There is a moment in the practice of any craft when your material – whether it is clay, words, or aromatic essences – dictates the form it needs to achieve. The perception of its inner logic, dynamics and harmonies seems to bypass rational thinking processes: you just know. This isn’t anything as fuzzy as the romantic notion of “inspiration”, but the result of a deep knowledge, of an attunement to very precise elements in your material: a bringing-forth which discloses what was already there to know (for those of you who have a nodding acquaintance with German philosophy, yes, I’ve been reading Heidegger). This wordless connection doesn’t preclude aesthetic intention, technical mastery or an intellectual grasp of what is being accomplished during the process: you do, and then you understand what you’ve done.
Contemporary perfumers who work within the French tradition obviously draw on this wordless connection with their materials: this is something that comes up regularly in conversations about the genesis of a scent. But, in the most interesting cases, their perfumes don’t linger in that zone where words are suspended. There is a legibility to them when you know the language; a reflection on the history of perfumery, on specific notes or accords, on the perfumer’s own style… They display asperities onto which you can hook narratives or critical comment; informed by discourse, generating discourse.
This discursive, narrative nature of French-tradition perfumery appears most strongly when experienced in contrast with the work of Dominique Dubrana, a.k.a. Abdes Salam Attar, of Profumo Italia. While I’ve worn several samples of his compositions, they never seem to trigger much discourse, not because there’s nothing to say about them, but because they seem to invite contemplation rather than explanation.
Perhaps this is an effect of the perfumer being a Sufi. What little I know about this mystical, meditative branch of Islam leads me to think that the sense of wordless attunement between the craftsman and the crafted might be at play in the Sufis’ quest for divesting themselves from the Self to attain truth.
It might also be because the perfumer’s intent is not entirely aesthetic. Though it is clearly driven by beauty, Abdes Salam’s perfumery reaches back to the first functions of scent: spirituality, eroticism and therapy.
As a result, his perfumes exude a profoundly archaic feeling. Not because they are based on ancient formulas, but because they seem to spring from a desire to enter a pre-modern mindset. To me his stance is not unlike Pier Paolo Pasolini’s when he filmed The Thousand and One Nights or Medea: not by adapting or showing the modernity of an ancient tale but by attempting to see it through the eyes of those who first told it.
Fittingly, his new Sharif is meant to express a value that has very little currency today in the Western world: nobility. Not the type inherited through birthright by chinless princelets, but nobility of character. And like a noble character, it doesn’t let itself be approached or tamed easily: you’ve got to go through the fire of its camphoraceous top notes before feeling its softness.
It is almost surprising to find Sharif so liquid in its bottle, because its smell conjures the fatty, tactile, ductile quality of a paste. It feels like something you could lick or chew: a smooth, resinous preparation similar to majoun, a type of cannabis jam where the resin is blended with honey and almond. There’s no cannabis note in Sharif, but it does have honey and almond notes, saffron providing a medicinal note and a leather effect.
Though the latter is the core of the scent, it is also, to my nose, an expansion of the properties of civet. Old civet tinctures do display the smoothly dark honeyed facets of Sharif. And again, this links the scent with age-old traditions from the Islamic world.
I used to wonder how such a pungent material as civet made its way into perfumes. It is likely it travelled west via the Arabs who traded in Ethiopia, where it was used in rituals. Perfume was also used for therapeutic or magical purposes in the West for centuries: the aesthetic effects of civet may have been acknowledged later on. Or perhaps alchemists revelled in turning base matter into fragrant gold…
As it turns out, there are stories in Sharif, as in all of Abdes Salam Attar’s compositions: they are just told in a different idiom. His connection with his materials through his spiritual journeys, and with ancient practices and tales through his travels, may be what carry his work into a different dimension than those explored by most natural perfumers. There is a depth of culture here that translates into aesthetic terms; a depth of resonance that gives Sharif not only beauty, but a quiet authority.
Abdes Salam Attar has kindly given me an extra sample of Sharif: leave a comment, and I will do a draw.