– a review of Serge Lutens’ ‘Arabie’
Once upon a fabled time not so many centuries ago, when reason ruled with an enlightened hand, a discovery of hitherto unknown tales sang new stories for an old world, stories that conjured magic and mayhem, thieves and brigands, tales of love and redemption, stories of djinn who lurked in bottles, awaiting new masters and new opportunities for trouble.
Those tales sang of another, foreign world, a sensuous world of searing heat and blinding sun, of sand that blew across the skin soft as a silken veil or sharp as a scythe, visions of all the colors of earth and sky, a paradise glimpsed through a shimmering veil of spice and fire, fruit and wood and like all tales and any paradise, it was only a dream, a shimmering fata morgana in some fertile imagination.
So even I thought, too, once upon a fabled time, thought that everything contained in the word ‘Oriental’ was some impossible, sensual dream of a world that surely never lived and breathed outside the visions of painters and poets and writers evoking their most exotic, fever dreams.
Yet I tell you this tale, I write down this dream and every word is true…Ephemeral as all dreams are, yet it lingers in the air above me, as all the best dreams do, a dream that wraps me in a storyteller’s skin and sings a song of…Arabie.
Arabie, created by Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake in 2000, is a journey in a bottle like all the very best, revelatory perfumes, but to call it anything so prosaic is no way to do it justice.
I have learned a little of the wily ways of M. Lutens and Mr. Sheldrake by now. I had certain expectations – to expect the unexpected, to anticipate the unusual. Nevertheless, even after a year filled with so many fragrant revelations and a few select epiphanies, I was not prepared for this epiphany, this little vial of sensual assault.
In less than a heartbeat, in the time it took me to inhale one fated, fatal breath, I was transported…elsewhere, on a magic carpet ride to another time and place, a very long time ago, when I was still young enough to believe that anything was possible and everything could happen.
With that first surprise of candied mandarin peel, date and fig, that shock of spices – nutmeg with its sweet, woody aura, cumin adding its depth and hint of human, cardamom promising more dusky marvels in store and clove smoldering like embers in a brazier, I am…gone. Far away from my desk, over all the hills and vales of that old and weary world and my own worn and weary self to another world so long ago…and a medina in Morocco, where anything familiar had somehow become alien and everything exotic was instantly familiar. I knew this, I had seen it, smelled it, heard it, tasted it in the air and felt it on my skin burning in the sun.
My nose breathed it in, my brain connected the dots, and my incredulous mind could not fathom what my nose told me, and what it told was that instant when an eighteen-year-old girl walked into a Moroccan medina for the first time and yet again that momentous summer, her world shifted on its axis and grew many times larger than before.
That moment was captured – in this perfume called Arabie. I can breathe it in and relive it these many years later…the scorching heat of afternoon, the narrow, winding alleys, the swirl and eddy of humanity waking from siesta, the cries of the sellers enticing customers to their shops, shops the size of wardrobes packed floor to ceiling with a dizzying array of goods glowing every hue beneath that incendiary blue, and up ahead, baskets of fruit and spices breathing their many secrets into that foreign heat, everywhere the scent of tea and mint, dust and desert, human and history.
Perfume takes me to so many times and spaces, but it doesn’t happen often I time-travel in a breath, and even less that I remember what I was at eighteen.
Arabie is a shapeshifter, it evolves and changes over a long while from that first sweet and heady rush of dried fruit and spices into a sumptuous, redolent, opulent dream of Oh! for Oriental, with benzoin and myrrh, tonka bean and labdanum, a whiff of tobacco smoke caught in passing, and when you pass by, an intimate touch of musk. It smells like an old, heirloom sandalwood box, exhaling all its centuries of secrets, ancient tales told to an adoring audience, tales that begin, as all the best ones do…
“Once upon a time, in a faraway place…’
I wear Arabie, and I find myself staring into space and imagine impossible things, imagine I am wrapped in the aura of Sheherezade’s skin, and as she did, I too can weave my fragrant tales from all the books and all the poets I have ever read and loved, all the knowledge I now hold. I can dream improbable dreams of magic and mayhem, marvels and djinn biding their time in brass lamps – or elegant glass bottles such as this one.
I can recite another poem written so very long ago by a poet who never knew Arabie, but would surely have loved and understood it when he said:
“I want your sun to reach my raindrops
So your heat can raise my soul upward like a cloud.”
The careless girl who traveled alone to foreign lands is long gone, but the traces left behind by her adventures, adventures she had forgotten in all the life she has lived linger on in the invisible aura above her storyteller’s skin, and all she has to do for inspiration is to breathe in the tales of…Arabie.
Notes: Cedar, sandalwood resin, candied mandarin peel, dried fig, date, nutmeg, cumin, clove, Ceylon cardamom, bay leaf, balsamic resins, tonka bean, Siamese benzoin, myrrh, cistus labdanum, rockrose, tobacco, musk.
My darling Scent Twin, the devious and beautiful Suzanne of Perfume Journal had something to do with this…so I thanked her as best I could – with a story!
Illustration: Virginia Frances Sterrett, Tales from the Arabian Nights. (1928) “Sheherezade continues her tale.”
Quote from Rumi and ‘The Thief of Sleep’, translated by Sharam Shiva