much like the English rose). 

I left the shop with little glass phials of Wassel, Lemongrass, Egyptian and Saqat rose before I could succumb further. I smelt like a Pasha's harem, and suddenly remembered the last time I had tried to buy perfume in Alexandria.  I had walked into a shop in Mansheya, realising too late that I had entered a tiny kingdom of Salafi. It was stocked with Islamic paraphernalia and Qurans. Tiny bottles of perfume filled the window. Two men stared at me in their comical mid-thigh jelabayas that  hovered over inches of hairy leg, socks and laced shoes.  The Salafi are the Amish of Islam, basing their religious practice on early Islam when men hung out on camels, lived in tents and watched stars instead of TVs. The women gave birth, stitched the tents, milked the camels and hung in together. 

So, this uncovered, female infidel from the 21st century  walks into their shop and asks for some musk. 'Sorry, the perfume is only for men,' one of them said, while his sidekick gave me the usual 'I-want-to-fuck-you-while-you-rot-in-hell' look'. 

Feeling suddenly empowered by the wall of mysogyny steadily rising between us, I  stepped towards them and  said, 'In my country  men who wear perfume like this would be  considered homosexuals.'

 I wasn't sure about the political correctness of this statement, but my only concern at the time was to insult them, and this is about as low as you can get with a pair of homophobic Salafi.
In the taxi I opened up one of the phials and sniffed.  Sometimes, you just need your nose to take you on a journey away from  reality.

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