Incense (Bakhour) the Spirit of Aden

Musk, ambergris and oud are mixed with other perfumes to make incredible aromas that captivate. Scents sneak through the wooden windows of Albakr city, where history hasn’t changed the way bakhour is prepared. Aden is where bakhour has woven a love story with the city, for it is the only Yemeni city to manufacture this incense. According to scholars, Aden was the main trading port for incense and gum for hundreds of years, supplying civilizations on the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Demand was high because bakhour was used in most religious rituals.

 image courtesy of Somaya al-Samawi

image courtesy of Somaya al-Samawi

In the 1960s the production of bakhour boomed within households in Aden, especially in the oldest neighborhood, Crater. This period marked the emergence of many families who became well-known for producing bakhour. There were auctioneers or mediators for buying bakhour, and some worked for Antonin Besse, a French businessman who used to export the incense to the west.

Distinctiveness

“No bakhour bests the quality of the Adeni bakhour, since Adeni women have specialized in creating it for many years. There is plenty of competition internationally now; however, the Adeni bakhour remains ahead because of its quality and uniqueness, which can’t be ignored by those who know beauty”, says Median al-Shaibani, a worker in Rukn Alharish shop in Crater. Al-Shaibani adds, “Adeni women excelled at making bakhour. Although the ingredients are simple and there’s a unified formula, Adeni women have a secret formula none but themselves can reveal. Perhaps it’s the essence of inheritance within women of the same family”. Al-Shaibani notes that on national occasions and holidays, the demand reaches a peak, because bakhour is the most in-demand product from customers locally and internationally.

The soul of the Adeni community

The crafting of bakhour represents the soul of the Adeni community. It is a cultural tradition and the main source of income for many families, as half of the population live below the poverty line. The making of bakhour is not limited to housewives and members of certain families; now employees and business owners have entered the business. Stores are decorated with bakhour, whether homemade or made in private workshops. Unemployment and a lack of job opportunities has driven many local civil society organizations in Aden to organize training workshops on how to produce bakhour, in order to preserve this social and cultural heritage, and to build the capacity of disadvantaged women by helping them develop a source of income.

Muna Salem Ghaleb is head of the Women's Social Development Association, which works on training and building the capacity of disadvantaged women through bakhour and perfume-making workshops. Ghaleb stresses the importance of this work because it empowers women and creates a source of income for them, and it preserves the tradition of making bakhour, helping to transport this knowledge to future generations, so that this Adeni craft is not forgotten.

These workshops target women of various backgrounds, including housewives and university graduates, integrating them into the labor market and improving their livelihoods. It is very important for reviving the local economy, as the high demand for bakhour will help many Yemenis who have been enduring difficult circumstances over the past few years.

On her personal experience, Ghaleb says that she inherited this craft from a relative; she does not hide the fact that she adopted it to improve her family’s financial situation. She continued to do this for a while, until she decided to help other women by teaching them the craft. She also sells great quantities of bakhour to women for a lower price, so they can keep profits from selling it on. Ghaleb says it has become the main source of income for many families, enabling them to rent houses and keep the tradition alive.

The never absent guest

Bakhour is used on occasions like weddings, holidays and family gatherings – or for no occasion at all! It has become a tradition to light bakhour in the afternoon on a daily basis, leaving a lovely odor inside all the rooms. It is placed on a lit charcoal, and starts emitting aromatic smoke that fills the place.

The prices vary according to the ‘meal’, a term given to a batch of bakhour, and its quality. Good quality bakhour can fetch up to 200,000 YR, and the price of normal meals vary between 20,000-30,000 YR. According to Muna al-Abi, “The price and quality of bakhour is controlled by the quality of the materials used. The kinds vary because the materials are different. However, they remain similar in odor and production process. Whenever the oud and incense are of good quality, the better it becomes”. Al-Abi explains the different kinds of bakhour, black and white, and the types of use, for scenting the house, for clothes or for skin and hair.

Al-Abi also confirms that there are established families who are famous for making bakhour and marketing it, until it became known as a product outside of the country. It is now exported to Gulf countries, like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, where demand is high. However, small producers market their products locally.

The magical recipe

 image courtsey of Somaya al-Samawi

image courtsey of Somaya al-Samawi

A pot of rose water and sugar is placed on low heat until the sugar completely dissolves, then pure oud is added along with musk, ambergris, tannins, cardamom and chives. A special mixture of condensed luxurious perfumes is also added – the most notable of which are musk, ambergris, coconut, flowers from Istanbul, and many other ingredients. The pot is removed from the stove and left to dry on special plates previously painted over with incense.

The preparation looks straightforward, but not everyone who attempts to make it can produce Adeni bakhour, because the secret is in the vast amount of experience: for whoever loves the craft, perfects it. And those who perfect it win a reputable name from which they can market their bakhour on a wider scale. Nothing compares to Adeni bakhour; it has incredible relaxing properties, enticing a feeling of tranquility through columns of smoke that take you to another world. Adeni bakhour has a secret known only to Adenis, and many have attempted to emulate it but none have succeeded because the secret is not about ingredients, it is about having an authentically Adeni soul. Its uniqueness lies in the primitive innovations of the city of love and secret stories. Adeni bakhour is not just lovely smelling smoke; it is an art, the legacy of our ancestors.