One week ago I was waking up in my cozy book filled brownstone in Brooklyn Heights only to hurriedly pack my bags and find my way to JFK. At midnight I would board the Qatar Express and awake on the other side of the world in the Gulf state of Qatar. There’s no easy way to prepare for a journey like this other than to pack warm weather clothes, plenty of deodorant and power plugs for the phone and computer. My mission was to come to the university here in Doha and act as critic and professor for the graduating class of the fashion design department. The students have 2 weeks left to finish their final thesis collections, which will go before a jury, of which I am also a member, to be selected for the all important fashion show. The show is easily one of the largest and most glamorous of social events for the entire year.
As Qatar is one of the Arab Emirates it is the richest of all the oil-drenched countries on the Arabian Gulf. That statement, alone, pales to the reality of this place. Imagine the fantasy world of Oz, shot full of steroids with a city that is more diamond than emerald, bustling with robed, jeweled women and men in Bentleys, Maseratis, Rolls Royce and every luxury car imaginable, with villas, palaces and sprawling compounds everywhere you look and that begins to describe the visuals one sees everywhere, every moment of every day. Then multiply that all by 1000 and you begin to get a picture.
What I’ve just described are the more obvious details I noticed. What is less obvious are all the layers of life and society here that make up this extraordinary feast for the eyes. In the classroom, the playing field is relatively level in the sense that all of the students have the normal challenges of expressing their ideas, meeting deadlines and doing their best to create interesting work. Though the age range is anywhere from 19 -40 years old, their personalities are surprisingly innocent. Cynicism and jadedness is almost completely absent. They hunger for knowledge and for a window onto the fashion scenes of Europe and the U.S. Bringing the Gospel according to Seventh Avenue falls on shockingly receptive ears, so my job is a happy and satisfying one. There are even princesses and cousins of the royal family, the Al-Thani, in class but you’d never know. So their mystique stays firmly in place. I’ve digressed a bit, but needed to give you the back-story before winding my way back to the point of this tale….
As a visual person, I have been barraged with people, places and things that have stopped me in my tracks again and again. Walking through several malls like the Pearl and the Villagio, which is an approximation of the Shops at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas complete with frescoed ceilings, walls that shoot skyward designed to look like palazzos along the canals of Venice and actual canals with gondolas with costumed gondoliers ferrying people about, another of my senses was absolutely overwhelmed. It wasn’t my sense of taste because I passed on KFC, McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Krispy Kreme, and Dean and Deluca among hordes of other familiar food court players, or the sound of song birds that were chirping everywhere, but my sense of smell.
Time and again an elegant woman dressed in a jeweled and embroidered abaya (the floor length black silk robe) and shayla (the equally elegant shawl that wraps around her head or in some cases covers her face completely) would float past me. I say float because they do not rush. They move slowly, elegantly and soundlessly with perfect posture. As they passed, a subtle cloud of perfume would linger in the air that was one of the most intoxicating scents I’ve ever encountered. After it happened about 50 times I asked my guide what it was I smelled. He said, “Oh, that’s Oudh”. There were subtle variations to the scent but in general it was essentially the same. It is impossible to describe except to say it is exotic, much more elemental than musk and the most seductive scent on the planet. Apparently, it comes from a very rare wood, Agar wood which is more precious than gold, literally. Its value is 1.5 times the value of gold and is considered the most expensive oil on the market. Many refer to it as liquid gold. The wood produces a resin that is distilled to create this essence with a few choice goodies tossed in for good measure. Very few scents in the west incorporate the essence beyond one by Commes de Garcon called Daphne.
I am on the hunt for it now to bring home as gifts if I can find the strength to let it go. I think I’m more likely to discretely spray it at home in the evening as I conjure scenes from a 1000 and 1 Arabian nights. I’ll share more discoveries with you all soon…Inshallah (means god willing)! But now I'm late for school, like I was as a student.....