Of Rosewater and Perfume

Of Rosewater and Perfume

When I first arrived in the Kingdom in 1986 (as a hospital worker), I was afraid to leave the hospital grounds, for fear of getting into trouble with the local culture and the dreaded mutawah. The first two weeks, I went to work, walked around the campus, and made friends with my roommates. Each of them had lived there several years already, and invited me to go out with them, so they could show me how to do things outside the sanctuary of hospital property. “Maybe later,” I said, feeling very much the foreigner.

The hospital provided shopping buses for women, and I finally got my courage up to get on the bus for Al-Azizia grocery store, dubbed the A&P after a well-known American supermarket chain. The ten minute ride gave me a glimpse of real Saudi houses, called “villas.” Their sleek architecture, sweeping walls, and ornately designed gates fascinated me, and I wondered whether I’d ever get a chance to enter one.

Al-Azizia lived up to its reputation. I found a mid-sized store set up the same way as our American stores, and many of the same products I used to buy at home. Next to those familiar, imported cans and boxes, I discovered local fare, much of which I could not imagine how to use. I was surprised to find large bottles of rosewater in the grocery aisle, next to other ingredients one would use in cooking and baking. “That’s odd,” I thought, as I put a bottle of rosewater in my cart. I loved the scent of roses, and was delighted to find rosewater perfume so cheap and plentiful. Never mind that I found it in the grocery aisle; things were different in this part of the world.

Back in the apartment, I opened the bottle of rosewater, splashed some on my neck, and put it on top of my bureau. I was surprised to find the liquid sticky, unlike the cologne I’d used back in the States. Never mind, I’d have to learn new ways of doing things.

One day, I invited my roommate Lois into my room to show her some books I’d brought from the States. She said, “Why do you have a bottle of rosewater on your dresser?” and I said, “Because I love the scent of rose perfume.”

She laughed. “Do you use that for perfume?”

“Of course!”

She laughed even more, but I didn’t know why. Finally, she said, “Don’t you know that they use rosewater for cooking?”

“Cooking!” I exclaimed. “They put that in FOOD?”

“Yes,” she said, still laughing. “They use it for sweets.”

I could only imagine how Lois would go to work the next day and tell all her colleagues about the new roommate who thought rosewater was perfume.

Several years later, I grew to like the taste of rosewater as well as the scent, and I learned how to use it in sweets. I got several chances to enter Saudi villas, and I learned where to buy proper rose oil perfume, which I use to this day, twenty years later.


About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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14 Responses to Of Rosewater and Perfume

  1. Shahrzad says:

    If you were in Iran, they would give you same laughing. Bcs here also people use rosewater for cooking.
    There are perfumes also made by rosewater that usually women use for religious ceremonies. But they’re sold as perfume and not rosewater and they’re more densely than rosewater..

  2. Solace says:

    It took me a while to get used to the taste of rosewater, but now I find it quite pleasant.

    I probably would have done the same as you though!

  3. coolred38 says:

    My first experience with rose water was to have it splashed all over my head for some occasion or another …. I dont recall…but I didnt much care for it on me…and I dont like it all that much in me either. Smells ok though…lol.

  4. Aafke says:

    I love rosewater in sweets, share some recipes!
    During ramadan I discovered something even better: Orangeblossom water!
    In idonesian shops I can get rosewater lemonade Which I love in summer.

  5. ~W~ says:

    It is interesting how people from different cultures view things, don’t you think?
    I like rosewater but the problem is that every thing in gulf countries ends up tasting the same because to everything they add rosewater or saffron or cardamom.

    I like to eat Algerian carrots with orange blossom water.

  6. Marahm says:

    Shahi, I laugh at myself, now, too. One of my favorite posts on your blog is Roses of Mohammad:


    Solace, I’m glad I’m not the only one!

    coolred38, rosewater is definitely an acquired taste. I didn’t grow to like it in food until after I’d spent several years in the ME. Some people never grow to like it.

    Aafke, Orangeblossom water is also lovely. I’ve used it instead of rosewater on occasion. Lemonade with rosewater is better than anyone can imagine. Oddly, the flavor doesn’t taste like either lemonade or rosewater, at least to my taste buds.

    ~W~, yes, everything in the ME does taste of rosewater, saffron or cardamom. I’ve never heard of carrots with orange blossom water; sounds good.

  7. Umm Ibrahim says:

    Oh dear, Marahm, this is toooo funny! I’m not too keen on rosewater in sweets, I prefer orange flower water but not in excessive amounts. Orange flower is the staple in Algerian sweets although I have not heard of carrots with orange flower…

    I do like rose perfume though, I just recently bought some heavenly rose hand cream from Crabtree & Evelyn.

  8. WM says:

    Which is the one you take for tummy aches? Is that maiy zahir (not sure how to transliterate it)?

  9. Shahrzad says:

    Haha, W is right. Actually in Iran for example they produce all of them (rosewater, saffron and cardamom) and in all traditional sweets they use one or all of them!! lol

    Cardamom is also very popular in other persian Gulf countries and Iranian immigrants took the habit of using saffron there too.. It’s very interesting how culture in the mid-east country in so similar to each other.. I may write a post about it..

  10. Marahm says:

    WM, I didn’t know you could take either of them for tummy aches. Maybe someone else can comment on this.

    Umm Ibrahim, I’m glad you laughed!

    Shahi, I’d love to read your comments on these lovely flavors.

  11. Did you ever make it to Taif where there are the rose farms? This is where the perfume and rose water are made. One can usually get tours of the rose farms and it is well worthwhile.

    I have rosewater perfume, rosewater for cooking and I also will get the rosewater spray which I keep in my washroom and use on my hands after washing.

  12. Safiyyah says:

    Salaams Sis:

    My sister-in-law uses rosewater as a skin conditioner on the babies to prevent/soothe diaper rash.

    I also use it in the summer instead of skin cream or moisturizer. After it dries, it is no longer sticky and keeps the skin light and smooth.

  13. Amina says:

    I love rosewater! I use it for my mango lessi or as cooling pads under eyes.

  14. Aafke says:

    I also have a natural deodorant with real rose-essence, it’s lovely!

    And I sprinkle non-cooking-rosewater on my face after cleaning it.

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