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Fragrances of Arabia - part of the unique character of Dubai and the Gulf

The sights and sounds of a place help to define its unique character, but the smells are an important element too. They arouse your curiosity, stimulate your senses, and in years to come, they bring back memories.

Dubai is a place that's rich in olfactory stimuli. Here are a few of my favourites:

The Dubai midsummer night air at 38║ celsuis / 100║F.

Before the Sheikh Rashid Terminal, passengers arriving in Dubai were bussed from the plane to the arrivals area. As you emerged from the door of the plane you were hit by the tropical smell of the Gulf: hot, humid and heady. Today you'll exit your plane via airbridge, but you'll still get a whiff of the hot heady air of Dubai when you get into your taxi or minibus.

Potent aromas in the Dubai Spice Market

When wandering through the traditional style souqs on the northern Deira side of Dubai, your senses will be hit by a myriad of aromas from the spices on sale. There's nothing more evocative of the Middle East than that potent mixture. Just breathe it in and close your eyes. It could be Cairo, Damascus or Casablanca, but this is Dubai.

strong>Perfume boutiques in the shopping malls of Dubai

Strolling around the modern-style shopping malls of Dubai, such as Mall of the Emirates, Wafi or the Bur Juman, you'll find another set of fragrances wafting through the air. The perfume stores, with their mixture famous brands, will draw you in, even if you're not thinking of buying any perfume.

Fragrant smoke - part of the unique identity of the Middle East

Another potent stimulus is the traditional style fragrant smoke used all over the Middle East. You'll find it emanating from traditional style shops in the shopping malls, or maybe in the souqs. The smoke is burnt in an incense burner and wafted under the clothes to provide a pleasant aroma. The Arabic style incense burner is a cultural symbol and decorative motif on many roundabouts in the UAE and neighbouring countries.

The metallic odour of high rise office towers and hotels

One smell you'll often encounter is the metallic 'ring' of the air conditioning as you walk through sliding doors into an upmarket hotel or office building. Metal and other building materials give off a smell of newness and sophistication that's part of the character of modern high rise buildings in Dubai, with their marble floors and plate glass windows.

The wonderful smell of Choithrams grocery shops

Grocery shops in the UAE have a smell all of their own. It's comes from household goods, maybe washing powder, soap, cleaning fluid and other products, intensified by theá recycling effect of the aircon. I associate that smell with going into Choithrams late in the evening to buy a thirst-quenching bottle of Masafi mineral water or Lipton ice tea.

An aroma of Saudi Arabia, but not a traditional one.

I must mention a smell not from the UAE but Saudi Arabia, and that's the wafting odour of freshly-made pop corn at the entrance of the Al Akariyah shopping centre in downtown Riyadh. Even now, when I smell popcorn, I'm transported back to my time Riyadh in 1992.

Cardamom coffee - a smell and taste not to be missed

Another aroma you'll come across in many parts of the Middle East is the sweet, tangy, pungent smell of cardomom from traditional Arabic style coffee. Drinking coffee is a part of Arabic style hospitality, and you might be lucky enough to be offered some of this coffee in a tiny cup, poured from a traditional style coffee pot. Take in the liquid just a sip at a time, and smell the aroma, it's magical!

The fruity smell of the hubbly bubbly - unmistakably Middle Eastern

The hubbly bubbly or shisha is a popular evening pastime. Traditionally men sit around in cafes all night smoking the hubbly bubbly, passing the pipe from one person to the next. There are many different types of hubbly bubbly tobacco, each with its own unique aroma. It's smoke, but it doesn't smell like smoke, more of a fruity, apply, peachy aroma.

Until it's possible to take a photograph of a smell, I'll have to ask you to use your imagination or better still, go to Dubai, or another part of the Gulf, and experience the fragrance of Arabia for yourself! It's great!

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-06-03

Aidan O'RourkeAidan O'Rourke has been active in photography and online media since 1995. He has documented the development of the local area in his Eyewitness website (1997-2005) and as a contributor to books, publications and the Manchester Evening News. He runs his Eyewitness photography walks in Manchester, Liverpool and other locations. He offers one-to-one tuition in Photography and Languages. He is a high-level speaker of German and can offer photography walks and tours through the medium of German. Visit www.aidan.co.uk

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