After six months, nothing feels new, except having a child. New becomes your new normal. Almost a year ago I moved to Abu Dhabi. In the intervening months exception has become the rule. Perhaps that means Abu Dhabi is home; I am taking it for granted. Yet every now and then, the glaze falls from my eyes and this place is new again. On a recent evening my family and I went to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec) for its Ramadan and Eid Festival. It was the smell that got to me, even before we entered the exhibition hall: an incense perfume common to the Middle East, but stronger. Like flowers, rain and fruit ripe almost to rotting; less elegantly, like dish soap. If it had a colour it would be emerald.
It woke me up. Inside, following my nose, I found a fragrance vendor and asked for the scent that surrounded us. He showed me a green box and said I would need charcoals too. He said if I burnt this in my wardrobe, my clothes would smell nice. We haggled from Dh90 to Dh70; probably too much, but so what? The charcoals looked like little ice-hockey pucks. The incense box said oudh ma'al attar. Although oudh is a mix of ingredients and recipes vary, its essence is agarwood, which comes from the resin-rich core of a Southeast Asian evergreen tree. The tree produces this aromatic resin to resist fungal attack.
After this we explored the bazaar with sight and taste more than smell. We found knee socks and kimonos, abayas and ice cream, vegetable slicers and blankets, thyme water and chandeliers and a leopard-print chair shaped like a high-heeled shoe. We bought two bottles of some sort of Lebanese cheese spread. Later, on the bumper cars, their lids span loose and yellowish oil spread through the bag that held them. My daughter ran from the play area to the merchandise stalls to ask for a new bag. Two vendors shook their heads side to side — no purchase, no bag. But a third, a Tunisian woman peddling ceramics, said yes, of course she had a plastic bag.
There were many Emiratis and few expats, many women and few men. On the way out, we bought a ceramic incense holder from the Tunisian woman; Dh40. I chose a blue one but my wife said it didn't match our decor, so we chose a green one. When we arrived home, I unwrapped it. The crinkled wrapping paper was a school assignment on French poetry. One of the poems was Parfum Exotique, which Charles Baudelaire wrote a century and a half ago.
The Adnec Ramadan and Eid Festival might not be what Baudelaire had in mind when he wrote about a fragrance that conjures a vision of an island where sailors sing. It wasn't that exotic. But it was different and sometimes that's enough.