17 January 2018

Sensory Experience: Bakhoor

For me Sudan is always a sensory experience. As often as I visit my homeland, I never tire of the many daily treats to my ear, nose, eyes, touch and taste.

One thing I enjoy the most (especially here in Halfaya) is that, although people struggle just to put all of life’s necessities on the table, they will never sacrifice their senses’ well-being. Every morning I wake up to smells of frankincense and bakhoor, the traditional, homemade sandalwood incense.


(Photo Credit: Siddig Zaki)

Most Sudanese houses I know have the same morning ritual: wake up, make tea, clean the house, make the beds (which, by the way, are part of the living room or veranda in a normal Sudanese house – there is also often a bed in the kitchen). Once all the cleaning is done and the people are showered, like an exclamation point at the end of a short sentence, comes the fabled bakhoor. It is the consecration of a productive morning and the omen for a good day.

The smell is always slightly different depending on the maker, but its signature is the same: the smell of ancient times, of new ingredients, of old traditions and buried secrets. A smell carrying memories for every person who has set foot in Sudan or any Sudanese home around the world. Sandalwood and sugar, time and memory mix in a deliciously inebriating potion that sticks to your hair and your clothes…an olfactory memory you will keep carrying with you.

After spending time in a space full of bakhoor, it fades, and you notice once again how aggressive other smells can be. Your nose starts to readapt as you smell the harsh truths behind the lies: the stench of a toilet or the salty smell of your perspiration. Finally, long after the bakhoor is gone, it reappears – in the fold of your clothes when you move or change, in whiffs of imperceptible force that hit a hidden spot in the brain which, it turns out, triggers a flow of images, memories, sounds, and tastes, all mashed up together and concentrated. A nanosecond of smell and you are in a place you know well, with all the history that comes with it…

I always marveled at the power bakhoor had to remind me in a single instant of those who passed, and those who were just born; of foes and friends, of sorrows and joy; of the hometown dramas hounding you in your exile, and the home you made for yourself in that same exile; of the lunch invitation from strangers, and your mama’s living room before guests come in.

It’s the smell of happy nostalgia.

It’s the signature scent of our Sudanese identity.

Israa Hamad is a cross-cultural Sudanese and world traveler, working with an international organization, but really hoping to be a professional blogger/writer.

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